By Emi Estelle '11
In 1992, the Mount Holyoke Department of Theatre Arts produced the premiere of Big Tim and Fanny, a historical drama cowritten by history professor Daniel Czitrom and playwright Jack Gilhooley. The play was set in New York City in the aftermath of the devastating 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which took the lives of 146 female garment workers and is still considered one of the worst industrial disasters in American history. Big Tim and Fanny dramatized the unusual political alliance between celebrated 1902 Mount Holyoke alumna and social reformer Frances Perkins (right - "Fanny") and "Big Tim" Sullivan, the legendary and colorful Tammany Hall leader of Manhattan's Bowery district.
This unlikely pair "worked together to push through important labor law reforms, improve safety codes, and protect women workers," says Czitrom. "Frances Perkins famously remarked that the Triangle Fire marked the beginning of the New Deal."
Eighteen years after the first production of Big Tim and Fanny, Czitrom and Gilhooley have arranged for two stage readings of Fire!--a two-act play that is a scaled-down version of the original production--to take place in New York City this week. Fire! will be read at Urban Stages (259 West 30th Street) November 16 at 6 pm and directed by Kent Nicholson. It will also be read at New Dramatists (424 West 44th Street) November 18 at 7 pm, where it will be directed by Marlo Hunter. These stage readings, free and open to the public, are designed to attract potential producers and investors.
"The goal is to mount a full production next spring, to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the Triangle Fire," notes Czitrom.
Czitrom has published a scholarly study of Big Tim Sullivan and his influence, but was frustrated by how few reliable primary sources survive from Sullivan’s era.
"Since historians are bound by certain rules of evidence, I thought I might be able to get at Sullivan’s life and world from another angle, through the theatre, where imagination and dramatic tension trump footnotes and bibliography. But I knew I would need a collaborator," he explains.
He found the Florida-based dramatist Gilhooley via a personal ad in the Village Voice.
"It was literally, 'historian seeks playwright for creative partnership,'" he recalls. "We were fortunate to bring Gilhooley to MHC in 1992 as a visiting artist in theatre arts and English."
Czitrom and Gilhooley have also collaborated on Red Bessie, a play that premiered in 2003 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world. Red Bessie explores the arc of American radicalism from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s through the McCarthyite repression of the 1950s.
Czitrom specializes in American cultural and political history and the history of New York City. He is offering a course this January Term titled New York City: Capital of the Twentieth Century.
Top: Daniel Czitrom
Bottom: Frances Perkins