TITANIC Talk on the Steps by Susanne Shawyer

TITANIC finale. Photo by Tony Spielberg.
TITANIC finale. Photo by Tony Spielberg.

Dr. Susanne Shawyer, theatre historian in Elon’s Department of Performing Arts, explores our culture’s fascination with the Titanic story in her Talk on the Steps for Titanic by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone, directed by Catherine McNeela (October 2014):

When I discussed tonight’s remarks with Titanic director Catherine McNeela, she playfully warned me that I shouldn’t give away the ending to the play! We laughed about it, but it made me think: Why do we watch performances of the Titanic story when we already know the ending? After all, it’s one of the most famous shipwrecks in modern history.

The tale of the “unsinkable” ocean liner and its fateful meeting with an iceberg is well known and widely represented in literature, film, and popular culture. In fact, the first Titanic film, starring survivor Dorothy Gibson, was released just one month after the tragedy. It was followed by 1958’s A Night to Remember, and of course, James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, which introduced us to the fictional characters of Jack and Rose. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disaster, 2012 saw two television miniseries including Titanic: Blood and Steel, which told the story from the point of view of the ship’s builders and engineers. The tale of the Titanic also appears as plot complications in best-selling novels like Clive Cussler’s Raise the Titanic (1976) or Danielle Steele’s No Greater Love (1991), in hit plays like Noel Coward’s Cavalcade (1931), and in popular television series like Downton Abbey or Supernatural, the latter of which featured an alternate-universe episode in which the ship does not sink. On stage, the musical Titanic, which you will see tonight, won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Musical (and, it should be noted, opened eight months before Cameron’s film). Famous poems like Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” use metaphor to contemplate the shipwreck, in stark contrast to the popular song I sang at summer camp. In the callousness of youth I relished the call-and-response chorus of “it was sad! So sad! It was sad! Too bad!” while giving no thought at all to the individual lives lost.

My point is that we know the story. It’s a familiar story. We know how it begins. We know how it ends. So why do we keep coming back to the Titanic?

First, I propose that the story of the Titanic feeds a fascination with how the other half lives. We live in a society divided by wealth and class. But we also live in a society enamored with The American Dream: the notion that through hard work, we can all better ourselves. The opulence born out of America’s Gilded Age, the wealth forged from oil and steel, tobacco and railroads, the fortunes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Duke, Vanderbilt, all these fascinate us: part aspiration, part envy. The Titanic exemplifies the lavish luxury enjoyed by these select few. It was the largest ship in the world, with spectacular First Class accommodations including a French restaurant, a Turkish bath, a gymnasium, and a swimming pool. The night the iceberg struck, the First Class passengers enjoyed a ten-course meal that started with oysters, included filet mingon, rack of lamb, roast duckling, foie gras, and finished with chocolate éclairs and ice cream. In First Class we find the scions of the Gilded Age: railroad barons like John B. Thayer, streetcar tycoon George Widener, mining magnate Benjamin Guggenheim, real estate mogul John Jacob Astor, Isidor Straus of Macy’s Department Store, their socialite wives and their elegant mistresses. You’ll meet them all tonight, as well as Second Class passenger Alice Beane, who spends much of the voyage peering in the portholes and ducking under barricades in an attempt to taste just a little bit of that luxury, a luxury built on the backs of stokers and waiters, cabin boys and cooks. If transplanted to today, Alice would probably read tabloid accounts of Kim Kardashian and the Duchess of Cambridge, and perhaps watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for a just a glimpse inside a Hollywood mansion. As you watch the performance tonight, will you find yourself like Alice, enamored of the opulence enjoyed by so few?

Also dreaming of better things to come is Third Class passenger Kate McGowan. Kate and her Steerage friends represent the unpretentious, but no less important, aspirations of ordinary people who long for independence, for recognition of their talents, for a comfortable life for themselves and their children. These dreams are familiar, recognizable. In Kate, I see my Great-Grandfather, who also emigrated across the sea in 1912. Blacklisted from his job as a dock worker because he’d joined a labor union and unable to find work, he gathered his wife and six children and headed across the Atlantic, just one month after the Titanic disaster. Family legend tells that as soon as my Great-Grandmother boarded their ship, she commandeered life vests for her entire family, and spent the voyage clutching hers, determined that she would not end up at the bottom of the ocean like so many of Titanic’s Third Class passengers. While 97% of First Class women survived, less than half of the female Steerage passengers aboard the Titanic lived; 32% of the First Class men survived, unlike only 16% of the male Steerage passengers. The First Class listed hometowns in the United States, Canada, England, and France, but the Third Class came from places as varied as Ireland, Sweden, Lebanon, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Syria. While the First Class dined on lavish ten-course dinners, the Third Class ate rabbit pie and potatoes, followed by bread and butter. As you watch the performance tonight, consider your own family history: how would your ancestors have spent the voyage? Would they have survived?

Finally, I ask: how do we know so much about the Titanic? The characters you’ll meet tonight are no fictions like Jack and Rose but instead real people, recorded by history. For this, we have Junior Wireless Officer Harold Bride and modern communications technology to thank. From the turn of the century, the Marconi Company broadcast wireless messages from ship to ship, and ship to shore. These messages brought the rescue ships. But this recent ability to send and receive news over vast distances, combined with the flourishing print newspaper business, helped to turn the loss of the Titanic into a major media event. For example, within twenty-four hours of the disaster, The New York Times published more than eight solid pages of coverage, including lists of First and Second Class passengers (but not Third Class), commentary from the White Star Line, eyewitness accounts of survivors, and moment-by-moment descriptions of how the ship sank. When we think of Titanic it is easy to think of the failure of technology, rather than the success. So as you watch the performance tonight, I challenge you to think about the multiple ways that successful technology helps us tell, and re-tell, the story of the Titanic.

We know how it begins. We know how it ends. So why do we keep coming back to the Titanic? On the one hand, it’s the recognizable characters and their familiar aspirations—individuals like you or I, struggling to survive in the world, determined to do the right thing, whether a millionaire like Isidor Straus, a worker like Harold Bride, or a dreamer like Kate McGowan. On the other hand, it’s not the characters but the story—like the ancient Athenian audiences of Greek tragedy we know the ending, but are compelled to keep watching, because it reminds us of the very best and the very worst of human nature. As director Catherine McNeela writes, “through tragedy, we learn about ourselves.” What will we learn about ourselves as we watch this performance tonight? And more importantly, what will we do with that knowledge tomorrow?

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