Smith of the Titanic

By Philip Pearce

EDWARD JOHN SMITH, hapless captain of the Titanic, is the latest in Monterey Theater Alliance’s online portraits of famous people researched, written and acted by the wonderful Howard Burnham.

He sets the well known story, with all its clutter of half truths and outright lies, in the context of the growth of trans-Atlantic steam navigation in the late years of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries.

Early on, the British White Star Line beat out its rival Collins Line to dominate ocean travel by steam—a mode Americans first exploited with inland river paddle boats. Sailing by White Star was successful and exciting, but had ultimately to be taken over and delivered from bankruptcy by New York multi-millionaire JP Morgan.  

Howard catches the sad irony of EJ Smith’s eminence as the pioneer captain of a trio of White Star luxury liners, the first two so successful for their speed, comfort and safety that in a New York Times interview he spoke of an Atlantic crossing in RMS Adriatic as “uneventful,“ unmarred by “accidents or any sort of disaster.” He spoke with a characteristic calm assurance that only deepens the tragedy that lay ahead.

In a piece of history that has become as familiar for its false legends as its facts, Burnham reminds us that the ship’s orchestra kept passengers entertained with Ragtime tunes, shifting to “Nearer My God to Thee” only when that became the one suitable selection.  

He also skips most of the familiar parade of celebrity socialites on board, preferring to focus on Smith’s fellow officers and crew members like stewardess and nurse Violet Jessop, who survived the Titanic disaster and then survived the sinking of her sister ship HMSH Britannic four years later.

This first person presentation differs from earlier ones in being offered from beyond the grave.  EJ Smith stuck firmly to British stiff upper lip tradition and went down with the ship.  Exonerated by both English and American boards of enquiry, he was honored with posthumous statues and plaques. But he’s presented as someone who would have regarded as his best memorials new laws that required ships to provide lifeboat space for everyone on board and enhanced equipment and tighter training for steaming in icy waters.

Relevant research and visual showmanship continue to be hallmarks of these one-man history lessons. The images of ships and churning storm waters are beautiful and instructive.

The show closes with a brisk, somewhat ironic review of the succession of movies that have retold the story and stretched the truth of April 14th, 1912. An early production, from Nazi Germany of all places, creates the heroic crew of a nearby German vessel, who struggle vainly to keep a Titanic load of crazed British idiots from ramming an iceberg. Hollywood’s 1950s Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck version of the disaster was somewhat less fanciful. Howard rates the British made “A Night to Remember” the most accurate of the films—but also the most boring. He finds Debbie Reynolds pleasingly photogenic as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” He has praise for the lavish production values of James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning epic but rates DiCaprio and Winslet the “stupidest” romantic leads in any of the screen versions.

Next subject on a date to be announced is William Shakespeare.