By Portillo, Michael
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 134, No. 4758
Soho Theatre, London W1
"He died with the hammer in his hand." The words of "The Ballad of John Henry", which I haven't heard since childhood, have just come back to me. The legendary 19th-century railroad builder raced against the newfangled steam hammer that threatened to supplant his labour. He won, but it cost him his life. In Switch Triptych, Adriano Shaplin's anti-heroine Lucille is a switchboard operator who tries desperately to handle more calls than the automatic switching machine that Bell Atlantic management has introduced.
Set in New York in 1919, the play follows three female operators and their two male managers in the hours before automation renders the women redundant. June, the union representative, arrives to urge solidarity and to organise a walkout, but to no avail.
Shaplin's message is not as sentimental as it first appears. The women he creates are hardly symbols of working-class nobility. Lucille drinks champagne and every other concoction known to womankind and descends into alcoholism. Her rule is no drinks before 6pm, so 7.40am is fine. She has reduced her fellow operators to servitude, and under her tutelage a younger operator, Philippa (played by Sarah Sanford), sprawls inebriated on the floor of the exchange.
Lucille is a New York celebrity by virtue of the influence she wields. She runs a racket which is a kind of variant on the Yellow Pages. Callers looking for a plumber or undertaker are connected with businesses that pay Lucille bribes. Until she starts frenetically tugging at the wires in the showdown with the new machine, the only call she has condescended to handle was a corrupt client haggling over her rates.
Even if Lucille and her platoon were less selfish, June's speeches would ring hollow. The union has nothing to offer but resistance to technological advance. The tide of progress is unstoppable (a point that Peter Mandelson, with his import quotas, should note).
June's speeches are based on a text by Norman Mailer, who wrote in The Armies of the Night: "Nothing is more intrinsically opposed to technology than the bleeding heart of Christ." June asks: "What kind of Christian worships at the feet of a corporation?" But Shaplin complicates the message because he shows us the greed only of the workers, not the company. Lucille is not worried about losing her job. …