After a long career in movies, theater and television shows including “M*A*S*H*” and “Scientific American Frontiers.” Alan Alda has written his first full-length play, Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie . It debuts at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles on November 9.
What got you interested in Marie Curie?
What got me interested was that this part of her life is such a dramatic story. But what kept me interested and what kept me going for the four years I’ve been working on the play was her amazing ability not to let anything stop her. The more I learn, the more I realize what she had to struggle against, and she has become my hero because of that. For most of my life, I couldn’t say I had any heroes—I never really came across somebody like this who was so remarkable in her ability to keep going no matter what. It really had an effect on me.
How did you decide to write a play about her life?
I started out thinking it would be interesting to have a reading of her letters at the World Science Festival in New York, which I help put on every year. Then, I found out that the letters were radioactive—they are all collected in a library in Paris and you have to sign a waiver that you realize you’re handling radioactive material. I just wasn’t brave enough to do it. So [in 2008] I put together a nice one-act play about Einstein. But I became so interested in researching Curie that I really wanted to write about her in a full-length play.
What part of her life does the play focus on?
You could write three or four plays or movies about different parts of her life, but Radiance focuses on the time between the Nobel Prizes, 1903 to 1911. When she won her first Nobel Prize, they not only didn’t want to give it to her, but once they relented and decided to award her the prize along with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, they wouldn’t let her get up on stage to receive it. She had to sit in the audience while Pierre got up to receive it for the both of them. It’s hard to believe.
How did Curie react?
By the time she won the second Nobel Prize, this one in chemistry (the first one was in physics), Pierre had died and she had gone into a deep depression after his death. What probably pulled her out of it was an affair with another scientist who was also a genius: Paul Langevin. The affair got into the papers and Langevin even fought a duel with the journalist who printed it, which is in the play. The Nobel committee said to her, “Don’t come to Stockholm to get your award, tell us you’re turning it down. You’re not taking it until you can clear your name.” And she said, in effect, “No, I’m coming to Stockholm, I’m taking the prize, so get ready!” So that makes a dramatic progression in her character, and it’s really nice to see her struggle through that to independence.
How much of Radiance is factual?
A surprising amount. All the characters are based on real people, but I haven’t tried to be biographical about it—except for Marie and Pierre. Other characters’ conversations are imagined based on what I know of their actions and what I’ve seen from their letters. For instance, there’s a character in the play who is a journalist who is really a combination of two journalists of the time, and when you encounter what they said in print, it’s verbatim. It’s unbelievable how vicious it is—it’s misogynistic, anti-Semitic and anti-scientific. It’s ugly.
You wrote for the TV series “M*A*S*H*” and “The Four Seasons” and movies like Betsy’s Wedding . How is writing a play different from writing for TV or movies?
My background is on the stage, so when I’d write movies, they’d be a lot like plays. On the stage, the characters express themselves more through words than images. So the arguments of the characters and the tension between characters—words have to be used to express that, and I love that about theater. I’ve stood there on stages all my life, holding the attention of the audience through the words, so I think that way.
What was your favorite moment in writing the play?
One of the most thrilling moments for me was the first time I saw the actors all in costume in Seattle at the workshop we did there. I had the same feeling today when I saw Anna Gunn come out on the stage dressed as Marie; I had to do a double take because she looked just like photographs of Marie. Best of all, she has Marie’s soul. She got inside her.
You’re very active in helping advance science communication and advocating public science literacy. How does Radiance tie in?
I really think it’s important for all of us who are just ordinary citizens to understand a little bit more about science and how scientists think. For instance, if we’re trying to protect ourselves against mistakes and overaggressive research programs that might be dangerous, it’s really important to know enough about it to ask questions that really will protect you. It doesn’t help to say, “I don’t ever intend to eat engineered food.” You’d have to give up corn and a whole lot of other things you didn’t realize were engineered.
What do you hope the audience takes away from the play?
I hope they have some feeling that she’s their hero, too. She’s such a remarkable woman.
Casey Rentz is a science writer and artist living in Los Angeles.
Welcome to ARTiculations
ARTiculations aims to shed light on art and comment on what’s happening in the world of art, artists, art museums and art history. The idea is to celebrate what’s best and most inspiring while not forgetting the diversity of the many corners of America.
It aspires to illuminate the serious ideas and deep feelings that lie behind great works of art; at the same time, we’re not afraid to see the ridiculous side of things or to poke fun at incompetence or pretentiousness.
In the end, it’s you, the viewer, who makes the work of art. Without you it’s nothing. We’d love to have your feedback.
About the author:
Henry Adams, a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of acclaimed biographies of important American artists. His works include Eakins Revealed:The Secret Life of an American Artist , which the painter Andrew Wyeth described as “without doubt the most extraordinary biography I have ever read on an artist,” Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original , What’s American about American Art , and, most recently, Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock .
Auctioning a Beloved Thomas Hart Benton Collection
I felt a tinge of sorrow when I learned that the collection of books and prints owned by the late Creekmore Fath would be going up for sale at the auctioneer Doyle New York on November 8. But the sale provides an occasion to write a brief tribute to a truly memorable American character, and one of the most important collectors of the great American artist Thomas Hart Benton.
I first met Creekmore in Kansas City back in the mid 80s, when I had just started doing research on Benton. He was a distinguished, courtly man whom I never saw without a bow tie; he was also the product of rural Texas, who spent much of his life in the rough-and-tumble of state politics. Though fascinated by gentility and eager to join the ranks of the elite, he was also the champion of the poor and dispossessed and an early, ardent champion of civil rights. Like America itself, his personality was the synthesis of different constituencies, some of them in harmony, others discretely at odds with each other.
The bewilderingly different sides of Creekmore’s personality were expressed by the house’s long tunnel of a library, filled with books that mirrored his various enthusiasms, including American political history, the Bloomsbury group and its offshoots (he had a notable collection of letters from D. H. Lawrence), and American literature (he had innumerable first editions, many of them signed, by writers ranging from Sinclair Lewis to Henry Miller).
Surely the highlight was the collection of Benton prints—the most complete in private hands. Benton was the unapologetic artist of the American heartland, a figure who, like Creekmore himself, bridged traditional boundaries. Creekmore’s collection will be dispersed, but his catalogue raisonne of Benton’s prints remains one of the most remarkable books in the American field.
Born in Oklahoma, Creekmore Fath grew up in Cisco and Fort Worth, Texas, and in 1931 his family moved to Austin, so he could attend the university there. After getting a law degree, Creekmore practiced law in Austin for about a year, then went to Washington as acting counsel to a congressional subcommittee investigating the plight of migrant farm workers. He went on to serve in a variety of legal posts in Washington, including a stint with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, and he returned to Texas in 1947 after marrying Adele Hay, the granddaughter of McKinley’s Secretary of State, John Hay.
Creekmore ran for Congress, campaigning in a car with a canoe on top, which carried the slogan: “He paddles his own canoe.” As an FDR liberal democrat in a conservative state, he was paddling upstream, and was soundly defeated. He helped Lyndon Johnson win the 1948 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate by defeating former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, by 87 votes. During McGovern’s failed presidential run in 1972, Creekmore became friendly with an eager young organizer in his twenties, Bill Clinton; and years later, on the occasion of Creekmore’s 80th birthday, he was rewarded with a sleepover in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House. He died in 2009 at age 93 .
For some reason, Creekmore was a born collector. Book and art collecting were part of his being. As he once wrote: “The desire to collect, and the pleasure derived from each acquisition, are as exciting and compelling as passionate love.” He got started early. As he once recalled:
His Benton collection got its start in 1935 when he clipped a New York Times advertisement for Associated American Artists (AAA), which was offering prints by living American artists for five dollars each. Four years later, he ordered a print from AAA—Benton’s I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain —purchasing it with part of the fee that he received from the first law case that he tried.
The collection grew, particularly during the 1960s, when he was working as counsel to a Senate Committee chaired by Ralph Yarborough, whom he had helped elect. During this period he was often in New York and had many opportunities to purchase prints from the Weyhe bookstore, the Sylvan Cole Gallery and other sources. When he wrote to the New Britain Museum in New Britain, Connecticut , which was said to have a complete collection, he found that he had several which they did not know about. Before long he realized that he was compiling a catalogue raisonne —a complete listing of Benton’s prints. And this led him into correspondence with the artist himself.
Creekmore had a bit of bluster and definite sense of his own importance. But what’s remarkable about his catalogue raisonne of Benton’s prints is its modesty. Much art history is about the art historian rather than the art—almost as if the art historian were standing in front of the work of art, blocking the spectator’s view. Creekmore had the genius to step aside and let the artist speak for himself. His vision of the shape the book could take flashed into his mind during his very first exchange of letters with Benton, in January of 1965, when the artist wrote:
It occurred to Creekmore that Benton’s comments about his prints might be valuable. Indeed, the final catalogue has a brief listing of each print, its date, how many impressions were printed and perhaps a few additional comments, followed by a space in which he provided Benton’s remarks about each subject—in Benton’s handwriting. (Benton’s letters to Creekmore will be included in the Doyle sale.) Since Benton made prints that record the compositions of most of his major paintings, the result is one of the best records anywhere of Benton’s achievement. When I wrote a biography of Benton back in the 1980s I referred to it constantly; along with Benton’s autobiography, An Artist in America , it was my single most valuable printed source.
Creekmore’s collection of Benton was missing only four early prints, which exist in just one or two proofs. When I last spoke to Creekmore, he indicated that he was planning to donate his collection to the University of Texas at Austin. but for whatever reason this never occurred. It’s a shame in a way since there are surprisingly few large gatherings of Benton prints in public collections: those at New Britain, and those at the State Historical Society in Columbia, Missouri are the only two I can think of that come close to being comprehensive. But perhaps it’s also fitting that a passionate collector should disperse his holdings so that they can be acquired by other devoted art-lovers like himself.