The sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912 was the 20th century’s most infamous maritime disaster.
Ironically, the death of the splendid liner insured its immortality. Dubbed “unsinkable” by the press, the state-of-the-art ocean liner, on its maiden voyage, was carrying the cream of the social elite from two continents and hundreds of hopeful immigrants on their way to start a new life in the New World. The tragedy has resonated across two centuries and has inspired hundreds of retellings and interpretations in every media from poetry to interactive video games.
The radio documentary “Titanic: Unsinkable Myth,” first broadcast in 1997 and slightly updated here, explores the artistic legacy of the ocean liner.
One reason for the enormous body of Titanic-derived works is that the story has so many facets.
The ship was a microcosm of the pre-World War I era, with its sharply divided social classes and the stark contrast between opulence and want. It was a technical marvel, a source of pride and hubris, a symbol of progress brought down by implacable nature in the form of an iceberg. It is a historical stage with a vivid cast of characters, and is, finally, a character itself, pulsing with glowing life before it is swallowed, over and over, by the sea.
“Unsinkable Myth” looks at Titanic films and theatrical works, such as the classic 1958 film “A Night to Remember,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Titanic” and James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, recently re-released in 3D.
The ship’s musical legacy runs the gamut from Lead Belly’s wry ballad to Gavin Bryars’ complex “The Sinking of the Titanic,” which intermingles the voices of survivors with an artfully deconstructed rendering of the Episcopal hymn “Autumn.” “Autumn” is one of the candidates for “last song” played aboard the doomed ship, and Bryars says, “In some strange way I thought the music was still going on down there, all those years later.”
Writers have been drawn to the Titanic as both a symbol and a setting, and the resulting works have varied from fantasies like Jack Finney’s “Time After Time” and Robert Olen Butler’s linked stories “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed” and “Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle,” to Clive Cussler’s pulp-y Dirk Pitt adventure “Raise the Titanic.”
Cussler’s book anticipated the discovery of the wreck by almost a decade. Dr. Robert Ballard led a joint French/American team to the location in 1985, and has felt himself to be a trustee of the ship’s legacy ever since. In the documentary, he speaks of receiving “tens of thousands of letters,” from survivors, the descendants of survivors, and anyone who felt his life impacted by the disaster: “I think I’ve had everyone on this planet, who had anything to do with the Titanic, contact me.”
Some of those same voices are found floating in Bryars’ ocean of sound, drawing on memories and a collective consciousness, “in order to come to some sort of truth.”
There was only one Titanic, but there will never be just one truth. In that sense, while she set sail 100 years ago, she is sailing still.
Click on the link above to hear "Titanic: Unsinkable Myth."