Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pondering This Play by Martha Wade Steketee

“I never dreamed I’d have a now of my own that looked this good.”

It is 1922. Prohibition has a three year track record, and U.S. women enjoy their second year of the right to vote. One of the most popular songs in America is Al Jolson’s version of “Toot Toot Tootsie (Good-Bye)”. Silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks celebrate their second anniversary and the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) celebrates its third. U.S. women comprise less the 25 percent of the work force and of those women who work, approximately 25 percent are in white collar jobs, 25 percent are in manufacturing jobs, less than 20 percent work as domestic servants, and most of the balance work in agriculture. Women begin to don the haircut called the “bob” sported by actress Colleen Moore in the 1920 silent film “Dinty. This year the Radium Dial Company continues its recently relocated business in a town named Ottawa, Illinois, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. And in 1922, Catherine Wolfe Donohue begins a new job at this company located in her home town, just blocks from her home.

The work at Radium Dial involves painting luminous numbers on watch and clock faces for pennies a “dial”. The material Catherine and her colleagues use to paint constantly glowing timepiece dial face numbers is laced with a valuable newly discovered ore called radium. This element was tested for scientific purposes, used during the World War in airmen’s and soldiers’ timepieces and asserted to have medicinal, therapeutic and cosmetic uses. The women of Radium Dial ingest this new compound while doing their work, painting the dials, pointing their paintbrushes between their lips, breathing the radium-filled dust, and sitting near the completed dial faces stacked beside them at their work stations.

And for Catherine, this was her way into a new life, this new American woman, this independence. As dramatized by playwright Melanie Marnich in “These Shining Lives”, Catherine revels in the sensations of working after her first day of work “I walked home that night in the dark. A girl walks differently when she’s making money. I thought to myself, ten years ago a girl like me couldn’t even vote let alone make this kind of money. Couldn’t do better than her father and just as good as her husband. Couldn’t even smoke ... But now? I never dreamed I’d have a now of my own that looked this good.”

This real tale of freedom and independence for Catherine and hundreds of women like her in Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere quickly becomes a story of corporate ignorance, malfeasance, and ultimate responsibility. Legal actions brought by women in a New Jersey radium dial company result in settlements in the 1920s, and the women of Ottawa continue their work. In 1925, the U.S. Department of Labor orders a general survey of all radium plants to investigate radium effects on occupational diseases including the newly identified “radium necrosis”, and the women of Ottawa continue their work. Medical opinion during the 1920s is divided on the effects of radium on the human body and the women of Ottawa continue their work. A Public Health Service conference in December 1928 considers the problem of safeguarding workers in industries using radium, and the women of Ottawa continue their work. And by 1937 the Radium Dial Company stops its work in Ottawa, only to continue it in New York State

In 1922 our dramatized Catherine Donohue is in awe of the “now” that is possible. Sixteen years later, the dramatized and well-documented Catherine testifies on behalf of herself and other dying former Radium Dial employees as “Ottawa’s Living Dead.” This play is their story of humor and independence. And so much more.

SOURCES

“All Radium Plants in Federal Inquiry: Labor Department States Search to Discover the Cause of “Radium Necrosis”, Hears of No Other Cases, New Occupational Disease Would Affect the Workmen’s Compensation Law”, New York Times June 21, 1925.

“Important Events of the 1920s”
http://www.enotes.com/1920-american-decades-about/important-events [accessed 12/2/2008]

Kovarik, Bill (2002). “The Radium Girls”, originally published as Chapter Eight of Mass Media and Environmental Conflict.
http://www.runet.edu/~wkovarik/envhist/radium.html [accessed 12/2/2008]

The Louise Brooks Society, Louis Brooks Chronology.
http://www.pandorasbox.com/bio/chronology.html [accessed 12/2/2008]

“75 Experts Meet On Radium Disease: Washington Conference Urges Surgeon General to Name a Board of Inquire, Would Codify Safeguards, Watch Company Official Says Use of Steel Stylus Instead of Brush Obviates Ill Effects” December 21, 1928

“The Story of Radium: Madame Curie’s Discovery Followed Years of Striving – How America Took The Lead”, New York Times May 15, 1921.

“Woman Tells of ‘Living Death’ at Radium Quiz: Former Watch Painter Faints; Halts Hearing”. Chicago Daily Tribune, February 11, 1938.

- Martha Wade Steketee (dramaturg)

7 comments:

robertian said...

I saw "The Walls" yesterday and was just really impressed. What a powerful production! I blogged about it here:

http://robertian.wordpress.com/2009/05/16/the-walls-steppenwolf-garage-theatre/

Modemjunkie said...

Ever since your magnificent January production of These Shining Lives I have been hoping to get a website created based on the original news stories about the case. I had really hoped to have it finished in time for the Theater on the Lake production, but time has flown by.

My father was Attorney Leonard Grossman who represented the girls before the Industrial Commission.
With my stepson's help, I have scanned over 200 pages of my father's scrapbooks and have put nearly that many slides online. I had hoped to complete a front page announcing this week's production, and explaining the story, but simply ran out of time. I will be updating the site with information about your production and links to other sites about the case, but here is what I have accomplished so far. Please share with the cast and friends.

The Case of the Living Dead Women- In the newspapers

Leonard Grossman

martha said...

mr. grossman .. i remember meeting you at one of the performances of january run of this show... and have downloaded all of these precious clippings. these are a real gift to the production and to history; thank you so much for sharing them.

Len said...

Martha, I remember meeting you. That was a wonderful night.

I am continuing to update the website. I have now added the original 5 or 6 mb files underneath the existing slides. If some are hard to read, just click on the existing slides.

If you have email addresses for others associated with the show and with the Manteno high school group that is working on the history I would love to notify them when I am finished. You can reach me at Len @ Lgrossman.com (without spaces).

Len

Len said...

Forgive me.. there are typos in the address underlying the website address. It is at http://lgrossman.com/pics/radium/

Modemjunkie said...

What a joy to see the Theater on the Lake production of These Shining Lives tonight. As at Raven, each character was so clearly etched, and even in that difficult, cavernous environment, the intimate, and yes, luminous, quality of the production came through.

Watching the subtle changes in each character as time went by was one of the joys (and sadnesses) of the original production. Once again, your sleight of hand worked wonders. If only the process could be reversed.

Len

BTW:
I have added links to the Theater on the Lake and Rivendell websites on the Case of the Living Dead website.

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