Q and A with Alan Alda on Marie Curie

A new play explains how despite the many challenges, the famous scientist didn’t stop trailblazing after her first Nobel

John de Lancie and Anna Gunn in the world premier of Alan Alda's Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie at the Geffen Playhouse directed by Daniel Sullivan. (Michael Lamont / Geffen Playhouse)

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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.


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