Ancient Greek Tragedies, The RMS Titanic and Cultural Immortality

Nearly two and a half thousand years ago, c. 429BC, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King was first performed at the Athenian Dionysia. Audiences listened with morbid fascination as a messenger revealed the awful suicide of Oedipus’ wife and mother, Jocasta, and his subsequent self-mutilation. On 15th April 1912, the western world also listened in horrified disbelief as Marconi wireless reports and daily newspapers slowly unravelled the terrible truth that the RMS Titanic had sunk on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Oedipus and the Titanic need little introduction; most of us are aware of the man who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother and the terrible irony of the ‘unsinkable’ ship. While Sigmund Freud’s ‘Oedipal Complex’ certainly helped to ensure that Oedipus remained entrenched in the cultural consciousness of the modern western world, there are many other tropes from Greek tragedy that survive to this day. The fall of Troy, the labours of Heracles and the idea of the ‘Tragic Hero’ are all understood at a basic level in western societies.

But what about the Titanic? Of course, James Cameron’s film in 1997 revitalised interest in the disaster, but throughout the twentieth century the fate of the RMS Titanic has amazed and mystified the western world, prompting no end of conspiracy theories, myths and legends. The sinking of the Titanic in the icy waters of the Atlantic was neither the most deadly maritime disaster to date, nor the greatest catastrophe to befall the western world in the twentieth century, and yet the ghost of the Titanic truly is unsinkable. The question is, why?

RMS_Titanic_3 (1)

Aristotle stated in his Poetics that plot is “the soul of tragedy” as it is the most important factor in evoking a cathartic emotional response in the audience [1]. Greek Tragedies and, in particular, the sinking of the Titanic invite people to explore acts of courage and cowardice in the face of catastrophe. In the case of the latter, the disaster “happened slowly, unlike a jet airliner crash” [2], allowing the estimated 2,201 souls on board to meet their fates with bravery, timidity and everything in between. These Edwardian passengers may seem far removed from those of us living a century later, just as the mythical characters of the Greek Tragedies seem a world away, but at their core they are all ‘normal’ humans faced with ‘abnormal’, but not inconceivable, crises and their actions in the face of such horrors prompt us almost involuntarily to think about how we would respond ourselves.

Would we have done as Ida Straus did; turning to her husband, Isidor, insisting that ‘we have been living together for many years. Where you go, I go’ [3], or would we have followed in the footsteps of the White Star Line’s Managing Director, Bruce Ismay, taking an empty space in Boat C at the last minute? Perhaps we would have accepted the unfolding tragedy with courage and grace, like the unknown steward who had fallen in love with the Countess of Rothes’ maid, Roberta Maioni. He placed his White Star Line pin in her hand as she boarded Boat 8, a token of his love and a reminder of his life, before he was lost to the crowd and to the night. For each class, generation and gender there are examples of how people react when confronted with a life or death situation, as well as near-endless scope for interpretation and fabrication. Rumours abound of First Officer Murdoch committing suicide, a man escaping the ship by dressing as a woman and Captain Smith rescuing a baby from the freezing water before he died.

Thus the Titanic “lives on in the imagination, captured by the elusive blend of romance and realism” [4] and this makes the ship the perfect setting for works of historical romance. James Cameron’s Titanic has already been mentioned; the film is an amalgamation of fact and fiction, and the real-life passengers featured are, for the most part, accurately portrayed. Slight inaccuracies can be forgiven – Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown, for example, was not known by this nickname during her lifetime – because Cameron’s movie still manages to capture the heart of the event: the love story is poignant because the lovers’ fate is entwined with that of the ship. So, in reality, it is the tragic event that an audience remembers, rather than the characters themselves: Oedipus is remembered because he unknowingly committed incest, not because he was the intelligent but rash King of Thebes. The same can be said for those onboard the Titanic; they are characterised by the events of 14th-15th April 1912. Milvena Dean, the Titanic’s last survivor, described how, despite being just nine months old at the time, she was asked to recount the disaster again and again – “for many people I somehow represent the Titanic” [5]. The tragic plot, therefore, is the most influential and enveloping aspect of the story and Aristotle’s explanation for this draws on the merits of a painting: “if someone were to apply exquisitely beautiful colours at random he would give less pleasure than if he had outlined an image in black and white” [6]. The plot defines a group of otherwise random people – men and women who are both relatable yet removed from us – and so it is the plot that helps the Titanic to resist her cultural death.

Der Untergang der Titanic

In Greek Tragedies, the central character is called a Tragic Hero. There is typically one Tragic Hero in each play, usually of a higher status – Oedipus is a king, Heracles is a demigod – and a mixture of fate and human weakness brings about their tragedy. Aristotle maintains that these characters are neither wholly good nor wholly wicked; morally they occupy a fairly ambiguous middle ground [7]. The eponymous Agamemnon, for example, is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra in the first of Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy because he made the decision to sacrifice their daughter, Iphigenia, so that the Greek ships could sail to Troy. While this is undeniably a deplorable act of infanticide, Agamemnon was following what he believed were the orders of the goddess Artemis. Consider, too, that in the Christian faith Abraham is praised because he is willing to sacrifice his son to prove his loyalty to God. Agamemnon is also trying to help his brother, Menelaus, whose wife has run away to Troy with Paris. Essentially, there are arguments for and against the morality of Agamemnon’s actions, much as with Oedipus – does his ignorance counteract his incest? Because these complex characters are relatable yet removed from us (the majority of us being neither rulers nor deities), we can explore their decisions and imagine our own, then step back and feel reasonably secure that such a disaster will not befall us.

Edward_J._Smith

This applies to any one of the passengers and crew aboard the Titanic, although arguably it is Captain Smith who best fits the criteria of a Tragic Hero, with his fatal flaw being his overconfidence in both modern technology and his own competence. He had gained a reputation as a safe and experienced sea captain and his forty years at sea made him a popular and consistent choice to captain the newest and most luxurious ocean liners. However, Smith was used to captaining liners less than half the tonnage of the Titanic and around half the length: the Titanic was over 900ft long, while Smith’s previous vessels had been around 500ft. Moreover, trialling the Titanic only took around seven hours – an inadequate amount of time for Smith to familiarise himself with the gigantic ship, especially when six weeks’ worth of trials were carried out for the Scandinavian-American Line’s 10,095 ton liner, the SS United States [8]. This overestimation of Smith’s ability, both by the Captain himself and the White Star Line resulted in a rushed trialling and, ultimately, a captain and crew unprepared for the disaster that lay in store. Second Officer Charles Lightoller, for example, made some fatal miscalculations when loading the lifeboats, partly because the Captain had cancelled the lifeboat drill scheduled for 14th April so that people could attend the church service. If Smith, the White Star Line and perhaps maritime architects as a whole had been less self-assured and more cautious, then the disaster may have been minimised, if not avoided altogether. As the American Inquiry into the disaster states:

“Captain Smith knew the sea, and his clear eye and steady hand had often guided his ship through dangerous paths… His indifference to danger was one of the direct and contributing causes to this unnecessary tragedy… Overconfidence seems to have dulled the faculties usually so alert [9].”

Essentially, the people whose lives were inevitably characterised by the Titanic’s fate are figures through whom we can access the disaster and yet also shield ourselves from it – their humanity and their actions prompt us to consider how we would react, yet their historical distance from us allows us to feel safely removed from the actual tragedy. We can make the same choices without having to see them through and this is what makes the story so compelling over a century later.

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However, emotional allure on its own does not provide a sufficient explanation for the survival of Ancient Greek Tragedies and the Titanic disaster in modern western culture; primarily because far more emotionally-enveloping catastrophes, both literary and historical, have failed to survive the test of time. Arguably, this is because they lack the cathartic resolution necessary for a posthumous existence. Consciously or not, most people need to explain away tragic events – we all want the reassurance that we will not suffer a similar fate. But what lessons are there to be learnt from random, fatal disasters? What sense of hope can possibly be gleaned from a tragedy in which people are deliberately made to suffer at the hands of others? Therefore, while there have been disasters with far higher death tolls and far more influential consequences than the Titanic, the fate of the ‘unsinkable’ ship, largely caused by human arrogance, allows the story to be looted for a variety of symbolic meanings and life lessons, in a way that these other tragedies cannot.

jack-and-rose-titanic

Ultimately, the sinking of the Titanic represents so much to so many. For some, it is a warning against underestimating nature, for others a manifestation of the saying ‘pride comes before a fall’. The majority of the British public chose to celebrate the countless examples of dutiful and heroic British men found within the tragedy, while a few controversially argued the disaster was being unnecessarily romanticised. A more extreme interpretation of the sinking emerged in 1943, when the Nazis released a propaganda film in Germany using the story of the Titanic to discredit the capitalism of Britain and America [12]. Around ten years later, the Titanic became a part of Cold War propaganda, as finding the wreckage became linked to defeating the Soviet Union [13]. Then, of course, there are the countless novels, films, historical accounts – and even a musical – written about the disaster. However contrived some of these interpretations may seem, the Titanic remains embedded in western culture because she is able to provide a variety of meanings for all who turn to her.

The same can be said of Ancient Greek Tragedies; I won’t go in to detail here but suffice to say Euripides’ Medea could pass for a modern day divorce drama – a woman pushed to the extreme when her husband deserts her for a younger lover. Likewise, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear are all Tragic Heroes. While there is no evidence that Shakespeare could read Greek, he could read Latin and would have had access to Latin translations and commentaries [14]. Even if Shakespeare did not consciously, actively draw from the tragic formula of the Ancient Greeks, the point still stands that this tragic formula of a normal man experiencing an abnormal disaster, exacerbated by his own weakness, continues to inspire and influence western writers.

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In short, the Titanic disaster continues to resonate in modern western culture because of its emotional allure and its ability to provide contextual lessons and symbolic meaning for those who need them. The same applies for Greek Tragedies – they ask the questions we still ask today, and confront abnormal situations that easily translate to the present day. Arguably the ability to find relevant lessons and symbolism in these tragedies is more important to their cultural immortality than their emotional allure, as this is the main reason why they are remembered over other tragedies, born from fear and hatred. Perhaps the key is hubris? The Tragic Heroes of these stories do not deserve their terrible fates, yet we can understand why they suffer them – we can put ourselves in their shoes and test our inherent values and beliefs, but we can also step away; humbled, enlightened and confident that we can protect ourselves from a similar disaster providing we don’t make the same mistake. As long as Ancient Greek Tragedies and the RMS Titanic continue to be both emotionally alluring and rich sources of contextualised lessons, they will maintain their cultural immortality.

Footnotes:

[1] Aristotle. 4.3-4.4

[2] Davie, M. ‘Titanic: The Full Story of a Tragedy’. (London, 1986).

[3] Lord, W. ‘A Night to Remember’. (New York, 1983).

[4] Eaton, J. P and Haas, C. A. ‘Titanic: Destination Disaster. The Legends and the Reality’.  (Somerset, 1996).

[5] As quoted in: Wilson, A. ‘Why the Titanic Still Fascinates Us’. Smithsonian magazine. [http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Why-the-Titanic-Still-Fascinates-Us.html?c=y&page=7] (Accessed: 24 March 2012)

[6] Aristotle. 4.3-4.4

[7] Aristotle. 7.2

[8] Lord, W. ‘The Night Lives On’.

[9] Smith, W. A. ‘Speech of Senator William Alden Smith’. Titanic Inquiry Project. [http://www.titanicinquiry.org/USInq/USReport/AmInqRepSmith01.php] (Accessed: 26 March 2012).

[10] Butler, D. A. ‘Unsinkable: The Full Story of RMS Titanic’. (Pennsylvania, 1998).

[11] Thayer, J. Jnr. Taken from: Davie, M. ‘Titanic: The Full Story of a Tragedy’. (London, 1986).

[12] As recorded on the Internet Movie Database. [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036443/quotes] (Accessed 30 Aprl 2012.

[13] Biel, S. ‘Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster’. (New York, 1996).

[14] Schleiner, L. ‘Latinized Greek Drama in Shakespeare’s Writing of “Hamlet”’. Shakespeare Quarterly. 41. (1990)

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