Flip the Script Friday: Theodore Dreiser, The Girl in the Coffin

Without my handy dandy library of plays here with me in North Carolina, I turn to the massive number of scripts I have stored on my laptop for this week’s Flip the Script Friday. I picked one at random, and as it turns out, it’s quite apropos…but more on that later. Now, it’s time to Flip the Script with The Girl in the Coffin by Theodore Dreiser.

Basics

The Girl in the Coffin was written by Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) in 1913 as a part of a series of supernatural plays. It played on Broadway from 1917-1918.

Characters

  • William Magnet – a foreman of loom workers. Father of Mary Magnet. I wonder who she could be.
  • John Ferguson – a strike leader
  • Mrs. Mamie Shaefer – a striker’s wife
  • Mrs. Margaret Rickert – another striker’s wife
  • Mrs. Hannah Littig – an old woman
  • Nicholas Blundy – a young mill worker
  • Timothy McGrath – a member of the strikers’ executive committee

Setting/Plot

Early evening, large mill town, the 1910s. We open on the drawing room of William Magnet, where Mary Magnet lies in state in her coffin, presided over by Mrs. Shaefer and Mrs. Rickert. Along with Mrs. Littig, they commiserate on Mary’s untimely and saddening death, while Nick Blundy enters with a pillow that says “Asleep” in purple satin. [So weird.] Magnet enters, and everyone else leaves except for Mrs. Littig, at which point Magnet asks Mrs. Littig where Mary’s favorite gold ring went. Mrs. Littig says that she does not know. McGrath soon enters, and we learn of the mill strike, led by John Ferguson. McGrath pleads with Magnet to talk with the workers, because he speaks Italian and Ferguson does not, but obviously Magnet has other things to attend to. As McGrath leaves, Ferguson enters to talk to Magnet about the strike, and Magnet forcefully shuts him down, railing against Mary’s unknown lover, which prompts the best line in the play:

FERGUSON: You are not the only man in this town tonight whose hopes are lying in a coffin.

SNAP. Plot twist. Ferguson and Magnet have a heart-to-heart, and upon McGrath’s return, Magnet leaves with him to go to city hall. Littig reenters, and wouldn’t you know it, she has Mary’s ring, which she gives to Ferguson, under Mary’s instruction.

My Thoughts

A powerful little play, with a plot like Our Lady of 121st Street and an early-twentieth-century realism akin to Trifles. This play definitely proves that not all short plays are throwaways. Some of the minor characters are a little weird, but Magnet and Ferguson are pretty darn incredible in their words and actions. Quite obviously, Mary has died giving birth to Ferguson’s baby, which is the reason why he’s just as upset as Mary’s father Magnet. At first, I thought Magnet and Ferguson were on different sides, but ten I realized that Magnet was a leader figure to Ferguson and McGrath. An odd name, it reminded me a lot of “magnate,” also known as a company bigwig, often emotionless, quite the opposite of Magnet. The twist ending is just the right amount of surprise; I felt like that blue and gold ring was going to come up somewhere, but by the time it did I had forgotten about it. The fact that it ends up with Ferguson only cements his connection with Mary, his lover.

How I’d Flip It

Obviously, realism is the way to go. For some reason, I have this image of Whistler’s Mother, as at the opening, Mrs. Shaefer is described just so. Also, there is a “chalk drawing” of a woman, almost as if a young Mary did it as a self-portrait, and for some reason, a portrait of John Ferguson just hanging out there. On the whole, I feel like it works quite well as is. The imagery is pretty stark, and with the proper design elements, it could pack a punch. You could easily adapt it to any sort of workers’ union situation, from Latino fruit pickers in California to clothing sweatshop workers in India or China. Those would all be interesting twists.

In a 1918 article from Pearsons Magazine, reviewer H. O’Hara would have preferred if Mary’s spirit came up and started stirring shit up. Bwahaha. That’s what Blithe Spirit is for.

Apropos…

A coffin was discovered under a house in San Francisco today, that is believed to be 145 years old. Spooky.


Works Cited:

Dreiser, Theodore. The Girl in the Coffin.

Frederickson, Kathy. “The Girl in the Coffin.” In Newlin, Keith, ed., A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia. 166-167. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Konstantindes, Anneta. “Who is Miranda? Mystery of the young blonde girl who has lain perfectly preserved and still clutching a red rose inside a tiny coffin for 145 years beneath a San Francisco home.” The Daily Mail Online. 26 May 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3612053/145-year-old-coffin-young-girl-San-Francisco-home.html.

O’Hara, H. “Lights Out on Broadway.” Pearsons Magazine 38 (February 1918): 348-349.

Vazquez, Joe. “Construction Crews Discover Young Girl’s Casket Underneath San Francisco Home.” CBS San Francisco. 24 May 2016. http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2016/05/24/san-francisco-young-girl-miranda-casket-discover/

Wikipedia.

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