I took my wife to Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) last night for her birthday. TUTS is a local theatre company that performs two outdoor musicals each summer in Stanley Park. The shows are well-done, and the setting is absolutely amazing. They could be playing “Barney and Friends” and it would be worth attending for an evening in one of the most spectacular urban parks in North America.
Last night, they played Titanic, a musical originally wrote and performed for Broadway, I believe, in 1997. This was not the cinematic, Leonardo-and-Kate Titanic of 1998 but rather a story that makes compelling use of the cultural meaning of the Titanic story. In the musical of Titanic, the passengers play a secondary role to the ship itself. Throughout the story, the Titanic is more than a setting, but rather an object of worship and a common focus for each of the other characters. Throughout, the Titanic is a silent, ominous, and powerful ode to human progress, a “floating city” which holds in itself both the class divisions of Europe (with each level of the ship representing the aspirations of different classes) and the optimistic mobility of a new era and a new world. As an impressive artifact of modern industry, the Titanic creates a sense of invulnerability for all three classes. Those in the First Class cabin are enamored with the speed and comfort of the ship, for it represents a new way to be worldly citizens, it demonstrates the best in industry and speaks to runaway profit margins and unlimited leisure. The Second Class cabin holds social climbers, for whom the trip from Europe to America symbolizes new social and economic opportunity. The ship demonstrates the birth of a new world, and thus new hope. Those in the Third Class Cabin are running from the oppression of an old world, desperately hoping for new opportunity in the modern world. In the opening song, all three classes sing of their hope in the Titanic while the captain of the ship sings about how all 2500 souls are his to command, are in his (and the ship’s) care.
Nietzsche famously characterizes the modern age as one that has killed God. For Titanic, it is not so much that modernity killed God, but rather that modernity replaced a transcendent deity for one made with human hands. Near the end of the nineteenth century, Ludwig Feuerbach saw European Christianity as an entirely anthropocentric projection. In The Essence of Christianity he argues that Christians simply project basic human desires for goodness, power, and salvation into the void of an empty and indifferent cosmos. Nietzsche believes that we have created a world without God. Feuerbach argues that we have created God in our own image. Titanic says ‘yes’ to both renditions of the modern world.
It is hard to miss the way in which the Titanic – as a symbol of modern progress – takes on both divine attributes and the class-specific desires of the passengers. While in the Titanic, the passengers’ souls (“all 2500” the captain sings) are in the care of modern science and technology, and they have willingly committed themselves in faith, offered their praise, and boarded the ship. Theirs is a world in which faith in imminent and immediate progress has eclipsed the transcendent. There is no God in the first act of the musical, only the Titanic and a “trinity” of priests for modernity (the ship owner, the architect, and the captain).
In Act 2, awareness gradually sets in that the unsinkable ship is on its way down. The three priests of progress – the owner, the architect, and the captain – begin to see their misplaced faith and hubris. In each case, human inventiveness would have been served with some sense of humility and acknowledgement of frailty, the bulkhead between rooms could have been taller, the ship could have gone slower, the iceberg warnings could have been taken seriously. It is at this point that the divine is invoked in the musical. The same melody that the captain sang at the beginning regarding the care of all 2500 souls on board the ship is changed to a prayer. Now, with the modern project crumbling around them, they express hope that God might save them. They now admit that all 2500 souls are now in his care.
But the audience immediately sees these prayers for what they are – a call out into the void. God is utterly silent in this musical, for the god of progress has sprung a leak. An indifferent and harsh world begins lapping at the feet of their hubris. This is not the cost of progress, but a picture of idolatry; the result of making divine and transcendent that which is not. In the end, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Exodus and the Resurrection, is nowhere to be found in this story – because it is a story of us and our modern project. We have made ourselves the creators of our own new world, we have been blinded by our faith in methodological progress and technocratic solutions. In our quest for the immanent and immediate, we have not so much killed God but exchanged him for a new world of our own design. The musical reflects the way in which the past century has this cloud of inevitability hanging over it: we have a sense of dread regarding the modern world, we wonder whether this project is a sinking ship. As such, the story rightly seizes upon the terror of this world of our making. When we become our own creators, we eventually find ourselves overwhelmed and swallowed up by the indifference of the North Atlantic.
In some ways, The Titanic is only a musical that could be written in our ‘post’ – world because it truthfully looks at the cost of our optimistic progress without offering much of a redemptive thread. The only way the story finds reconciliation is in a final scene that brings each of the classes together – rich and poor, dead and surviving – in a symbolic demonstration of their shared humanity. I think that this is more theologically profound than what might be immediately apparent. In my next post, I’ll reflect on this reality.