Titanic: A Metaphor for Life

Theatregoers in Melbourne will, this November, have the rare opportunity to witness the award-winning stage version of Titanic – the tragic story of the sinking of a seemingly invincible feat of engineering and 1500 of her passengers in April, 1912. But Titanic is more than a slice of history. In fact, it has striking modern parallels and has a valid lesson to teach, for those who care to heed its warning…

But its relevance requires context. In 1945, JB Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls premiered in Moscow, Russia (then Soviet Union). The choice of a location where Communism had taken root was no accident: the play was a less than subtle attack on the ruling elite – in this case Capitalists – and advocated socialism as an antidote. Although written and performed as World War II ended, the drama is set decades earlier: April, 1912 to be exact – only weeks before the Titanic set sail. And when one of the play’s characters – dyed-in-the-wool capitalist Arthur Birling – alludes to the luxury steamship as being ‘unsinkable – absolutely unsinkable’ the 1945 audience is all too aware of the folly of this arrogant conviction. In other words, the play encouraged audiences to call into question the political party that governed them. This is dramatic irony at its most pointed.  For many, RMS Titanic was emblematic of wealth and privilege, hence its sinking a metaphor for the crumbling of complacent power structures. In An Inspector Calls, it stands as a message that those in power are not invincible, and that elitism can be challenged.

It could be argued that the ill-fated ship was a microcosm of society at large. On board was the same hierarchy that existed on land: first, second and third-class passengers. All had their own motivation for traveling on the Titanic, from the very poorest, seeking a better life in America, to the richest, indulging their desire for legacy. Social inequalities were rife: the liner carried only enough lifeboats for 52% of its passengers, yet 62 % of first-class passengers secured places on the boats – while only 25% of third-class travelers did so. Records show, as an example, that a Scottish aristocrat and his wife left the sinking ship on a lifeboat that contained only 12 people, despite the fact that it had a capacity for 140. This, then, was the kind of social injustice that Priestley was railing against. And it isn’t too much of a stretch to perceive the playwright as the Inspector of his drama’s title, calling the rich and powerful to account.

Yet, as mentioned earlier, the Titanic’s downfall is not simply an anecdote relegated to the annals of times gone by. It has become a metaphor for the powerless rising against those who govern them, and ‘sinking’ them. And the need to rebel is usually strongest when the status quo is unacceptable – as it is becoming (or has become) in so many parts of the world today. Sweden, that most moderate of nations, has recently become a country governed by right-wing elements. The story is similar in Italy. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was ousted earlier this year, only to be replaced by the equally unpopular Liz Truss, who spearheads a cabinet that is already making U-turns and is vilified for its protection of the well-off. Even Australian PM Anthony Albanese, who has so carefully stayed true to his campaign promises, looks set to break one of them by axing planned tax cuts.

People want change. People want political representatives who do exactly what they should: represent. People are tiring of hearing the pandemic cited as an excuse for every financial and societal ill. Tired of rising inflation, stagnant wages and plummeting opportunities.

And when a society feels like this, it is teetering on the precipice of disaster. After all, the harsh conditions that resulted from the Treaty of Versailles were, in part, what made National Socialism an attractive option for ordinary Germans. We all know where that led. An extreme example, perhaps, but on the sliding scale of disaffection a valid one – Sweden being a case in point.

So leaders need to do more than carry on regardless, much like the Titanic’s tragic orchestra did, stoically playing on while the mighty vessel submerged. But the orchestra continued, business as usual, in a blissful state of denial.

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

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