Oscar Winner Rylance Co-Writing Battle Of Homestead Play

Jul 5, 2017

As an Oscar- and Tony Award-winner and one of the leading Shakespearean actors of his day, Mark Rylance knows a great story when he hears one.

He's captivated these days by the story of the historic 1892 Homestead Strike, when thousands of steel workers and townspeople clashed with Pinkerton guards hired by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and industrialist Henry Clay Frick to end a labor dispute that turned deadly.

Lessons from that event resonate today, said Rylance, who on Thursday will lead a program at the Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall in Munhall, commemorating the 125th anniversary of a pivotal moment in American labor history that shook the world.

Steel workers storm the Carnegie Steel Company during the Homestead Strike of 1892 in Homestead, Pa.
Credit AP

Rylance, one of the stars of the upcoming World War II film "Dunkirk," will team with a few Pittsburgh actors to remember the Homestead lockout and strike through readings, character portrayals and song at the sold-out event, which benefits the Battle of Homestead Foundation.

At noon on Thursday, Rylance will read Shakespeare's "Sonnet 65" at a gravesite ceremony at the Homestead Cemetery for strikers killed in the battle. In all, nine strikers and seven Pinkertons were killed, according to History.com.

"It's a story worthy of Shakespeare," said Rylance, who is co-writing a play about the event.

Rylance made a promotional and fundraising appearance this past Friday in Homestead at the Bost Building, the 1892 workers' union headquarters, which has been turned into a museum for Western Pennsylvania's steel-making heritage.

"We should never forget the role of labor and industry and what it's done for a nation," Rylance said amid an eloquent and thought-stirring speech for 200 people gathered outdoors at the $150-a-ticket affair. "This story is very essential to your culture here."

Rylance, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a principled Soviet spy in the Steven Spielberg-directed "Bridge of Spies," said the Homestead strike led to improvements in working conditions, which has relevance for today.

"A thing I found interesting is at those times there was no income tax, no law against insider training, which is how Carnegie and (industrialist) Edgar Thomson made their money initially," Rylance said. "There was no law against child labor, and no laws for what was a safe time to work in the factory. There were no laws about compensation for injuries. All that was changed in that time."

The world adjusted as a result of the Homestead strike and public sympathy it accrued, with laws put into place to make things more fair, "and I think that's something we need to be looking at now," Rylance said. "If people are unwilling to change then we, as a Democratic society, need to be doing something to make sure things don't get to be unequal, because we know from other times in the past when things get very unequal, then you get a violent sort of change."

Rylance traces his fascination to the Homestead strike to 1991, when he was starring in Pittsburgh Public Theater's presentation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

While in town, someone suggested he visit Clayton, the 19th century mansion of Frick, the plant manager for the Carnegie Steel Co.'s Homestead Works, that's now home to the Frick Art & Historical Museum.

Rylance bought a Frick biography there, and while reading it on an airplane found himself crying at the part where Frick grew distraught over the failing health of his first-born daughter, Martha, who died at age 6 from long-lingering complications of swallowing a straight pin.

"One of the smallest things you can make out of metal," Rylance said.

That irony fascinated Rylance, who felt empathy for Frick.

"To my surprise, I couldn't find anyone in Pittsburgh who felt the same way about Mr. Frick," Rylance said. "And I thought, 'Ah ... there's a story here.'

"It has obsessed me ever since," said Rylance, former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe in London, who also starred in Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" in 2003, a role for which he would win a Tony in 2014.

Rylance's keen interest in the Homestead strike is helpful to the Battle of Homestead Foundation, which is embarked on a yearlong series of lectures, films, plays, education initiatives and musical offerings to honor the Homestead clash and related history, Steffi Domike, the group's vice president, said.

Momentum is growing for the foundation, which started with a half-dozen people meeting regularly in a local restaurant.

"Now they fill up a whole room at Eat 'n Park," board member Patty Demarco said.

Visitors can tour the steel-making exhibits and industrial artifacts at the Bost Building, located near The Waterfront at Homestead shopping and entertainment complex, four blocks from the Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall. The three-story building serves as the visitor center for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, and includes in its shop a history book about Ambridge.

In 1892, the Bost Building's third floor was used as a watchtower by officials from the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers monitoring activities in the Homestead mill site and along the Monongahela River where Pinkerton guards, armed with rifles, arrived by barge 125 years ago this Thursday.

"The Bost also served as the base for American and British newspaper correspondents who filed their stories daily for a world that was hungrily following the events of the labor strike that pitted the Carnegie Steel Company against the strongest labor union at the time," according to The Battle of Homestead Foundation, which recommends bundling a visit to the Bost with a trip down the street to the restored Pump House where thousands of workers, their families and supporters, armed with sticks, rocks, and guns, rushed to meet the two barges carrying the 300 Pinkerton guards.