The University of Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948. In 1919, at the age of 19, Cecilia Payne won a scholarship to Newnham College, where she initially read botany, physics, and chemistry. Having passed her exams she received a titular title through the post, but was denied a place on the list of graduates and at the graduation ceremony. Her academic option was to become a school mistress. On the other side of the Atlantic the situation was marginally better and so she took up a fellowship at Harvard College Observatory where Harlow Shipley had just set up a graduate programme in astronomy. She set sail in 1923 and England lost the woman who was to turn the world of astrophysics on its head, despite all the efforts of the male establishment to silence her.
A fascinating story of triumph over adversity
Her story is the subject of Ross McGregor’s play for Arrows & Traps Theatre, PAYNE: The Stars Are Fire, set five years after HOLST: The Music In The Spheres, which covers her background at St Paul’s School for Girls where Holst taught. Toby Wynn-Davies reappears in the opening as Gustav Holst in a brief encounter with Payne, again played by Laurel Marks. He later takes on the role of Henry Russell in a fine display of academic arrogance and misogyny.
Payne was initially devastated by the menial role she was given at the Observatory doing classifications of stars from glass plates along with the other women. Peering through the telescope was only for the boys; aspiring ladies were not allowed near it. Marks maintains the matter-of-fact manner she had previously displayed as a teenager. She allow Payne’s disappointment to show, but she is accustomed to obstacles and bides her time gently pushing towards her objectives and ultimately winning. She also shows the development of Payne’s sense of humour and progression to a more rounded person. Her polite insistence and precision of thought rattled many men who ultimately had to accet that she was right and that her research proved them to be wrong.
Annie Jump Cannon as the strict Cornelia Baumann demonstrates the dutiful role of women who must learn to accept their place in life, the limitations on what they can do and simply get on with the job. Subscribing a little less readily to the dourness of life amongst the thousands of plates, Lucy Ioannou as Adelaide Ames brings a lightness and sense of humour to the task as well extending the hand of friendship to Payne, which endured thoughout their lives. Alex Stevens contributes an air of bonhomie to the setting as Harlow Shapley, the journalist turned astronomer, who was prepared to give women a limited role in his newly-created observatory, in itself a breakthrough for the times. Edward Spence, yet again enlivens proceedings and as Donald Menzel gives Payne the recognition she deserves by finally making her a professor.
The versatile set by Odine Corie is easily adapted to the two plays, in this case providing a stark office environment. The scrim is again used to considerable effect, particularly in an action-packed driving lesson scene that has amazing video design by Douglas Baker, with other photography in the play by The Ocular Creative and a fitting sound design by Alistair Lax. The lighting design by Jonathan Simpson complements throughout and has its own moments of splendour.
The double bill is a remarkable and admirable achievement for McGregor and the theatre company. There’s a lot of astronomy in PAYNE: The Stars Are Fire, as might be expected, but the lasting memory is of the way it is integrated into a fascinating story of triumph over adversity that pays tribute to one of the twentieth-century’s greatest astronomers, who just happened to be female.