In 1898, after A.H. Becquerel discovered the radioactivity of uranium, a scientist by the name of Marie Sklodowska came to suspect that new elements were lurking deep within uranium ore. Working with her husband, Pierre Curie, the woman who would become universally known as Madame Curie discovered, after an incredibly laborious process, radium and polonium.
The element polonium was named in honor of her native Poland. That and her maiden name might have cued the fastidious cataloger to the fact that Madame Curie was born in Warsaw and spent the first 24 years of life there, before coming to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. But, oddly, to this day she is routinely referred to as a French scientist. It would be like referring to the Spanish-born artist Picasso as French simply because he spent the bulk of his career in France.
"There is a great misconception that Madame Curie was French," said Thomas Kazmierczak, executive director of the Lancaster Opera House. The opera house will do its part to set the record straight with the national premiere of Kazimierz Braun's play on Madame Curie's life, "Radiation," opening next Thursday with a special performance in Polish. It features noted polish actor Maria Nowotorska as Madame Curie and Agata Pilitowska playing her two daughters.
English performances -- with Sharon Strait as Madame Curie and Thomas LaChiusa, Andrea Merrill and Courtney Hoerner completing the cast -- will be held next Friday. The production will continue through Feb. 12.
Kazmierczak explained how the Polish-language production came about. He and the playwright were keenly aware, he said, "that in Western New York there are a vast amount of people who speak Polish, and not only old people but people in their 20s, 30s and 40s." That Braun was Kazmierczak's professor while he attended the University at Buffalo facilitated their seeing eye to eye on the need for a Polish-language production of the play.
Madame Curie is a rich subject for theater. "She wasn't just a boring scientist," Kazmierczak said. "She had an interesting life -- many romances, many tragedies."
The play begins in the World War I years, more than a decade after her husband was killed by a horse-drawn vehicle in the streets of Paris in 1906, when she was left to raise her two daughters, Irene and Eve. It carries the story through to her decline and death in 1934 from excessive exposure to radiation.
The Curies and Becqueral shared a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1903. In 1911, Madame Curie was given singly a solitary Nobel Prize for her discovery of metallic radium. She was the first person to receive two Nobel awards (and the first person to use the word "radioactivity").
Despite these honors and the Sorbonne's installing her as the first female faculty member in its long history, Kazmierczak said that the play depicts how shabbily the French sometimes treated her. "France turned against her, the tabloids turned against her," he said. The chief reason: She wasn't French. "At points it was said in the press that Madame Curie rose on the back of her husband. The reality was, they always worked side-by-side, as a team."
In his research for the production, Kazmierczak discovered that Eve Curie Labouisse, the daughter who wrote an acclaimed biography of her mother, still lives in New York City. She is 101.
He also found that on a fund-raising tour that took Madame Curie to many American cities, one of her stops was Buffalo, where she stayed with a local family.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday, next Friday and Feb. 11; 2:30 p.m. Feb. 12
WHERE: Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster
TICKETS: $16 adults, $14 students and seniors
INFO: 683-1776 or www.lancopera.org