The Freeing of Mollie Steimer

In Mollie Steimer I tried to dramatize the psychological difficulty of maintaining ideals, or of expressing or even glimpsing one’s basic humanity, within a framework of social injustice.  Mollie’s goal is to be perfectly free so that she can better help create the perfectly free society aimed at by anarchism, yet to do so she must be prepared to shed every one of the ties that bind her to the world, even the essential human ties like friendship and love.  Mollie was as tough and focused a human being as has ever been, but early in the journey to freedom that she takes in my play, I decided to have her intense youthful activism and desire come up against the harshest possible reality of shirtwaist factory life.

In the play, the forewoman Joan, a survivor of the Triangle fire seven years before, tells Mollie and two other factory girls the stirring tale of how 500 shops and thousands of workers went on strike for better wages and working conditions—a courageous battle that lasted for months but which earned them only a few superficial concessions.  Joan then continues with the macabre story of her experience in the Triangle fire, a trauma she remains forever trapped in, ghost-like.  When Mollie asserts that this tragic story just proves her point about the need for activism—and another of the women maintains that at least now there are laws against such unsafe conditions—Joan stages a mock fire drill that proves that the same thing could happen to them right there, in the present, before our eyes.  The truth of their situation is they’re trapped, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  Their lives mean absolutely nothing to the world.  They could die any second in that firetrap, but they can’t quit, as they need the work or they starve.  Organizing is fruitless and perhaps will only get more people killed more quickly and more brutally.  At the end of the scene, Mollie sits back down at her sewing table, temporarily defeated; Joan’s story makes her realize that she’s not ready to commit her entire physical and emotional life for the sake of freedom, neither hers nor anyone else’s.



As this early scene from Mollie Steimer always seemed to resonate with audiences and seemed capable of standing alone, I eventually adapted the scene into a short 15-minute play, Triangle, which was eventually presented at the Association for Humanist Sociology conference in Boston in 2008 as part of a lecture and discussion I led on “Form and Content in Activist Theater.”  I soon discovered that there was a burgeoning interest in the Triangle fire.  David von Drehle’s 2003 social history, Triangle: the Fire that Changed America, was the first major work on the fire since Stein’s.  The Kheel Center for Labor-Management at Cornell University now had an outstanding collection of materials related to the fire  As a matter of fact, both Triangle and The Freeing of Mollie Steimer have been solicited by the Kheel Center to become part of its permanent collection.

Shortly after this conference presentation of Triangle, a student composer at the New England Conservatory of Music, where I am Chair of the Liberal Arts Department, asked me if I had any plays I could adapt into a libretto for a short operatic work.  When I described the Triangle play, he asked if maybe I could adapt it even further to add in a male vocal part, as he was hoping to write a piece for four or five specific singers.

After thinking about it a while, I realized that adding a vocal part for the Triangle factory owner Blanck would actually add an extremely interesting dimension to the work, especially in an operatic form.  Blanck and Joan share a deep and intricate bond.  Both have worked their way up from the bottom of the immigrant ranks.  They were opponents during the strike, but during the fire they are on the same side—both are human beings afraid of dying and helpless to protect the weak.  Both escape by pure chance, and both witness the horrible scene of the women jumping from the building, Blanck from the roof and Joan from the ground. Through their interwoven descriptions of the story of the strike and fire, they become caught up in an eternal danse macabre; they are forever prisoners of the trauma as well as the profits-first system that permits and even encourages such events to happen, again and again, all over the world.


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