Professor’s Play Relives Striking Silk Workers Pageant at Madison Square Garden
“Paterson Falls” goes inside a unique strike in 1913.
History is not the only muse to have inspired playwright and theatre arts professor Rosemary McLaughlin. But accounts of the Paterson Strike Pageant, a one-of-a-kind spectacle staged June 7, 1913, in New York in support of striking silk workers across the Hudson, really fired up her imagination.
Both the era, just before the First World War, and its zealous social reformers offered a rich lode of dramatic possibilities. The end result of McLaughlin’s immersion in the subject was a play, “Paterson Falls,” scheduled to debut at Drew’s Thomas H. Kean Theatre on Nov. 13-16.
“I just thought the story was so fascinating. Everybody knows about the 1920s—they were a lot of fun—but the amazing clash of ideas came earlier, in the teens,” says McLaughlin, who first read about the pageant nearly two decades ago. In 1994, she was working in schools as a poet and playwright, and an honors class at Paterson’s Eastside High School was assigned to write a play about the pageant. McLaughlin, who grew up in Bayonne, had studied the history of theater in college and graduate school but was new to the topic.
The 1913 pageant took place four months into the famous silk mill strike that idled 25,000 weavers and dyers in Paterson’s mills, creating crushing hardship for their families. Weavers at the city’s largest mill walked off the job to protest the owner’s plan to increase the number of looms each weaver tended from two to four. Other workers, pushing for an eight-hour work day, joined the strike. Nearly 300 mills were stilled.
Mabel Dodge, a wealthy patron of the arts and salon hostess on lower Fifth Avenue who backed the strike, conceived of the production as a way to draw attention to the workers’ plight. She was assisted by organizers from the radical Industrial Workers of the World union, plus a colorful cadre of Greenwich Village artists and writers. When the stage lights went on in the old Madison Square Garden on East 26th Street that night, 15,000 spectators watched as 1,029 striking workers acted out the real-life drama of their lives.
The pageant was a huge success theatrically, but did little to further the workers’ cause, according to McLaughlin. The silk strike ended in July 1913, without the mill owners agreeing to the union’s demands. “The pageant was intended to get the word out, to make sure the newspapers could see what was going on and to make the strikers’ case so compelling that more people would gather to support them,” she says. “Trouble was, by the time the pageant happened, people were exhausted and other resources were sorely depleted. Workers at some mills decided to make separate agreements, rather than stay together.”
Still, she considers the strike to have been more successful than the IWW labor organizers did at the time. Most the workers’ demands, included the eight-hour day, were eventually adopted.
“Paterson Falls” was commissioned by the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in 2002, with funding from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. By then McLaughlin envisioned the play as the first of a trilogy spanning the period from 1913 to 1920. The second play, “Mooncussers,” would be set in Provincetown, Mass., where a group of vacationing artists and writers began presenting plays as the Provincetown Players in 1915. The third, “The Art of Conversation,” would take place in New York. Mabel Dodge’s quest to create an ideal community is central to all three.
“Paterson was the most important one,” says McLaughlin, who has not finished the other two plays. “It’s important by itself.”
She says she is not troubled by the idea that viewers may not be familiar with the historical figures who appear as characters. “Even if you don’t know anything about Paterson, or who these real people were, the play is about ideas—workers’ rights, and the importance of art,” she says. “I want people to think about that.”—Mary Jo Patterson
View the play announcement on Drew Today.