The Great Divide

Alix Sobler
The Finborough Theatre
The Finborough Theatre

Emma King and Hannah Genesius Credit: Graeme Braidwood
The Great Divide Credit: Graeme Braidwood
The Great Divide Credit: Graeme Braidwood

The fire which devastated the Triangle shirtwaist factory in 1911 killed 146 workers, most of whom were women. Many of them were European migrants from Russia and Italy who had travelled to America for a better life.

Alix Sobler’s exciting play The Great Divide imagines a group of people who worked at the factory in the years leading up to the great fire. Most of what happens is shown from the point of view of the character Rosa (Hannah Genesius).

She describes the decision to leave Russia, where being Jewish was like living in a cage. It was, she says, a "life of locked doors".

It is an emotional parting from her brother who as a Marxist wants to stay and fight to change the system.

After a gruelling two-week journey, Rosa starts work at the Triangle factory on a wage of eleven dollars for a sixty-five-hour week in harsh conditions where doors are locked to prevent workers taking breaks.

Despite these appalling conditions, Rosa finds friendship among the women who work alongside her. There’s Manya (Emma King), whom she describes as the poet, and Sophie (Miztii Rose Neville), an Italian who mistakenly thinks that Yiddish is the English language because so many of those around her speak it.

One of the skilled men in the factory, Jacob (Josh Collins), takes an interest in Rosa but she is reluctant to respond. She tells her friends that he should be interested in other things than her looks, such as the books she reads and her attitude to the Marxist movement.

The journey to America hasn’t quite worked out as Rosa expected. She concludes that "some things are different but some are the same."

However things are to change. The growing discontent among New York workers leads in 1909 to a strike of many months against the shirtwaist factories. We hear some of the inspiring speech of the real union activist Clara Lemlich (Miztii Rose Neville) as she mounts the platform at a union meeting to demand a General Strike arguing that it was the way to make the employers "feel our hunger in their stomachs".

During the strike, Clara is beaten and left with broken ribs. Rosa and Manya are arrested on the picket line and sentenced to a week in the workhouse.

The strike wins improvements in pay and working hours but it doesn’t change safety conditions which a year later killed so many in the Triangle fire.

The play is thoughtful and well written with engaging performances from actors who switch easily between the different characters they perform.

There is a temptation to see the events this play depicts as only happening a long time ago and in places far away, but it was being shown as the BBC programme Panorama broadcast an interview with a former senior manager who cited a lot of safety concerns at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, in which he said his fear was a fire in a nuclear waste silo could "generate a plume of radiological waste that will go across Western Europe."

Meanwhile, the junior doctors were again warning that the imposition of a new seven-day working week contract on an already overstretched health service could seriously risk patient’s safety.

As Rosa might say, "some things are different but some are the same."

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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