Fireworks, New Year’s Tradition, and Artistic Decision

by Bianca Morrison Dillard, dramaturg

Fireworks have been a New Year’s tradition in this country since I’ve been alive; we see them particularly on New Year’s and the 4th of July. They connote celebration, excitement, awe, the new year, love of country, and that excited feeling you get during a really great kiss! As a visual symbol, they are pretty packed when it comes to meaning.

Holiday is a play that rings in the new year on stage. Our director, Barta Heiner, was toying with the idea of “fireworks” being seen through a window on stage as the play clocks in the new year, so she asked me if the characters would have been able to see fireworks through their window in 1928.

Here’s what I discovered.

The text suggests that the family lives on 5th avenue in New York City. A Google search tells me they would certainly have been able to see the Times Square fireworks from their house, had there been any that year.

So the question remained: Would there have been fireworks in Times Square or elsewhere in New York City in 1928?

Here’s a little about what I discovered about the history of New Year’s Eve in New York City.

Before the New Year’s celebration was held at Time Square, it was hosted in lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church. In 1903, as a marketing strategy, Time magazine decided to host the celebration in their new building on Times Square. (This came as a great relief to the church, as the parties could get quite raucous–there was not only drunken, disorderly conduct, but one account I found reported that people would throw bricks in the air as part of the celebration.)

A fireworks display rang in the new year until 1906, when it was outlawed, as it posed a hazard for the spectators below. (Funny, there was no mention of outlawing the throwing of bricks–but then who am I to question tradition?) In 1907 the fireworks were replaced by the famous “ball drop.” When did the fireworks become legal again for commercial displays, and when did they re-enter the New Year’s scene at Times Square?

I found a source that suggested there may have been fireworks over Yankee Stadium on the 4th of July in 1927 and again in 1928 when the Yankees won the the World Series, though both of the sources I found were never quite clear as to whether the “fireworks” were the symbolic kind, made when something really exciting and magical happens, or the literal sort, where an explosion is intentionally set off for visual effect.

As Barta and I discussed my findings it seemed to me that the decision (fireworks or no fireworks on stage) was ultimately up to her–she should feel free to make this decision based on her artistic sense of the moment. I asked, “Is it a symbol that effectively communicates to our audience today what you want to communicate?”

This experience left me wondering, what if a historical answer was definitive? Would that decision, or the decision-making process have looked different? Would Barta still have felt empowered to make the artistic decision she felt worked best for a modern audience, or should she have felt constrained by historical findings? Should historical research constrain us in this way? What should be the most important considerations as we work to communicate an older text to a contemporary audience? Who ultimately has the final say, historical research or artistic choice?

These questions don’t have to be rhetorical. What’s your take? For those of you who have actually seen the production, does the choice she made work for you? What experience have you had with contemporary anachronism effectively or ineffectively communicating to you as an audience member or as a member of a production team? Have you seen contemporary anachronisms effectively communicate historical situations in a way that was easier for you to understand as a contemporary audience member?

For more reading on the History of New Year’s at Time Square click here.

To watch a fun video overview of the History of New Years at Time Square
click here.

To discuss click below.