These Shining Lives: The Golden Women of the Gilded Age

Cole Reihing

In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, an exposé of the harsh working conditions immigrants faced in Chicago, was published. At the time, it was the preeminent critique of the way an unchecked capitalist society can exploit its most vulnerable members. It chronicled the lives of hard-working Chicago citizens who faced dangerous and oftentimes fatal workplace environments. The publication of The Jungle led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (among other things), and helped make work environments safer.

Where 1906’s The Jungle mainly concerned immigrants working in the meat-packing industry, Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives is set in the roaring ’20s in the Radium Dial, where women paint the faces onto watches. 

Tyrannical tycoons are exchanged for an employer as charming as a prince. He pays generous wages and the days are full of gossip and singing. These women experience meaningful friendships and economic independence almost unheard of at the time. Instead of a nightmare, the women of the Radium Dial think they are in a dream. 

But that dream begins to fade. The days tick away like the inevitable machinations of the watches they paint. And the unimaginable approaches as steady and unstoppable as the passing of time.

However, made ardently clear by the author, These Shining Lives focuses not on the ending that we know is coming. The fate of these women cannot be changed, and the audience and the actors know that. These Shining Lives focuses on the individual ticks of those watches. It focuses, as the title suggests, on the beautiful and heroic lives they lead. It focuses on their strength, determination, wit, and resolve facing the most impossible of odds. It celebrates that these women are not what they become but are instead so much more. 

The play is, at times, incredibly funny. It is at times charming, at times wholesome, and at times youthful and vibrant. Marnich’s language feeds these moods. The four main women, Catherine, Pearl, Frances, and Charlotte are stars in every sense of the word. Their personalities are infectious, and their dynamic as a team is comfort food in a famished frame. 

Pearl is extremely funny, but not in the way she intends to be. She also can be stern and assertive when the time comes. Frances is often described as the “moral backbone,” but, as Marnich puts it, “[she has] one of the most flexible backbones in town.” Charlotte comes across equally playful and domineering but later reveals there’s more to her than meets the eye. Catherine as a protagonist is one to be revered; her overture as a pensive factory neophyte to her finale as a titanic force combines the heart and artistry of an operatic tragedy. Watching her presence grow as her physique shrinks is truly one of the gifts of this play. She is a heroic woman fighting a society that is working against her every step of the way, which is a story as necessary today as it would have been for them.

The play is described as a work of “creative non-fiction.” While some artistic liberties are taken, the play is largely factual. Catherine Wolfe Donahue, Pearl Payne, Charlotte Purcell, Frances O’Connoll, and all of the other women named in this play were real. They were all afflicted by both oversight and eventual maliciousness of Radium Dial. From an actor’s perspective, it has been our work to truly understand not only the society that this story takes place in, but also to dig deep into who our characters were as people. Being able to see pictures of the characters we’re playing is such a cathartic feeling in and of itself, as if we have a new obligation to them to tell their story wholly and truthfully out of a combination of respect and awe for their story. 

It’s truly a gift to tell the story of these women. And, even though we know how it’s going to end, the importance of theatre is that we tell it anyway. Maybe, as if this time, it will turn out better, out of some form of vehement denial of inevitability. But our job is deeper than that. And yes, we tell this story as a warning. But our job is deeper than even that. We tell this story because the lives of these women deserve to be explored; their dedication to each other and to their society is something to be venerated. As they lost weight and time, they moved mountains. As they declined, they became stronger. And as they died, they changed society forever. Their work, while difficult, gave way to federal reform so that companies could be held responsible for the wrongs they did to their employees. 

Like stars in the night sky, though they now may be far, far away, and long, long gone, they still manage to shine and bring light to a world that needs it. 

These Shining Lives runs at the Price Theatre from November 13th-16th at 7 P.M., with a 2:30 P.M. matinee on the 17th. 

Cole Reihing is a junior Theatre Arts Performance Major from St. Marys, GA and the recipient of the Neil Tidwell Rollins Scholarship for Theatre and English. He has been involved in several LaGrange College productions, including AUGUST: Osage County, Bedroom Farce, Noises Off, and more. He can be seen this week as Mr. Reed in These Shining Lives. Outside of the theatre, he is a member of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity and is the president of IFC.

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