Thursday, November 20, 2008

40th Anniversary of Farmington #9

As measured by the number of people killed, West Virginia is the scene of four of the ten worst industrial disasters in US history, a remarkable record for a state whose population is smaller than that of Brooklyn, NY.

The worst disaster in both West Virginia and US history, The Hawk’s Nest Incident of 1927, killed more than 700 men who were digging a tunnel through silica-laden rock for a hydroelectric project. Workers wore no face masks and those who survived the project did so with fiber-encrusted lungs that crippled and eventually killed them.

The Monongah mine explosion of 1907 killed 361 miners and the Buffalo Creek Flood of 1972 killed 125 people when a coal company’s rain-saturated earthen dam burst and flooded a hollow destroying a succession of towns.

On this day in 1968, explosions at Consolidation Coal Company’s Farmington #9 mine took 78 lives, fewer than the other disasters, but with far-reaching consequences. Farmington was the first major industrial disaster to take place during the “media age” and the events were broadcast live around the world as families and TV crews maintained a days-long vigil in the hope that some of the 78 men trapped underground could be saved.

None were and nineteen were permanently entombed when the decision was made ten days after the first explosion to seal the mine. But, by putting a human face on what otherwise would have been mere statistics, Farmington #9 led to the enactment of the first national mine safety legislation.

Today it’s unlikely that the death tolls achieved in those disasters will again be equaled. Whether we’ve become more humane or merely more intimidated by the greater financial liability associated with negligent death, the safeguards against such accidents are considerably greater now.

In hindsight, it’s stunning how little compensation or consideration was accorded the families of the victims of these disasters. The widows of Farmington accepted payments of $10,000 each from Consolidation Coal, which, even when adjusted for inflation, is a pittance compared to the average $2.1 million given to families of the 9/11 victims.

West Virginia Public Radio and National Public Radio have two excellent reports on the Farmington #9 disaster. The first, aired in January 2006. The second, which aired just yesterday, provides not only a retrospective, but also reveals that a memo has been discovered that suggests the deaths of the miners may have been the result of an intentionally disabled alarm.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Of Incest and Authenticity

A few years ago the artistic director of a major theatre told me that, if I wanted my play, RAIN IN THE HOLLOWS (since retitled CLAUDIE HUKILL), to be produced in New York, I should change the play’s setting from the hollers of West Virginia to the west coast of Ireland. He even offered suggestions about how the play’s dialogue might be tweaked . . . no major revisions, mind you . . . to lend it the necessary “authenticity”.

What the artistic director was less clear about was why a change in setting unaccompanied by any change in the play’s substance should make theaters and presumably their audiences more receptive. On reflection, I think it’s fairly clear that he felt RAIN IN THE HOLLOWS, a play that employs magical realism to explore the nuances of family relationships, would be more “accessible” to audiences if it were set in Ireland.

Why should that be the case? Well, Ireland unlike West Virginia has produced a stream of playwrights over the last century – Synge, O’Casey, Friel, McPherson, and others – who have written highly nuanced works in this vein, so perhaps audience members, although most of them have probably never set foot in Ireland, are able to relate more readily to the “Irish peasant experience” than they are to the equally distant, but rarely staged, “Appalachian mountain experience”.

That’s the polite way to describe it. There is, however, a darker interpretation that goes like this. Audiences either can’t or don’t want to identify with characters whose lives, which they associate with ignorance, provincialism, and bigotry, they look down upon. In other words, audience members might not be able to get past their caricatured notions of Appalachian hill people to find their underlying shared humanity.

Whichever interpretation is more accurate, the episode reminds us that the mere mention of place can evoke in audiences waves of emotions, images, and preconceptions . . . a phenomenon that good playwrights use to imbue their plays with color, texture, and context without having to devote pages of dialogue to tedious description – what playwrights call “exposition”. That’s a good thing, but it’s a good thing that can have a distressing consequence.

Calling upon peoples’ preconceptions also means calling upon their prejudices. In fact, by willfully employing audiences’ prejudices, playwrights, whether intentionally or unintentionally, validate them. An example is seen in the frequently produced play, THE SPITFIRE GRILL, in which a young woman recently released from prison travels to a remote lake town in Northern Wisconsin to start over. When we hear that the crime for which she was briefly imprisoned was murder, we are also told that she killed her own father at whose hands she was the victim of incest.

Normally this kind of revelation is, as my mentor and fellow playwright Ernie Joselovitz would say, a hand grenade that a playwright can’t simply roll out in the middle of the stage and leave unexploded. INCEST! My God! The audience wants to know! But, if that’s not really what the play is about and the playwright needs to get off the topic and move on, what does he do? The playwrights of THE SPITFIRE GRILL (James Valcq and Fred Alley) add a line explaining that the young woman is from West Virginia.

Why does that simple piece of information bring closure to the issue of incest . . . defuse the hand grenade so to speak? Because incest is what audiences expect to happen in West Virginia. No further explanation required and, in fact, the playwrights give us none. Would further explanation have been required had the young woman hailed from New York, California, Florida, or other more presumably cosmopolitan places? Certainly.

I won’t go into statistics showing that incest is no more prevalent in West Virginia than it is in other places, but will merely observe that the writers of THE SPITFIRE GRILL didn’t feel compelled to look at the statistics either before dropping this little tidbit in the play. But, does this tiny exploitation of the preconceptions that audience members hold about West Virginia really do any damage? I don’t know, but I do wonder if THE SPITFIRE GRILL might have been seen by a woman I met in New York recently who, upon being told that I live in West Virginia, casually asked, “Why?”