Blueprint Theatre Group

at the Chicago Actors Project

Before women could work outside the home, they could nonetheless extend their domestic duties to bring in extra income. A woman could sell the extra products of the farm animals she tended, or items of her own manufacture not needed by her own family (spun yarn, woven cloth, knitted stockings, lace, or embroidery). In the beginning, women would oversee the production of these goods from start to finish and, furthermore, could set their own prices.

With the coming of the urban “manufacturies” more and more women found themselves performing their “homework” under the direction of a factory owner who would then pay them a wage fixed by himself. It has been estimated that by 1800 roughly a million women and children were involved in English clothing trades, with lace making alone accounting for as many as 100,000 females aged ten and up, mostly in low-skilled occupations that earned approximately half of what males earned for the same work. This was in part due to the all-male guilds of skilled workers seeking to keep their crafts exclusive–the better to keep their wages high–and in part due to the notion that the income of women and children was supplementary to that earned by the man of the family (when there were men in the family).

It was a system that would become increasingly inhumane as women (and eventually whole families) moved out of the home and into what would come to be called by the diseuphonious name “sweatshop.” The horrors of long working days at pittance wages (sometimes 16 hours or more per day; in 1802, a law was passed limiting children under the age of ten to a 12-hour day, but not until 1833 was another law passed appointing inspectors to enforce it), the fragmented and repetitive tasks, the barriers to advancement in the trade guilds, and the general exploitation of women and children in the escalating production of ready-made goods–this is the background against which Shirley Gee’s Ask for the Moon is set.

But weren’t the unions supposed to have changed all that? What about the Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1873 (ironically, by a group of middle-class feminists who opposed protective legislation for working women) and claiming 118,000 members by 1889? What about the industrial demands of two world wars and the iconization of Rosie the Riveter? What about the social reforms presumably enacted by modern governments concerned with human rights? Haven’t you come a long way, baby? Not according to Shirley Gee, whose play contrasts the working conditions in an early-19th-century English cottage industry to those in a present-clay clothing factory, and concludes that very little has changed in the past century and a half.

Peopling the lace-making enterprise of 1840 are Mercy, a widow with tuberculosis; Alice, who goes blind in the course of the play; and Fanny, who is deserted by her lover and must decide whether to kill her child or to grant sexual favors to her boss in order to keep it (we learn this as the three women work on an elaborate christening robe for a squire’s grandson).

In the modern factory, Alwhena has a sick husband, Carlie has six children and no husband, and Lil has sewed at her machine for 48 years but is in danger of being “let go” because her mind wanders and she can no longer keep up the pace (though the boss at this factory is presented rather sympathetically, as yet another victim of a system that demands more for less at any cost). The lace makers at least have the satisfaction of seeing their handiwork progress from beginning to end (“You put your whole life and soul into a thing, you’ve got to take some pride in it!”, declares Mercy), but the piecework sewers never see the fruits of their monotonous tasks (“You took away my skill!” Lil accuses her supervisor. “There’s no pride in this!”). “If only we were in a union!” Carlie shouts, and yes, it is a call to action.

This production was cosponsored by the Chicago Commission on Women, created in 1984 under an executive order by the late mayor Harold Washington and made a permanent part of city government in 1987. Its fifth anniversary seems as good an occasion as any to remind us that we–not just working women, but all of us –still have a long way to go.

Gee’s play is, you might say, tailor-made to this purpose, with a point of view as single-minded and unsubtle as a WPA mural. For example, Mercy speaks of her “cottage,” where the lace makers work, but the room looks more like a dungeon, with its one tiny candle and its one tiny window. (My companion wondered why the women didn’t work near the door, where the light could get in; how many English houses had basements in 1840?) A long monologue in act two, when old Lil cracks up at the factory and proceeds to cut all the buttons off her own clothes, is overly long and melodramatc. There is also something about a lace hankie owned by Lil being a fragment of a tablecloth made by Fanny, with the implication that the former is a blood descendant of the latter, but the connection is never made clear. Most puzzling is the question of why the three seamstresses are not in a union shop. It might be sheer inertia on the part of Lil; the Polish Anwhela could be an illegal immigrant, and therefore have no work card; but Carlie is a West Indian (I think so, anyway; the program credits list a dialect coach, but you’d never guess to listen to these actors) and a citizen of the commonwealth. Either these things were thought by the playwright to be so obvious to British audiences as to need no explanation or to be irrelevant to the main mission of the play, which is political rather than literary; and maybe she’s right.

The production, though far from perfect, is considerably more polished than the play. Michele Adams, Karen Pratt, and Monica O’Meara deliver fine performances as the three lace makers, despite a strapping modern healthiness impossible to disguise in a theater no larger than your average living room, as do Wendy Lueker, Debra J. Stone, and Patti Hannon as the seamstresses. As the ineffectual but not inhuman factory boss, Thomas Carroll does what he can with what he has to work with, but he still comes off as too white-collar and civil servant to be believable as a blue-collar boss, even if he did inherit the business from his father. The actors’ accents ramble all over the northern hemisphere; they should pinpoint the characters’ origins but they don’t. The program credits also list a “lace consultant/teacher” who apparently forgot to tell the actresses playing the lace makers that, in addition to the meticulous stitching, they should tie a knot once in a while to keep it all from unraveling.

Ask for the Moon isn’t Death of a Salesman, nor is it a history lesson or a crafts class. It shows us the problem in the first act, talks about it in the second, and asks us what we intend to do about it right before curtain. How well does it do that? I don’t know enough about labor conditions under Margaret Thatcher to be able to attest to its value as propaganda, but I do know that I’ll never look for the union label again in quite the same way.