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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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Flip The Script: Lea Goldberg, Lady of the Castle

Today was graduation day here in Madison. For so many, it was the first day of independence, of freedom, of new lives…but for me, it was just another day. Of course, I’ve been there – twice – and I’m sincerely happy for everyone, but a part of me is a little nostalgic. So many people will be leaving Madison (and me) behind.

Life goes on, though; ironically, a feature of the bone-chilling play I read today, so here we go:

Flip The Script: Lea Goldberg, Lady of the Castle

Recap:

One night in 1949, Michael Sand and Dora Ringel find themselves in the library of a castle in Central Europe where Sand has been doing research, seeking to spend the night there rather than face the raging storm outside. Zabrodsky, the groundskeeper, initially discourages them from staying, but quickly changes his mind when Dora suggests the castle might not be the best place to spend the night. After he leaves to prepare a bedroom, Dora becomes frightened and asks Sand to leave, but before long Zabrodsky returns with the news that there is only enough room for Dora; Sand will have to stay in his own bedroom with him. Dora asks about the history of the castle (she is interested, since she works with Jewish children who were hidden in places like this during the war), and Sand asks suggestively if the castle has any ghosts or secret doors, and when Zabrodsky gets defensive, he apologizes for them, but gets more than he bargained for when Zabrodsky reveals that he is not just the castle’s groundskeeper but its resident ghost. Sand, ever the interested researcher of oddities, asks to see a cuckoo clock on the top shelf, and is told by Zabrodsky that it is broken and should not be touched. Upon Zabrodsky bidding Sand and Dora good night and Dora retiring to the next room, Sand sneaks up to the top shelf, retrieves the clock and a key, which he uses to wind the clock. It is indeed functional, and doesn’t just bring out a cuckoo, but the spirit of a young girl who screams and collapses on the floor.

In Act II, Sand tries to comfort the girl, whose screams have brought Dora back. The girl, who reveals herself to be a Jewish girl named Lena, refuses to believe Sand and Dora when they tell her that World War II is over, she is safe to come out, and “the Count” (Zabrodsky) has been denying her freedom this whole time for no reason. Lena slowly believes them, but still clutches onto an amulet, which she claims was a gift from her mother, but Sand discovers it’s a poison pill and tries to wrest it from her. Dora explains that she is a “Youth Aliya” worker, working to help children like Lena who have been hidden in Europe, and bringing them to Israel for societal rehab. Lena then turns to think that “the Count” is not her oppressor and that Dora and Sand are indeed Nazis, so she runs to get Zabrodsky but cannot make it down the stairs. She then starts to entertain the thought of leaving with them, especially when Dora discovers Lena’s last name and determines that she knows Lena’s Aunt Lisa, who is alive and well in Palestine, when Zabrodsky storms in.

And that’s when things get weird.

Act III begins with Zabrodsky entering with anger that Lena has escaped and Dora and Sand have spoiled her with news from the outside world. Lena harbors rage against Zabrodsky, who admits his lie, but he also admits his love for her and his desire to keep her safe. As he debates with Dora and Sand, the rain has stopped and Lena leans out the window, the first time it’s been opened in over two years. She then has this insane monologue about wanting to go outside and smell the rain. Dora says that she can have all that if she comes with them, but she gets scared and runs back through the secret door from whence she came. Dora and Sand scream after her, but Zabrodsky seems to snap back to reality, wondering why they’re screaming and who Lena is. He then insists that they have been the ones yelling and opening windows, and when Sand pulls back the curtain behind which Lena disappeared, there’s no secret door present. Zabrodsky then tells them that, like Sand’s earlier joke, he too joked about being a ghost and that the two of them must have had some sort of hallucination. Dora and Sand defend themselves but start to back down when they realize how silly they sound…and then Lena comes back out and nobody knows what to believe. No longer in her nightgown but rather a proper dress, Lena announces that she’s ready to go with Sand and Dora to Palestine. Zabrodsky gives her permission, and they leave him behind in the castle as the clock strikes midnight.