Drama about Triangle Shirt Waist Factory 1911 Blaze Does Not Catch Fire

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

59E59 Theater
59 E. 59th St.
New York, N.Y.

On March 25, 1911, late in the afternoon, a fast moving fire broke out in the congested Triangle Shirt Waist Company in New York City. Trapped in the searing blaze were hundreds of mostly young, immigrant women clothing workers. The emergency fire doors and stairwell doors had been locked to prevent the women from leaving the building to smoke. Phone calls to alert workers to the fire did not go through because the phones did not work. No fire drills had been held to show women how to leave the buildings. The Triangle Company was on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors and New York City Fire Department ladders only extended to the sixth floor and firemen could not reach the trapped women. Sixty two women jumped from the eighth floor and died when they hit the street and sidewalk. Others burned to death. When the fire was over, 146 women had been killed and several hundred more injured by the killer blaze. Those who survived were women who had fled to the roof of the building. The number who died was the highest amount in New York City history until the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center in 2001. The Triangle blaze was not only one of the great disasters in the American workplace, but one of the terrible tragedies of United States history.

‘Triangle,’ by Jack Gilhooley and Daniel Czitrom, is a play about the fire and people connected to it that opened last week. It is one of dozens of books, plays, documentaries and magazine articles that are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the grisly event. It attempts to tell the story of the fire through the lives of an actual local New York state senator and Tammany Hall political leader, Big Tim Sullivan, his lover, Margaret Holland, daughter, Mary Catherine, and friends. Their relationship is the basis of the play and the fire is a subplot.

This is only a one alarm play about a four alarm fire, though.

It would be tough to stage a play just about the fire because the sizable set and pyrotechnics needed for it would make that difficult. Staging the Triangle fire as a sideshow, a sad sideshow to be sure, to the Sullivan love ‘triangle’ was a mistake. The fire was lost in the other story, a tedious one, despite numerous efforts to connect them.

The Triangle fire is one of New York’s great stories. Nearly five hundred young immigrant women worked in overcrowded conditions at the Triangle Company at 23-29 Washington Place. When the fire started at 4:40 p.m., workers on the eighth floor who saw it were unable to alert workers on the higher floors because of the inoperable phones. Most workers could not get out of the building because of the shuttered doors. An elevator operator managed to make three trips up and down in the building and saved dozens of women, but then women jumped for their lives into the elevator shaft, making furthers rescues impossible. Thousands crowded the streets below to watch the fire and moaned as the firemen could not reach the women. They gasped as the dozens of women jumped out of the windows.

Afterward, large public, nationally publicized funerals were held for the dead women, attended by thousands. The New York State legislature, enraged, passed dozens of new worker safety laws, making the state one of the most progressive in the country in that field. The fire gave the International Ladies Garment Workers Union all the ammunition it needed to become a large and powerful national organization.

The play ‘Triangle’ starts with a girl who survived the fire telling the audience what happened; she then fades away as Big Tim Sullivan’s political and personal story unfolds. The very married Tim, a tall, handsome man who was one of the city’s best dressed political leaders, falls in love with the attractive Holland, an actress, takes her in and tries to make her a stage star. In the middle of all this, he fights hard for Tammany’s political agenda and defends the corrupt political club against numerous charges.

Everything in the play seems pressed. The actors push and push to drive home the point that their doomed relationship reflects the doomed lives of the girl caught in the fire. There are several songs that, while about the story, make no sense. The set is just a table, chairs and a bench and seems dark, dreary and very empty.

The acting is a bit flat. Joe Gately is a passable Big Tim, better when he falls ill than when he is robust. The others in the play just amble about the stage, wooden figures in a wooden play. Donna Davis and Dennis Wit play Cathleen and Izzy, two of Big Tim’s aides. Ruba Sudeh is a Triangle worker, Michaela McPherson is Tim’s daughter Mary Catherine. Ashley Williams is Margaret Holland, his lover. The play is directed by Stephan Morrow.

History lovers do learn a little bit about the Triangle fire in the play, but nowhere near as much as they should over two hours of time. It would have been easy to present a better, and more terrifying, description of the fire but the writers decided not to do so. Those who see the play will learn something of the fire, but should catch one of the documentaries to gain a better understanding of it, and how it triggered dozens of key reforms in labor laws across the country.

PRODUCTION: Set: Nicholas Kostner, Lighting: Wilburn Bonnell, Costumes: Nina Vartanian, Mimi Maxmen, Music: Dina Pruzhansky. Director: Stephan Morrow.

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