Mining a Legacy

Melissa Beattie-Moss
December 03, 2007
old photo of three men outside mine entrance
Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection (Jack Delano)

William Giles and two helpers at the mine on his farm in Union Township, Pennsylvania, circa 1940

Northeastern Pennsylvania's anthracite region—a ten-county area only 35 miles wide—was once the world's largest producer of hard coal. At the height of its production early in the twentieth century, 180,000 miners toiled deep below the earth, hauling out a hundred million tons of coal a year.

The suffering and injustice of the bygone mining era is brought to life in Anthracite!, a new anthology of plays, edited by Philip Mosley, Penn State professor of English and Comparative Literature, and published by University of Scranton Press.

Mosley presents six undeservedly neglected plays that illuminate both the poverty and grace of the mining communities or "patch towns"—including Jason Miller's Nobody Hears a Broken Drum, a tribute to Pennsylvania's miners considered by some critics to be a stronger work than Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play That Championship Season.

The coal region drew immigrants from many lands—most notably "English, German, Welsh, Irish, Italian and those of the Slavic world," and the plays in this volume give voice to their "deep-rooted social, spiritual and cultural traditions", as well as the bitter "ethnic rivalries and hierarchies" of mining life.

The plays all deal with charged social justice themes, ranging from the overtly political—such as Jack McDonough's The Fire Down Below, about the Great Anthracite Strike of 1902—to the more personal, such as Playwright Deborah Lou Randall's one-woman play Molly Daughter, which explores her Irish-American roots as well the legacy of the Molly Maguires, a secret organization of Irish Catholic activists—some say vigilantes—who fought for workers' rights and the establishment of trade unions. (The 1877 execution in Girardsville, Pennsylvania of twenty Molly Maguires shows up in more than one play in this anthology.)

Explains Mosley, when the exploitive anthracite mining era in northeastern Pennsylvania collapsed, it was followed "understandably by a sense of collective amnesia." Yet the region's communities and history "have gradually become more fully remembered." The six compelling plays gathered by Mosley in this collection "pack a cumulative wallop" and serve both "as precious documents" and educational tools.

Philip Mosley, Ph.D., is professor of English, communications, and comparative literature at Penn State Worthington Scranton campus, Anthracite! An Anthology of Pennsylvania Coal Region Plays, was published in October 2006 by University of Scranton Press.

Last Updated December 03, 2007