Written by Lauren Gunderson, Silent Sky was inspired by the life of American astronomer, Henrietta Leavitt. Born in the late 19th century, Henrietta Swan Leavitt graduated from Radcliffe, going on to take a position at The Harvard College Observatory. She joined “Pickering’s Harem” mischievously (if insensitively) named because it was all women. Considering the meticulous and precise nature of their work, their wages bordered on the criminal, even for the early 1900’s. Struggles with illness left Leavitt partially deaf, yet dedication and vision facilitated her genius, and discoveries that would forever change the science of ascertaining earth’s place in the heavens.
Gunderson opens Silent Sky contrasting Henrietta with her sister Mira, who finds more fulfillment in music and nurturing a family than pursuing astronomy and mathematics. This dialectic between the religious and secular, the spiritual and cerebral, continues throughout the narrative. The sisters sustain their strong attachment long after Henrietta has started her work at Harvard (menial at first). But the submersion necessary for intense research makes it difficult to maintain correspondence with Mira, or a blossoming romance with colleague Peter Shaw. Much of Silent Sky considers what Leavitt must have sacrificed to pursue and realize the implications and moment of what began as an inkling. An intuitive spark of insight.
I’ve never cared for words like “feminist,” because they seem reductive. The unjust attribution of Leavitt’s legacy (only alleviated posthumously) is without question. And her achievements were diminished because she happened to be female. This is a flaw in the transactions of humanity, the insecurity of a patriarchy already tilted to male advantage. “Henrietta Leavitt discovered the relation between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars.” Put another way, she realized we could gauge the distance between the earth and a particular star, by measuring its brightness. This turned astronomy on its head, but it would be a long time before she would receive the credit due her. This is not a question of politics but ethics.
What makes Silent Sky so effulgent, so delightful is Gunderson’s masterful blend of the scientific with a dazzling grasp of the cosmos. We are immersed in Henrietta’s exquisite sense of wonder as she loses herself in the brilliance of endless galaxies. When she explains to Mira that the beauty of elegant theory and pattern of spheres and suns in motion amounts to her religion, we do believe her, but we also share in her ecstatic reverie.
WaterTower Theatre presents Silent Sky playing January 20th-February 12th, 2017. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6232. www.watertowertheatre.org