A conversation with Augustin Fresnel
By SHOSHANNA MCCOLLUM
FIRE ISLAND—On a brisk November day, Augustin Fresnel came back to life on the shores of Fire Island. Historical performance artist Joseph Smith resurrected the namesake inventor of the Fresnel lens, bringing an interesting twist to the 159th birthday of the beloved lighthouse in a celebration hosted by Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS).
FILPS fought to save the iconic lighthouse from destruction 31 years ago, and has been operating one of the most visited lighthouse museums in the nation ever since. Their mission was re-energized six years ago after bringing its original Fresnel lens back home – a treasure that had been lingering in museum storage for years in Philadelphia. The performance took place at the handsome facility built to house this marvel, an object FILPS administrator Davis Griese called “the soul of the lighthouse” right before the festivities got started.
“The subject of light,” Smith shouted as Fresnel, as he made a dramatic entrance down the winding staircase of the lens building. He went on to tell the French lighthouse commissioner’s life story with energetic grace. Smith was dressed in period costume during the one-man show, with the lens itself serving as a most imposing backdrop, delivering a performance that was both educational and uplifting.
Who knew that the engineer and physicist, who would become the lighthouse commissioner of France, struggled in learning to read as a child? He would live through the upheaval of the French Revolution, as well as the rise and fall of Napoleon, and die on Bastille Day, still a young man with things to do. Smith’s research included translated letters that brought added dimension to the monologue – one which chided a glass manufacturer on the unsatisfactory “bubbles and streaks” in their recently delivered sample.
Even if Fresnel was a man who demanded perfection, he could not have taken issue with Smith’s acting, which was spot-on. It was a moving rendition with moments of humor and poignancy that made for a very convincing picture of the man who contributed to the world of maritime navigation. Even those well versed on the subject probably came away learning something new.
The Staten Island-based actor’s roles have included John Merrick in “The Elephant Man,” Virgil in “Dante’s Inferno,” as well as another historical figure Fire Islanders are familiar with – Robert Moses. Smith started adding local historical figures to his repertoire in 2005. With an endowment from Staten Island Arts Council and the National Lighthouse Museum, he has taken his Fresnel performance to lighthouses across the region.
“Monsieur Fresnel visited the Horton Point Lighthouse for our 160th anniversary,” wrote a representative to the sister lighthouse out east. “It was a great event!”
Fire Island Lighthouse will hit that benchmark year soon enough. Until then, every birthday year requires some cake, which was served to the audience and lighthouse visitors alike that day. Smith thanked his wife, Donna, for her collaboration in the writing, editing and research of this performance, while Griese reminded the audience that the day was a celebration of an institution 156 volunteers strong, and urged others to contribute to keep this precious Long Island icon shining bright.
Visit www.fireislandlighthouse.com to learn of other exciting events as well as tax-deductible donation options.
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