Radium and Radiant Music
It was an arts-filled weekend for us. This weekend was concert weekend for us, and was also the weekend of a Furman Theater production of “These Shining Lives” by Melanie Marnich.
Saturday morning was dress rehearsal. We started we what has gotten to be our traditional pre-rehearsal breakfast. This time ten of us gathered at Northgate Soda Shop for breakfast. It was a great gathering, and we enjoyed the company before getting to work.
Rehearsal went..OK. We have struggled with this repertoire. Despite working on this for weeks, we admitted to in some cases it feels like we are still sight-reading. That being said, you really don’t want to peak at the dress rehearsal. So, I was hoping that things would go much more smoothly at the actually concert.
Saturday evening Laura and I had tickets for the Furman Theater. “These Shining Lives” by Melanie Marnich tells the story of the so-called “Radium Girls” of the 1920s – women who worked painting clock dials with radium. There were several such incidents. The phrase “Radium Girls” refers specifically to an event in Orange Park, New Jersey, but this play follows the true story of a group of women in Ottawa, Illinois.
In both of these cases, the women contracted cancer and other life-threatening illnesses as a result of close exposure to radium. The women would actually twirl the paint brushes between their lips to sharpen them, then dip the brush into the radium powder. The company, of course, denying any problem coming from the radium. In both New Jersey and Illinois, a group of women were brave enough to sue. Of course, they faced resistance from not only the company, but the community at large. They were eventually successful, ushering in safety measures for handling radium.
Prior to these lawsuits, folks thought radium had magical curative powers. There were advertisements for all sorts of radium-enhanced products.
Eleanor Swanson wrote a beautiful poem entitled Radium Girls, which also tells the story in verse:
We sat at long tables side by side in a big
dusty room where we laughed and carried
on until they told us to pipe down and paint.
The running joke was how we glowed,
the handkerchiefs we sneezed into lighting
up our purses when we opened them at night,
our lips and nails, painted for our boyfriends
as a lark, simmering white as ash in a dark room.
“Would you die for science?” the reporter asked us,
Edna and me, the main ones in the papers.
Science? We mixed up glue, water and radium
powder into a glowing greenish white paint
and painted watch dials with a little
brush, one number after another, taking
one dial after another, all day long,
from the racks sitting next to our chairs.
After a few strokes, the brush lost its shape,
and our bosses told us to point it with
our lips. Was that science?
I quit the watch factory to work in a bank
and thought I’d gotten class, more money,
a better life, until I lost a tooth in back
and two in front and my jaw filled up with sores.
We sued: Edna, Katherine, Quinta, Larice and me,
but when we got to court, not one of us
could raise our arms to take the oath.
My teeth were gone by then. “Pretty Grace
Fryer,” they called me in the papers.
All of us were dying.
We heard the scientist in France, Marie
Curie, could not believe “the manner
in which we worked” and how we tasted
that pretty paint a hundred times a day.
Now, even our crumbling bones
will glow forever in the black earth.”
The Furman students did an absolutely fantastic job with the production. Everything was perfect, from the staging to lighting to projected images – it was amazing. This was the first play we had seen directed by Maegan Azar, and we were thoroughly impressed. The story is compelling, and the Furman Theater brought it to life in a wonderful way.
So, Sunday rolls around, time for our concert at Buncombe Street Methodist Church. The program was entitled Bach, Brahms, and Shakespeare. It featured “Immortal Bach” by Knute Nystedt, “Jesu, Meine Freude” by Bach, the Alto Rhapsody by Brahms with Rosemary Hughes singing the alto solo. There were also settings of five Shakespearean texts in various styles, introduced by retired Furman Shakespeare Scholar Dr. John Crabtree. Add to this a couple of other pieces by William Walton, Eric Whitacre, and John Nance, and we had a full concert.
As I had hoped, the concert went much better than the rehearsal. I wouldn’t say that it was perfect, but it was very well received by the audience. We got a standing ovation, and the response from my friends in attendance was very positive.
As usual, after the concert I have all of the tunes stuck in my head and find myself humming them throughout the day.
All in all, it was a busy, but great weekend.