April 14, 1912 - a waif of a titanic

titanic, would you board her? Photo Credit: Lindsay Anne Black

In April 14, 1912 two actor/dancers (Patrick Conner and Matthew Romantini) play the Marconi officers on board the Titanic– it is a time before cell phones, before even ship-to-shore telephones – anything that needs to be said to someone not on board the ship must flow through these two conduits of communication, as a result they become custodians of the most intimate and prosaic messages: “I love you”, or “I forgot to water the geraniums”.

The third actor/dancer, Lucy Rupert, plays the doomed ship herself and therein (perhaps) lays a flaw in conception. The story of the Titanic – as we all know it – is the juxtaposition of the giddy hubris of the “unsinkable ship” and the nobility of the human spirit exemplified by the band continuing to play as the ship goes down. With their take, Theare Rusticle was hard pressed to deliver on this juxtaposition and considering it's so embedded in the story... well that’s something that’s hard to blow. Tragedy and nobility are human events; what we feel, we feel for the people involved. We marvel at the capacities of the human spirit for compassion, courage, and joy; we feel pity or fear based on our recognition of the human in the story. In April 14,1912, Theatre Rusticle anthropomorphizes the Titanic, and asks us to invest in the ship through the woman who portrays it. I for one found it hard to make that investment. I see no inherent greatness in the ship – a monument to engineering and capitalist greed (the tower of Babel comes to mind), and without the common perception of greatness, the catharsis of pity will not be achieved.

A couple of quibbles: if I were to try to portray the Titanic as a person (look at the name – ‘Titan?’), I think someone physically large and stolid might be more appropriate than the lithe and sprightly nymph that we see – after all, in theory, the ship was not nimble enough to steer around icebergs but was strong enough to withstand collisions with them. Which leads to the plastic lump upstage centre (iceberg, I presume). It is not beautiful, it is not artistic (yes, it evokes “iceberg, but it is a wincing recognition on our part) and it is not functional (the ship never runs into it) – so why is it there?

I imagine that the combination of dance/movement theatre/text is designed to open up poetic possibilities and, as with all poetry, economy and juxtaposition are the tools of the form. The question remains: are we more moved by the inclusion of the dance than we would be by words alone? Here’s the way I see it: if you removed the words – mostly transcripts from 2nd Officer Harold Bride’s testimony at the enquiry – the remaining movement would be hollow and inscrutable; remove the dance and we would still get most of the impact of the piece (it should be added that the selection of music also carries a lot of emotional power).

All that said there is still great potential in the story of the Titanic. There is also poetic potential in the enforced terseness of the telegram as a method of communication and the discretion required of those charged to transmit them. Ultimately, one can’t help but be nostalgic for that time when people helped each into lifeboats and the band played on to keep up the spirits of those poor, doomed souls – acts of courageous selflessness. 2nd Marconi Officer Bride does remark on the nobility of the actions of the band and his fellow Marconi Officer, who continued to send the SOS and map coordinates long after the ship’s Captain had ordered “every man for himself”. We are finally drawn in to a time steeped in tradition, when faith ruled, and decorum and chivalry were valuable attributes – and, perhaps fittingly, it is the more traditional theatrical attributes of text, voice and actor that bring us there.

By Wm B Dow