The Play’s The Thing- Silent Sky

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson

Harvard Computers

(Photo taken from Google)

Why I Decided To Read It: I read Lauren Gunderson’s play I and You a few years ago and I loved it.  I’ve been trying to read more of her works, but they haven’t always been easily available.  I was able to get a hand on this play- which is probably her most known work after I and You– so I decided to get it. 

Summary:  It’s the early 1900s and Henrietta Leavitt is bored of her small Wisconsin town.  When she is given the opportunity to work at Harvard’s astronomy department, she jumps at the chance.  But everything is not as she imagined.  Instead of looking through telescopes and exploring her own ideas, Henrietta is shoved into a small office with other women called “computers” and told to chart the stars.  Despite being left to do the hard work for men who don’t respect them, these women are resilient in the face of professional difficulties.  Personal life is much harder.  Being a woman in the turn of the century isn’t easy.  Either career or love has to come first.  As her obsession with her work grows, Henrietta contact with her family lessens until tragedy strikes.  Based on a true story, Silent Sky is all about one woman finding her place- and ours- in the universe.


Thoughts and Analysis: So this might have become one of my favorite plays. First of all, I just love Lauren Gunderson’s style.  It is very youthful and humorous.  I feel like it meshes with my own style.  It kind of has everything I love: good roles for women, history, romance, humor, and feminism.

Admittedly, I am not a science person.  I took astronomy in college and I did fine.  Although I didn’t entirely understand some of the concepts explained in the show, it didn’t lower my enjoyment of the play.  If the science explained wasn’t correct, I have no idea.

What I really appreciate about this play is the feminist aspects of the play.  First of all, it is very pro-women in science.  Women have done a lot of the hard work with very little credit.  This play is telling their story.  Because this play is set during the early 20th century, things like the right to vote and career women are also discussed.  Henrietta struggles between having a professional life or having a home life.  Will also discusses her personal struggles being an immigrant abandoned by her husband.  The play is also great in terms of casting.  It’s rare to see a play where most of the characters are arguably female character roles.  They’re all multi-dimensional too!  As someone who usually plays female character roles when she acts, it’s amazing.

The major themes of this play are passion and finding your place in the universe.  Henrietta, Annie, and Will are so passionate about what they do.  It’s their passion for astronomy that leads them to do great work.  Being women and astronomers, they talk about how that affects their places not only in society but also in the universe.  There is the micro: Who are we in this department, in society, in history?  There is also the macro: Where are we in the universe?  Are we the only universe?  With these two questions together, there’s also the question of: Do we matter?  Why?  It creates an interesting conversation.

Favorite Character: It’s a hard choice between the three “computers”: Henrietta, Annie, and Will.  I love all three of them.  I’d love to play all three of them.  They all bring something different to the table.  Will is just a hoot.  Henrietta is passionate.  Annie is the no-nonsense but will fight for you.  More character roles for women!  More complex roles for women!

Should You Read This?: Yes, especially if you like feminism, science, and women in science.  Or if you don’t like these things, you should read it anyway and learn something.

Final Thoughts: Silent Sky is a heartwarming, funny play with great characters about underappreciated women in science.  It is totally worth a read.

The Play’s The Thing: Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley by Helen Edmundson

Mary Shelley Cover

(image taken from Amazon.com)

Why I Decided To Read It: I first read Frankenstein in high school.  We covered the gist of Mary Shelley: father was William Godwin, mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, ran off with Percy Shelley, Frankenstein was started on a trip to Geneva when Lord Byron suggested they all come up with a scary story.  I found the book interesting, but didn’t necessarily appreciate some of the deeper philosophical issues until later in my academic career. I discovered this play while randomly searching Amazon.  I wanted to learn more about Mary Shelley, so I decided to get it.  Also the playwright is a woman and I’m all for more women playwrights.

Summary:  Before she was author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was Mary Godwin- daughter of political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.  Raised on her father’s radical ideas with her half-sister Fanny and step-sister Jane, Mary Godwin is an unconventional teenager for her time.  She’s educated, opinionated, and fearless.  After coming home from a stay in Scotland, she meets one of her father’s proteges, Percy Shelley.  Sparks immediately fly.  As Mary and Shelley rush into a wild romance, Mary’s relationship with her father becomes strained and society begins to turn on the Godwin family.  As her relationships crumble, Mary begins to question the beliefs she was raised on and begins to write.

Thoughts and Analysis: First things first- and I guess that this is somewhat a spoiler- this play doesn’t show the scary story bet in Geneva that starts Frankenstein.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  While we don’t see the very specific event itself, we do see a lot of what inspired Frankenstein.  Mary Shelley’s book is very much about parenting.  While the Monster does horrible things, Victor Frankenstein’s failed “parenting” is partially at fault.  Mary Shelley has a very difficult relationship with her father in this play.  Part of their problems stem from their different philosophical views.  William Godwin believes that humanity can be perfected, but Mary sees the danger of trying too hard to perfect humanity.  I feel it is very helpful to already understand the story behind Frankenstein and the philosophical views behind the characters.  It isn’t 100% necessary, but it helps.  The views of the Enlightenment period is kind of complicated. 

Speaking of complicated, the Godwin family situation is extremely complicated.  I had no idea prior to this play.  Mary Godwin has two sisters, but they aren’t fully related by blood.  Jane is her step-sister and Fanny is her half-sister.  It took a few minutes to figure out who was a blood relation to who.  Maybe if I saw it I might be able to figure it out faster.  Keeping track of the timeline could also be a little complicated.  There wasn’t many “six months later” in the stage directions except in a few cases, so I had to follow the script itself closely.  The play doesn’t cover her entire life.  It’s essentially from when she meets Percy Shelley to when she finally marries him.

A part of the play I really like was Mary’s dreams.  They were small pieces, but I could see some of the origins of Frankenstein in them.  They also give great indications of Mary’s mental state.  She clearly has issues with depression and regret.

Favorite Character: I don’t know if it’s because she’s similar to characters I’ve played before, but I really liked Fanny.  She’s the only sensible person in the entire family. 

Should You Read This?: If you’ve read Frankenstein and want to know more about the author’s past, it’s an interesting read.  I don’t think it’s for everybody, but people interested in English literature, women in literature, and philosophy should like it.  It would be a great pairing for theaters doing a play version of Frankenstein.

Final Thoughts: Although some parts could be complicated, I liked it overall and found Mary Shelley’s early life fascinating.