Ghosts and conspiracy theories of Titanic 110 years on
- Credit: Piers Foley
The sinking of RMS Titanic 110 years ago next month, has created an enduring fascination about what led to the tragedy.
In the immediate aftermath, a swirl of rumour, fake news, and conspiracy theories sprang up; was the ship's state of the art design riddled with mistakes, were engineers rushed to complete it by its wealthy owner, did the needs of insurers come before saving souls, and was it an iceberg that caused the disaster?
Northern Irish playwright Ron Hutchinson, whose grandfather helped build the doomed ship, spotlights these conspiracies in Ghosts of The Titanic, which blends fact with fiction as a bereaved woman tries to discover the truth about her fiancee's death.
"People have talked about how this technological miracle was dealt a death blow by nature, but I was more interested in the extraordinary number of conspiracies that barnacled themselves to the event," he says.
The 75-year-old lives in New York - the destination that Titanic never reached - but his family hails from East Belfast where she was made
"My grandfather Jack Lytle was a ship fitter who died at the age of 28, leaving his children behind - my mother and five siblings.
"He cut his arm on a piece of rusty metal in the shipyard. Being a tough Ulsterman, he didn't want to go to the doctor and got septic poisoning, but he was a looming ghost of my childhood, my grandfather who worked on the Titanic."
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Set in the days after the sinking, Hutchinson's play focuses on grief and memory, as Emma Hinton investigates the death of fiance Henry, who played in the ship's orchestra. As she tries to piece together what happened and who is to blame, she gets sucked into a maelstrom of questions that lead her to the edge of madness. The play asks: is it sometimes better not to know?
"Freud wrote about the distinction between grief and melancholia, what we now know as depression. It made me realise what I was writing about was pain, insupportable grief, that's what she represents and she's trying to make sense of it."
Hutchinson is also interested in false memories, how someone can be convinced of something that didn't happen.
"What we remember, what we think we remember; with Titanic no one seemed to agree. Some said it was a perfect moonless night, some saw the moon shining and the ship go down."
And he draws parallels with the fake news and conspiracies that are very much "in the air" in his adopted country. QAnon a pro-Trump conspiracy movement even champions a Titanic-related theory that banker JP Morgan sank the ship to rid himself of rival millionaires Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim.
"I'm interested in language, how you can invent your own conspiracy, or separate reality. The phenomenal power of words to create something out of nothing."
Hutchinson, whose plays include Moonlight and Magnolias and Rat in the Skull, and screenplays for Dreamworks and Universal, is no conspiracy theorist, but points out that after the sinking, the author and experienced mariner Joseph Conrad thought there was "something fishy about Titanic going down and suggested it shouldn't have gone to sea in the first place."
"Cock up versus conspiracy who knows which is the biggest driver of human history? Perhaps it's a quiet controlled madness of corporations all in the grip of a mania".
He adds: "I don't know where Titanic sits in our cultural imagination, we've built bigger things and there have been worse disasters. Perhaps it's the romantic idea of the age of innocence and a terrible thing that happened. But we shouldn't forget there were 1500 people standing on the deck who knew they were were going to die and watched it sink into the ocean."
He saw a Titanic ghost recently - the remains of Pier 54 on West 23rd Street - where Carpathia docked carrying Titanic survivors.
"You can see the rusted girders of the White Star Line terminal where the passengers would have arrived if they hadn't hit an iceberg. In a city where so much has been knocked down, on an ordinary stretch of road, it's odd that this memory survives."
Ghosts of Titanic runs at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park from March 9 to April 2.