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Mourning with Marie Curie

Susan Marie Frontczak, in character as Marie Curie, at CHF. Photo by Conrad Erb.

Susan Marie Frontczak, in character as Marie Curie, at CHF. Photo by Conrad Erb.

During the final days of the Philadelphia Science Festival, I got to know Marie Curie. I don’t just mean that I got to know about Marie Curie (though I certainly did), but rather that her appearance—in the form of storyteller Susan Marie Frontczak—left me feeling acquainted with a brilliant and complex woman, not just a celebrated persona.

I was not alone. More than 130 people came to CHF for Manya: A Visit with Marie Curie. The one-woman show was developed by Frontczak, who has performed as what she calls a “Storysmith” for more than 20 years and has also crafted living histories of Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Shelley, and Irene Castle.

I should admit that I’ve always had reservations about historical theater. The propensity to trivialize or mislead always seems too great. But Frontczak’s remarkable performance put my fears to rest. She disappeared into character as Marie Curie. A period costume, careful mannerisms, and an impressive Polish accent fleshed out her account of Marie Curie’s life through 1915—her childhood in Warsaw, her studies in Paris, her marriage to physicist Pierre Curie, and their research on radioactivity.

Frontczak—or maybe I should say Marie Curie?—went into meticulous detail on the grueling work required to isolate polonium and radium: the long hours of labor-intensive experimentation on huge amounts of radioactive material that slowly eroded her health and the days, months, and years of repetitive fractionations. It was this work that led to Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize, shared with her husband and Henri Becquerel in 1903.

I had already begun to marvel at how affecting and informative Frontczak’s performance was when she invited the rapt audience to pose questions to her in character. Someone asked Marie Curie what it was like to lose her husband. After a long pause Frontczak spoke. In a halting, hushed tone, she explained not only the tragic accident that claimed Pierre Curie’s life—he was run over by a street cart in 1906—but also the crippling grief that kept Marie Curie from returning to their work for six months, and her fraught decision to take his place among the faculty at the Sorbonne. Her portrayal of Marie Curie’s sorrow was poignant and moving; I know that not all eyes were dry when she finished. Frontczak actually requested an additional question so as not to leave the audience too somber, and she ended the performance with a mention of Marie Curie’s second Nobel Prize, from 1911.

The International Year of Chemistry marks the 100th anniversary of that latter accomplishment, which made Marie Curie the first person ever to receive a second Nobel Prize, a feat that would not be repeated for another 50 years.

 

Related:

The Benefits of Being MRS. Curie [Periodic Tabloid]

Episode 31: Motherhood [Distillations]

Posted In: Education | History

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