Owen McCafferty’s play was first performed 100 years after the sinking of RMS Titanic and 15 years after the release of James Cameron’s blockbuster. Though the film has contributed to the persistent fascination and mythos surrounding the ship, McCafferty’s play arguably remains the more important cultural product out of the two for its address of aspects about the tragedy that the movie did not do justice. Here are our reasons why McCafferty’s play is better:
- It’s historically accurate.
The play depicts real people and their real words, extracted from testimonies spoken at the actual commission. McCafferty and Cameron acknowledge their works are not historical documents, but their areas of creative license differ in their magnitude and effect on understanding Titanic’s legacy. McCafferty gives the voices of real people more reign.
2. It portrays an event many don’t know about.
Several people know about the crash and rescue, but what about the aftermath? With McCafferty’s play, the audience recognizes that the story did not end when the survivors were picked up. It continued for far longer with two inquiries: the British inquiry, which is the subject of McCafferty’s work, and the US inquiry. Details of history are brought to light in an engaging theatrical encounter.
3. It scrutinizes class inequality.
The play inventories all the luxury items onboard and surveys the consequences of placing material wealth before life. It challenges the audience to think deeper about why things onboard were the way they were and the consequences of such divides.
4. It interrogates repressed guilt as a human response to a fatal mistake.
The human reactions feel more authentic in McCafferty’s play. The survivors went through significant trauma, with many of them playing an active role in events leading up to and during the tragedy. Many of them are defensive and quick to anger as their testimonies are questioned. The play gives a glimpse into the more complex human response to tragedy as those involved grapple with the role they played and their persistent denial of their survivor’s guilt.
5. It shows the humans and series of commands behind the tragedy.
McCafferty’s play portrays everything involved in the ship’s sinking. It shows the chain of command and how orders were issued and followed. The tragedy wasn’t wholly a surprise; there was a chain of propelling decisions that contributed to the crash, such as forcing the ship to travel faster even when doing so meant endangering those aboard. Grappling with such decisions to follow orders contributes to portraying the crew involved as part of a human system that is responsive to the whims of those in power and structured to punish individual thought.
6. It explores the significance of the ship as a symbol for fatal hubris.
The actions upon the ship and the interviewers’ incredulous responses demonstrate how those close to the ship were so caught up with trying to be unrivalled that they refused to recognize fatal faults. RMS Titanic lingers in historical memory as a symbol of the price of hubris.
7. It portrays real life consequences.
The story of this ship has never really concluded. It persists in popular culture as an oddly romanticized story due to Cameron’s film. However, this tragedy was real and had major personal, financial, and marine travel-related repercussions. With all the money and publicity poured into the ship, there needed to be formal answers for why it sank. As a result of its sinking, maritime travel laws were updated to address factors, such as the number of lifeboats, that affected the death toll.
8. It explores the fallibility of memory.
Titanic the film approaches the tragedy as if memory remains stable throughout the years and is a perfect document of what exactly happened. McCafferty’s play interrogates the more realistic fluidity of memory, particularly around a traumatic event, as the witnesses are questioned repeatedly but are not always steadfast in their recount of all the various details. This changing of details reflects the shifting, unreliable nature of memory more truthfully.
9. It doesn’t romanticize tragedy.
The play examines the deeper societal divides that the tragedy represents in its numbers. It examines the course of action as it was taken and how it reflects more serious problems of class difference and social-and-work hierarchies, as well as how people are affected by trauma when they refuse to recognize their role in it. The play doesn’t portray the Titanic as a glamorous ship that is a symbol of desire to be someone else. Instead, it focuses on the excessive, unnecessary show of wealth that the ship prioritized over safety and humanity. It deconstructs the inflated symbolism of the ship by challenging why people think of it as glamorous when it really encapsulates major socio economic ills that persist today.
10. It shows the moral ambiguity beyond a door.
“There was most certainly room on the door. Rose is a murderer!” While true there was room, McCafferty puts a halt to that famous conversation by appraising the deeper questions of culpability and accountability surrounding the incident. Are the shipmates who followed orders and actively propelled the ship toward danger responsible for the deaths? What about Cosmo Duff-Gordon and Joseph Ismay? The White Star line? The existing social systems in place that made the class disparity in the death toll even worse? All of them? Is it fair to place judgment on these historical figures if we ourselves don’t really know how we would behave in the same situation? McCafferty dares you to think deeper and more critically.
Want to judge for yourself just how much better Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912) is? Find more information on how to stream our production here.