Paved with Gold and Ashes

Julia Thurston
Threedum Theatre
Greenside @ Infirmary Street

Paved with Gold and Ashes

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in New York killed about 150 people, mainly young women workers, though it might be more accurate to say they were killed by ruthless employers alongside other complacent, dysfunctional institutions.

Julia Thurston’s play imagines five women workers caught up in that fire. We hear something of their migrant background, their difficult circumstances and their hopes for a future beyond the factory. Moving fragments of song, beautifully sung, open the show and appear elsewhere.

The horrors of the fire take place in a short, sensitive section at the end of the play, and not every woman we encounter in the show is killed.

A fine cast of actors gives a very engaging performance as the five characters, who mostly speak directly to us as they work on the upper levels of the Triangle building.

Sitting next to each other centre stage are Rosaria (Caroline Letelier) and her older sister Lucia (Julia Thurston) from Italy. Their mother also works at the factory.

Although the rules stipulate that you had to be aged 15 or older to work at the factory, Rosaria is only 14, not incredibly good at sewing and finding the long nine-hour days a strain. At one point, she desperately needs to go to the toilet, but the rules prevent her.

Lucia recalls the man she left behind in Europe and the supposed better life in New York, where she had to wait around “all day for work at the Triangle.” Annie (Olivia Gaidry), sitting just along from the sisters, remembers the poverty of the Ireland she left and vows to move on from the factory.

Ida (Serena Lehman), pregnant, talks hopefully of leaving the factory when she marries her boyfriend. Rose (Everleigh Brenner), who has a more senior position on a higher floor, occasionally enviously chats with Ida about the coming marriage.

However, she no longer feels she belongs among the ordinary workers and recalls not going on strike with the other four, who are shown in the background standing with clenched fists raised high. The strike was fought for equal pay and improvements in poor safety conditions, such as broken fire escapes and the locking of workrooms during working hours. The Triangle employers continued to ignore the safety concerns.

On a Saturday in March 1911, when the women were expected to work only seven hours, inflammable material caught fire, locked doors prevented escape via the stairs and the broken fire escape collapsed, plunging many women to their deaths. The fire brigade didn't even have ladders that could reach those seen at windows.

Deaths are performed carefully and indicated by the turning over of a chair.

The employers, who had their effective escape route, were found not guilty of manslaughter and received a substantial insurance payment.

As the audience left this impressive production, I could hear some of them talking about Grenfell, reminding us how little things have changed in over a hundred years.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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