Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Review The Great Divide

The Great Divide
by Alix Sobler

From Rags to Stitches

The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York proved a turning point in American labour history: For pay and conditions; For the recognition of female trade union membership starting with the garment trade; For health and safety legislation. There was even an early  1917 Edison silent film inspired by this low point in exploitation of the American immigrant workforce.

The sweatshop manufacturing women's shirtwaists was perched on the top three floors of a 10-storey building in Washington Place employing mainly Jewish Russian and Italian iimmigrant workers. The women were for the most part plying their trade at sewing machines working long hours for a pittance, while the men were the better-paid cutters and foremen.

The title The Great Divide has multiple significance: It's the literal translation of the Havdalah, the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath and the start of a new (working) week; the physical and psychological divide between the old country and old ways and America where a young woman could find a degree of economic independence and a more secular life; The divide between workers and bosses in the rag trade; The locked doors with fatal consequences for the workers in the Land of the Free.  

Rosa (Hannah Genesius) resolves to emigrate to America from the poverty-stricken Pale Of Settlement, This was a western swathe of the Russian Empire stretching across parts of present-day Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Russia, in which Jews were forced to settle.

Her brother Avram (Josh Collins), a Marxist, is equally adamant that he will stay and fight for a Communist ideal which, he believes, would liberate the Jews from pograms and economic deprivation.

After travelling with her sister Sadie (Miztli Rose Neville) across the sea in steerage, Rosa lands in New York as one of the "huddled masses" and obtains work in the Triangle workshop. Among her factory floor colleagues are blonde Manya (Emma King), characterised as "a poet" and recent Italian immigrant Sophie (Neville once more).

There is the first rush of joy at finding a job, earning their own money and being part of the great economic machine of American (neatly encapsulated by rhythmic drumming on the trunks led by foreman Max, Michael Kiersey). However the long hours, low pay and poor conditions start to take their toll.

Rosa's experience makes her open to  the message and example of union organiser Clara Lemlich (a real historical figure played by Miztli Rose Neville again). She joins the New York shirtwaist strike for better pay and conditions which predated the fire and saw violence against Lemlich by hired hoodlums and against the strikers by neighbourhood police officers 

The playwright gives a poignant and admirably clear account, as far as it goes, of the fire which had a major repercussions for the union movement, women workers and health and safety legislation. The alignment of the garment trade with Hollywood and the depiction of the fire in movies and Yiddish song make the reference to going to the pictures and Yiddish theatre relevant and resonant. 

It might however have been pertinent to ackowledge how the trades of the seamstress and tailor were already overcrowded professions in The Pale, being permitted  trades for Jews but vastly over-subscribed.An irony when it came to the over supply of garment workers from the crowded tenements of New York.

There are also times when the play feels a little too precious about theatre and literature. Rosa suddenly demands during cutter Jacob's attempt at courtship why he doesn't ask her which books she reads with the titles of classic books and plays then slip into the script.

The play also allows the characters to step out of the play and interrogate the story, But the questions posed concentrate on the manner of telling the story and the fate of individual characters. The interrogation remains somewhat superficial in not pushing serious questions about the role of competition between the numerous manufacturers, the slim profit margins,  city and state authorities' lack of building regulation enforcement, the insurance company's responsibility.

This would have added depth and rigour to the reasons why the owners escaped conviction for manslaughter. Otherwise it becomes a more convenntioal and slightly misleading one-to-one story of workers and bosses with the owners seemingly only getting off because of their lawyers' performances in the court room.

Nevertheless the most visceral part of the play is the description of the fire itself, the trapped women and men. The doors were locked, to prevent workers leaving without a search to prevent stealing, leading to horrifying and fatal consequences.

The scramble for an inadequate fire escape and the elevators and the workers forced to jump to their deaths as the flames and smoke filled the rooms in which they were imprisoned are vividly relayed. Without trivialisation, the echoes of the future 9/11 terror are inevitable.

Rory McGregor directs a fluent production with  an exceptionally effective but simple set. The jagged New York skyline wood panel designs of Sebastian Noel, doubling as the dingy surrounds of the factory floor.

Trunks serve as luggage, seats, work stations, a means of providing the sound effect for the assembly lines, The rhythmic flow of the script and wordless singing (Musical Director and composer Tim Shaw) also made us wonder whether the play had potential as a musical.

Yet, as it stands it certainly reflects as the programme points out on sweatshop fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as working conditions in other trades.

The fire's long history in movies, books and plays as well as social reform testifies to its significance even many years after social insurance has recognized women's work and legislation around the world is meant to enforce factory floor regulations. Despite this, the rollcall of avoidable workplace tragedies continue, especially with  the globalization of industry and factories and investment for profit rapidly shifting from country to country.   

The playwright takes to the heart the actions of long-lived survivor Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, whose married name serves as that of the fictional survivor, Rosa Freedman. The real Rose died in 2001, to the end of her days at the age of 107, according to her New York Times obituary, determinedly "telling and retelling the story", just as the character of Rosa in the play decides to do.

It's an understatement to say The Great Divide is a worthwhile drama, even if the script occasionally feels a little studied and over literary. It remains a cracking little one-act play which hits home and it's an amber/green light for a clear-sighted production on an issue which, sadly, still burns on.

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