‘Burnt’ – A Screenplay About Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
(An orchestra of muffled screams, coughing, crackling fire, and crashing metal crescendo behind a black screen. After a moment of the screams at its highest volume, the sound crashes to deafening silence.)
EXT. FACTORY BUILDING
(Wide shot of the blank brick wall. After a moment, a line of women begin passing through the shot, with crumpled shirtwaists and white fabric bunched up in their fists. After a few women pass, they simultaneously stop and turn with their backs facing the brick wall. They, in unison, throw the fabric to the ground, representing the strike. The shot pans to Lucia (next to Rosaria), who strikes a match. The shot focuses on the flame from the match, zooming in until, ultimately, fire is the only visible thing. When the shot is zoomed back out, all of the girls except Lucia are dead on the ground. Lucia drops the match and gazes down at Rosaria, lying lifeless beside the other dead women. Zoom into Lucia’s face, turned down as she gazes at her sister; the shot of Lucia’s face morphs into Lucia looking down as she works at the sewing machine (acting as a transition to the next scene). When zoomed back out, Lucia is sitting next to her sister, working arduously at the sewing machine.)
INT. FACTORY WORK AREA
Adjust spool. Thread machine. Left, down, up, down, into the hook,through the needle. Line up the fabric. Lower the presser. Begin. Stop. Adjust. Begin again. Stop. Adjust. Begin. Stop.
Don’t breathe. Don’t hum. Don’t smoke. Just sew, sew, sew. And cut, and realign, and sew again.
I could feel the lines of women surrounding me, working side by side in perfect mayhem. Harmonious cacophony. I could smell the heat of their exhaustion seeping through their own shirtwaists, leaking, spreading with every thread they cut. Working a bit faster during the Foreman’s periodic visits. Receive passing scrutiny, maybe a hand down your back. Just keep sewing.
That Foreman smelled of exhaustion he didn’t earn, by walking, and watching, and touching what wasn’t his. His steps beat like a metronome from behind our crouched backs, ensuring that our fingers dancing around our work were worth the three dollars they’d hold by the end of the week. “Blanc and Harris didn’t buy you ladies electric machines for nothing”, he’d spit, in between metronomic steps. “3,000 stitches per minute,” he’d repeat. 3,000 per minute. I’m somewhere around there.
Roseria still wouldn’t look at me. Not even a glance in the last four hours. She was angry. Exasperated by my restless commitment to the Strike, to find some way to alter our working conditions.
INT. ROSERIA AND LUCIA’S LIVING ROOM
(Silent capture of the argument between the sisters.)
Strike seemed to me to be the only logical option, to catalyze change, to coat it with gasoline and light it up into a revolution. We say we want, we want, change. We want change. We want sanitation legislation, compensation for our labor. We want change. What value will come from a shirtwaist with our misery infused in the stitches?
She viewed it as unreasonable, an impossible feat. No way will the strongest, most reputable shirtwaist factory succumb to the complaints of girls. Immigrant girls. Young, immigrant girls.
V.O ROSERIA & LUCIA
The only way you will see change,
V.O ROSERIA & LUCIA
Is if the factory burns down.
If the factory burns down. If the factory burns down. She bolted out of the living room, leaving a train of smoke that charred my nose when I inhaled.
(Cut to a clip of Isaac Harris locking a factory door, then to a clip of Max Blanc checking the bags of factory workers to ensure no item was stolen. During one of the checks, he finds a shirtwaist in a young girl’s bag. She is violently removed from the room.)
I watched it all in my mind, over and over again, comic strips plastered behind my eyelids, illustrating the most victorious turn of events in the name of a revolution. An illustrious company, for which its hands receive three dollars a week, crumbling by fire. Sewing machines overheat, its thread turning to ash. Valueless shirtwaists fall from our hands, scorched black consuming the delicate white fabric over which we slaved from 7-9, five days a week.
I could do it. All it would take is a match. Or a cigarette. One small spark of fire to harvest a flame so monstrous, it’ll charr holes through the clouds. Tall enough to catch the government’s eye, catastrophic enough to bring about change. I could do it.
I could, I could light a flame. But could I burn everything that would be caught inside? The extravagant machines, yes. Harris and Blanc, yes. Myself, yes. But, could I scorch innocent flesh? My little sister’s? My co-workers’, each a survivor destined to die by my cigarette? Each slaving for a 50 cent raise, to afford bread for their children’s plates? Burning them would be burning their babies too, and their parents and siblings, and all for whom they provide.
But it is a questions of worth. It is a question of weight. They have been dying by the workings of their machinery, slowly deteriorating through a nine hour shift. My flame would murder their suffering, and the suffering of future factory workers. Crucify the unfair treatment of the hands that create what they cannot afford.
I could do it.
(Cut back to Lucia and Roseria sitting, sewing at the machines: the present.)
All of my senses were heightened that day. The ticks of the sewing machines and the Foreman’s steps behind me blended into the most foreboding phrase of music I had ever heard. The heat in the factory scorched the back of my arms, preparing my skin for the heat that was to come. The thread before me shifted in and out of focus, distorted, defaced by the heat.
My body moved, my thoughts were caught in my fingers. Stuck, still. I picked out my cigarette. Lit it. Held it between my teeth. I inhaled, letting my lungs linger in the smoke.
And I stood, holding my breath. Clenched the cigarette between my two fingers, motioned myself over the bin of scrap fabric, bulging at the brim after a long day of work. I let go.
When the cigarette left my fingers, my halted thoughts shattered through their restraint and flooded into my mind, hyperactive and crippling.
(Flashes of a protest for strike play in between the slow-motion fall of the cigarette.)
I don’t remember much, but I remember recounting all of the protests I had taken part in, all of the young women I had fought beside. All of the posters I had painted: “We want change, we want change”. Devoting ourselves, our whole selves, to benefit the cause.
I was supposed to die.