The Factory Girls
The Factory Girls is a play by Frank McGuinness.
The play is about five women whose jobs at a County Donegal, Ireland, shirt factory are under threat. It features only two male characters, and these only appear in two scenes.
The Factory Girls was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1982 and was the play that brought McGuinness to prominence.
Ellen, in her fifties
Rebecca, in her late twenties
Una, in her sixties
Vera, in her early thirties
Bonner, in his forties
Rohan, in his late twenties
Frank McGuinness’s The Factory Girls serves as a bold statement of the harsh reality that prejudice and injustice actions take place in work forces where women and men are exhausting themselves in service to businesses in order to survive. The characters guide the audience through a heart-wrenching story of uniting as a group for the benefit of all and standing as individuals to contribute for the larger group. Each of the women go through moments of self-discovery and exercise defiance against a larger oppressive power.
The show starts on a Wednesday morning with “Ellen, Vera, Rebecca and Una seated on their benches working” (McGuinness 7). They are set in the inspection room of the factory with at least enough desks, chairs, and lamps for the five women. As for the geography of the factory, the inspection room is below Rohan’s office and little else is known as to the layout. The women begin the show complaining about Rosemary’s consistent tardiness. Among the complaints we see a transition of focus from Rosemary to the factory’s many labor injustices. The dialogue among the women teaches us of the poor lighting, the cheap material and the unachievable work rate imposed by the factory’s manager, Rohan, under which the factory employees are forced to work.
Rosemary finally arrives and is greeted by sharp words of correction. Despite the effort to reprimand Rosemary the women fall quickly back into a lighter air with one another. Throughout scene one we see a consistency of playful jests among the women. The teasing and prodding brings a familial nature among the group. We learn about each woman’s current or past love lives, with particular mention on Vera’s current abusive relationship with her husband. The scene closes with Ellen and Una jabbing at one another and discussing the lengths the women go to guide Rosemary.
Scene two opens at lunchtime later that day. Rosemary is alone combing her hair while sitting on Ellen’s stool (McGuinness 21). Ellen enters with prompt instruction for Rosemary to remove herself from Ellen’s workspace. Rosemary and Ellen engage in dialogue as Ellen teases Rosemary about losing her hair. Ellen offers the only possible solution to prevent hair loss is to wash her hair in “Old maid’s piss” (McGuinness 22).
After a few joking lines between the two, Rosemary takes the initiative to ask Ellen about redundancies and pay-offs. The audience learns that the labor union isn’t supporting the factory workers and will turn a blind eye toward the unrealistic work rate put upon the women. Despite the expansive potential for redundancies, Ellen falsely comforts Rosemary and uses Rosemary’s concern to threaten her to arrive on time to work. She also counsels to say her prayers for necessary strength.
The other women enter the stage and begin working. Upon Vera’s entrance she informs Ellen that Rohan has requested Ellen in his office and that she “better go up. It was urgent.” The audience is told that when Rohan wants to see Ellen “something’s on the cards” (McGuinness 26).
While Ellen is in with Rohan the other women fret and hypothesize the implications of Ellen’s visit. The women work themselves up to receive the worst news. Ellen returns from visiting with Rohan and informs the room, “We’re having a meeting with him and Bonner from the union tomorrow at eleven. I know no more, so ask no more” (McGuinness 29). Ellen closes the scene by having a private conversation to warn her of what will soon take place. She tells her, “You better start saying your prayers” (McGuinness 29).
The scene begins just a few minutes prior to 11 AM on Thursday. The women are anxious about the upcoming meeting. They make a brief plan of attack with Vera starting off and Ellen guiding the conversation among the group (McGuinness 31). Andy Bonner and Rohan enter with brief pleasantries. Rohan addresses Ellen by confronting her about not meeting in the office. Ellen explains that she will have any necessary conversation among all of the inspection women so that they can “speak to all of [them] or none of [them]” (McGuinness 32).
Rohan dives into declaring the factory’s problems: Needing to get twice the work in half the time, losing client contracts, having a flooded market, and dealing with the recession (McGuinness 33). The interaction escalates as Rohan declares he needs a dozen shirt in thirteen minutes. The women explode in disgust and outrage. They boldly protest the unrealistic expectation and reject the responsibility to fulfill such a standard. Through all of the tension Ellen offers escape by demanding the women receive the work break that is being withheld due to this disastrous meeting.
Bonner and Rohan allow the women to leave. The audience will see a brief interaction between Bonner and Rohan in that Bonner makes certain that Rohan will not attack his authority and helps Rohan understand that Bonner’s position is guaranteed, whereas Rohan’s position can change quite easily. Bonner offers a bit of advice on how to deal with the women and leaves Rohan to his factory. The scene closes with Rohan floundering while considering his options.
Scene four begins with a change of pace from the previous ending by having Rosemary once again alone on stage; this time reading Bunty. Rebecca enters, acknowledges Rosemary’s lack of attention, and sneaks up behind her to scare her. Among teasing and joking Rebecca learns of Rosemary’s love of horse stories (McGuinness 43). Rebecca counsels Rosemary to mind her own business, take the money the company will offer and “steal a horse [to] release the gypsy in [her] soul” (McGuinness 45).
Una enters and shifts the dialogue towards Ellen’s and Vera’s absence. Rebecca, Rosemary, and Una determine they are going to go to Una’s for some tea. They are not up to working amidst the morning’s events. Just before they are able to leave Vera enters, quite apparently, under the influence of some alcohol.
Vera tells the group that she and Ellen were at a pub in-the-which secrets were established that would eventually be shared with the group by Ellen. Upon Ellen’s entrance we see her in an unnatural frivolity despite the morning’s events. Ellen clearly has a plan in the works. She invites the girls to leave with her where they’ll “all be moving up in the world.” They all exit singing “We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz” (McGuinness 49).
Frank McGuinness in his instruction has the set changed to feature:
The office. Two doors. One leads to a toilet. Another leads to the factory floor. Two desks. On each a telephone. Behind each a swivel chair. Near to the door leading to the factory floor a large filing cabinet. On the smaller desk a call system apparatus. On the wall, framed, Mr. Rohan’s B. Comm. (49)
Ellen is first to enter the room on this Friday afternoon. She surveys the office, exits to prompt the other women to follow, and reenters with suitcases and other items to sustain several nights’ stay. Una is the excessively prepared as she’s brought a steamer trunk full of all assortments of supplies. With all of the women and supplies in the room they move the filing cabinet in front of the factory entrance door and blockade it from exit or entrance capacity. Ellen takes a prepared statement and announces over the intercom system:
Good afternoon, ladies. This is the representative of the action committee, consisting of the examiners and their message girl. We have decided to take action over proposed unfair working conditions. Our first step is the takeover of the office until such times as better conditions are offered. This is our last communication with the outside world until then. Good afternoon and good luck. (51)
The women then continue unpacking “food, clothes, cigarettes, crockery, cutlery, pots, a kettle, two small gas canisters and a stove” (52). They don’t get far before Rohan interrupts them with banging on the door. Despite his best efforts to negotiate with them, the women refuse to open the door or continue discussion. The women end scene five with slight bickering towards one another.
Saturday morning is filled with phone calls establishing relationships between Vera and her husband, Una and her sister Susan, and Ellen and Father Mitchell. Vera’s husband calls to reprimand her for being with the women, instead of at home. He expects Vera to tend to their children and clean his clothes. She defies his wishes and keeps her stance by staying with the factory women.
Una speaks with Susan and the audience learns that Susan in a pub with a priest home from the foreign missions (McGuinness 63). Una shows great stress that Susan is out and about drinking with a priest. It shows the difficulty the women will go through in separating themselves from the needs of the world to overcome the injustices of the company.
Ellen finishes the scene by calling Father Mitchell requesting for mass to be brought to the women. Father Mitchell rejects them by telling them they “should go home where [they] belong and be down on [their] knees thanking God [they] have a job, seeing the times [they’re] in” (McGuinness 66).
Tensions are high Saturday night as the women are preparing for bed. Vera expresses frustration at Ellen’s attempt to empathize because she references Ellen’s dead children. Vera takes that as a personal attack that her children might get what Ellen’s had (McGuinness 69).
Vera’s response to Ellen causes Ellen to discourse on giving up her connection to her weans. She offers validation to “why [they’re] locked in here. For once they can’t put [them] out. [They] put them out” (McGuinness 72).
The audience sees Vera and Rebecca sing about Nigel. They share an intimate moment teaching the audience about the former soldiers. They illustrate the struggle of dating and interacting with soldier.
The women participate in drinking and festivities. Rosemary is allowed to consume some of the alcohol. The alcohol doesn’t do her well and the scene ends with her in the bathroom. Ellen and Rebecca sit on stage as the Una and Vera tend to Rosemary. Rebecca calls out Ellen on trying to distract the group with song and a dance (McGuinness 78).
Ellen is found alone in the dawn light. Una, who wakens, looks to her and acknowledges she’s still awake. The women engage in a whispered conversation. The room is interrupted and awakened by a telephone call with no one on the other end.
This pattern of the phone ringing with no one answering is repeated. The women become frantic with possibilities of who could be on the other end. Rebecca takes the lead in these final moments by reprimanding Vera for wanting to return to her man and addressing Ellen’s control of the other women. She’s defies Ellen’s false claims to leave the room. Rebecca closes the
- Sheridan, Anne (3 May 2013). "The Factory Girls comes to Limerick stage". Limerick Leader. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
- Barr, Caoimhinn (14 February 2011). "Factory Girls return home to Buncrana". Inishowen Independent. Retrieved 14 February 2011.
- "Frank McGuinness's gritty play tells the tale of five factory workers who, under threat of redundancy, decide to stage a lock-in". The Daily Telegraph. 8 February 2013. Retrieved 8 February 2013.
- McGuinness, Frank (1996). Frank McGuinness: Plays 1. 3 Queen Square London: Faber and Faber Limited. pp. xv. ISBN 0-571-17740-9.