In the theatre profession, the people involved with doing background research for stage productions are called “dramaturgs.” Put simply, the dramaturg does exhaustive work to help a director build the “world of the play” by finding information not included in the script. Very little of that work actually appears on the stage but it can be invaluable to the entire creative team of a play especially to actors in their character development. Lizzy Andretta, one of the Commonweal’s newest resident ensemble members, serves as the dramaturg for our upcoming version of Silent Sky and for this edition of Drama Unfolds, she gives us a glimpse into the world of the famous women of the play in their own words.
Around the turn of the century when women were denied basic rights like voting and owning property, Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, the real-life women of the play Silent Sky, were doing work that would redefine the way we view the universe. Working at the Harvard Observatory for 30 cents an hour, these female scientists (dubbed “computers”) would primarily gather information found on glass plates containing photographs of the stars and record the data they found. While writing in her diary, Williamina Fleming said of the work, “From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination…and of work involved in the reduction of these photographs.” Despite the tediousness, the women found comfort in their work and in each other. Annie Cannon (who would create a standard for classifying stars that is still used today) wrote about her work: “My heart, my life is now the study of astronomy… (I) am able to find contentment in my surroundings; I could not help it, thrown as I am with such kind people.”
While they were restricted to mostly clerical duties, some of the women found ways to pursue their own research. Henrietta Leavitt managed to do this when she noticed that some of the stars she was observing appeared brighter than others. When she pursued this, she discovered that the brightness of the stars was related to their distance from the Earth, which she dubbed “The Period-Luminosity Relation.” When she published her work, Henrietta described her finding as follows: “A straight line can readily be drawn among each of the two series of points corresponding to maxima and minima, thus showing that there is a simple relation between the brightness of the variables and their periods.”
Though most of them would be forgotten by history, the female scientists of the Harvard Observatory continued to work behind the scenes without complaint, even as they were passed over for the recognition they so deserved. Annie Cannon, in particular, continued to work into old age and would do so right up until she died, commenting that, “In our troubled days it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort.” Today, astronomers still use the work of these women to measure the stars and universe. Although history may have forgotten these important women, playwright Lauren Gunderson has not by memorializing them in Silent Sky and setting them among the most famous women in history. It has been my pleasure to provide research materials to shine a light on the lives of these famous scientists and their groundbreaking work.