From Stage to Page: The Journey of Writing The Radium Girls
In the spring of 2014, I had just made my directorial debut, thanks to KDC. I’d taken the helm for a production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding and had been firmly bitten by the directing bug. Just a week after the get-out for BW, I started searching for the next play I wanted to direct, googling ‘Great Plays for Women’. And as soon as I read the opening monologue of These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich, I knew it was ‘the one’. It had fantastic, strong female leads, a beautiful lyricism and, most significantly, it was based on a little-known but powerful true story: that of the Radium Girls, the American women from the 1920s who were poisoned by their work and courageously fought for justice. I pitched it as ‘Erin Brockovich meets Made in Dagenham, starring the Pink Ladies’.
At first, KDC and I got a knockback on the rights, but I felt so passionate about directing the play that I phoned Marnich’s agent in America and pleaded my case. Luckily, the rights were granted, and the show became part of KDC’s Spring 2015 season.
From the very start, I felt a responsibility to do justice to the Radium Girls’ real experiences and conducted a lot of background research. By the time of our first rehearsal, I knew enough to give a presentation to the cast about the true story we would be telling onstage. I shared with them the details of the women’s suffering; I showed them photographs of the people they had been entrusted to represent. My ethos as a director and actor is that ‘it’s all about the back story’, so the cast and I spent hours in rehearsals working on the back stories of all the characters, improvising scenes and discussing the imagined details of their lives: what was Tom and Catherine’s wedding like; who was Grossman’s wife; did Pearl have any siblings?
As I researched more about the true story, I realised that Marnich had fictionalised some aspects of her play – for example, in These Shining Lives, Charlotte Purcell is a wise-cracking, unmarried, childless woman, but in real life she was fairly quiet, with three children and a husband called Al. My research also revealed something I found hard to believe: no book existed that focused on the women and told the story from their perspective, in an accessible, readable, narrative account.
By this time, the girls had become precious to me so I thought, If no one else has done it, why don’t I? I pitched my non-fiction book about the women to publishers while we were still rehearsing the play, and invited them to attend our production to learn more. The editor who eventually bought the book, Abigail Bergstrom of Simon & Schuster, was one of those in the audience as KDC staged the play at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town in March 2015.
While publishers considered my pitch, plans were afoot behind the scenes for a second run of that KDC production. The cast and I, sharing a desire to bring the women’s story to as large an audience as possible, self-funded a transfer to the Pleasance, Islington in September 2015. By the time we opened, I had a book deal inked with Simon & Schuster and my flights were booked to America for a research trip. I was to follow in the footsteps of the characters I had directed.
It was an incredible experience. The play had given me names and addresses; and to stand in Ottawa, Illinois at 520 East Superior Street – the home described by Catherine Donohue in that opening monologue which had first captured my attention – was such a powerful moment. I knew, of course, that the play was based on a true story but perhaps that moment, more than any other, cemented the knowledge.
I also tracked down and interviewed relatives who had known and loved the people in the play: I spoke to Grossman’s son; to Catherine’s niece and nephew; to Charlotte’s son and grandchildren; to Pearl’s nephew ~ They showed me childhood photographs and generously shared details of their relatives’ lives, which I wove into the tapestry of my book. In a way, it was the ultimate ‘back story’ exercise – and I found out so much that the cast and I had never touched on; could never have touched on. Tom Donohue was a twin (his birthday was the same day as mine); Tom and Catherine’s wedding had 22 guests and a colour scheme of pink and green; Pearl was one of 13 children; Grossman had a young German wife named Trudel, whom he adored. I found original letters written by the women in a local museum, and held them in my bare hands, tracing Catherine Donohue’s signature, which she herself had written in pencil. It gently indented the paper. It felt so special.
While some of the things I learned were new to me, or contradicted the play, others we had unwittingly got right. I learned that Tom had used to carry Catherine around in his arms when she got sick; I had directed my actor playing Tom (James Barton-Steel) to do exactly that onstage, little knowing that the real man had acted identically. Marnich had written a ‘shopping list’ scene, where Pearl and Frances listed all the groceries they had bought for Catherine to help her, as she was too sick to get to the store; I found details in these letters of the pails of eggs, roast chickens and white nightgowns that Catherine’s real friends had bought for her to help her out. Bit by bit, I learned the women’s true story, and the genuine details of their lives.
And I visited the women’s graves. Watching my actors tell the Radium Girls’ story, I had been moved to tears many times: it is a powerful tale, and they were gifted. But as I stood in that sunlit cemetery, this wasn’t acting, or a cleverly crafted line, or a dramatic climax to a staged tragedy before me. This wasn’t a play.
This was Catherine’s grave – her actual, real grave; her body was beneath it. As her relatives stood respectfully a short distance away, I could not help the tears that tracked my cheeks and I knew in that moment, more than ever before, that I had to bring her story – her real story – to the world.
Eight months later, my book, The Radium Girls, has just been published. It tells the story not only of the Ottawa women that the play was about, but also of the Radium Girls of New Jersey. It is that narrative account that was previously unpublished: the book that puts the girls centre stage, and gives them a voice. I have used those interviews with the relatives in the book, but I have also embedded the women’s own accounts of their story – those letters I found, and their diaries and court testimonies – to bring them to life, in their own words. ‘Always at the centre of the narrative,’ wrote The Spectator in a review of the book, ‘are the individual dial-painters, so the list of their names at the start becomes a register of familiar, endearing ghosts.’
I hope the Radium Girls will be around to haunt us all for a good while yet.
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is out now, published by Simon & Schuster http://amzn.to/219Olw5
Follow Kate on Twitter @katebooks