Origins of TriangleThe Freeing of Mollie Steimer

Read Triangle

In 1997, I wrote and produced a play in Boston called The Freeing of Mollie Steimer about the notable Russian-Jewish anarchist who in 1921 was part of the landmark Abrams free speech Supreme Court case.  In 1915 Mollie Steimer’s family immigrated to the US to escape Czarist persecution and to establish a new life in what they believed was “The Golden Land.”  Two days after she arrived at the age of fifteen, Mollie entered a shirtwaist factory and soon became appalled by the dangerous drudgery the workers had to endure simply to survive.

In writing this play I consulted Richard Polenberg’s outstanding work on the Abrams trial, Fighting Faiths, as well as the many primary source documents he was kind enough to lend me.  In one early chapter of Fighting Faiths, Polenberg describes the terrible working conditions Mollie and her young activist friends found themselves in.  The section on shirtwaist factory life directed me to several sources describing the 1911 Triangle Waist Factory fire where, thanks to the owners’ willful negligence, 146 women died, many jumping to their deaths from burning windows.  Of particular interest to me were the remarkable first-person accounts in Leon Stein’s The Triangle Fire, from which I drew many striking details for the scene.

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.

Adaptation of Triangle:  From Scene to Short Play to Libretto

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.

From Libretto to ‘Puppet Play with Music’

I was very happy with the way the libretto turned out, but due to various schedule conflicts the operatic work was never completed.  However, by coincidence several weeks after I finished the libretto, I met up with my good friend and colleague, New York composer Bradley Kemp, who likewise was looking to collaborate on a text and music piece.  When he read the Triangle libretto, he felt it would be even more interesting to adapt it into a puppet play with music, a form he was just beginning to explore in depth.  As I was just then becoming interested in the musical and masque elements of the Brechtian theatre and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, I readily agreed that the puppet medium might be the best of all to tell this intense, deeply layered story.

Brad began assembling an amazing team of puppeteers, musicians, and vocalists to work on developing the script into a puppet play with music.  From the beginning our idea has not simply been to create a musical puppet play that follows the text literally, but rather to create a piece that emphasizes the unique qualities of all three artistic media.  The text rests on the dense layers of soundscape and puppetry, both of which are inspired by the more subtle thematic and metaphorical elements of the text.  To develop the work, the artists are using an improvisational technique so that the beautiful and delicate puppet movements are developed in tandem with emotionally expressive and supportive music and text.

Works in Progress Performances:  Judson Church and Dixon Place, New York

An 8-minute work-in-progress scene from Triangle was presented to over 200 people on March 25, 2010, at Judson Church in New York City at an event sponsored by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition to commemorate the 99th anniversary of the fire. The event brought together a number of artists who are creating works about the fire in anticipation of the city-wide artistic commemoration of the 100th anniversary at various venues in March 2011, “a living memorial that reflects the powerful social conscience and action that the fire inspired” (

We did another work-in-progress performance of this scene in September at Dixon Place in New York.  Audiences have been hugely supportive of the work.  As a result of the success of these performances, we were awarded a $2,000 seed grant from the Henson Foundation to develop the work further.  We were also selected to be one of three artist groups given access to the new workshop space at the Henson Carriage House this March.

I believe what makes our Triangle play so unique and intriguing for audiences is the extraordinary, subtle interplay between the puppets, text, and music.  I think it’s also important that the play doesn’t simply dramatize the story of the fire, the past event safely contained by the passage of time.  Rather, since the play is set seven years after the fire, the play is really about the time after the fire; i.e., it is about the present and thus engages the audience directly.  Somewhere these women are still trapped.  Who will open the doors for them?  How can they be opened?  What needs to happen first?  The play doesn’t attempt to answer these questions but rather seeks to show that these questions persist.

Working toward the debut of Triangle to commemorate the Centennial

Triangle will make its debut on March 24, 25, and 26 at the Center for Performing Research (CPR) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  We are currently filling out the ensemble with the other vocalists, musicians, and puppeteers who will work on developing the rest of the project in February and March.


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