Blackness After Midnight
Did Captain Lord of the California snooze while the Titanic sank?
The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, taking 1,500 passengers and crew with her. Inevitable? Couldn't the nearby liner California have saved them? Was it ice-bound and too far away to see the Titanic? Or did the California's captain ignore his officers' reports of distress flares?
Blackness After Midnight is a play is about the inquiry into the (in)action of the California and her captain. It takes place in the City Hall's Council Chamber, presided over by the Mayor's ornate, elevated pulpit, and the audience are seated in the Council benches. Illustrious bottoms have warmed the leather of these benches before tonight.
The play opens with a prologue set (perhaps inadvisedly) on the Titanic. It feels superfluous and the Council Chamber does not convince as the Titanic's bridge. It is only when spot-lit newsboys appear, belting out 'Extra! Extra! Read all about it!', that the audience feels truly relocated to the past.
Blackness After Midnight comes into its own when the staging is at its most static. The drama comes from seeing the story of the California unfold. The first characters to appear are the two Establishment archetypes charged with the Crown's inquiry, Sir Rufus Isaacs and Lord Mersey.
Both men discuss the 'present embarrassment' and agree that Britain's maritime reputation must not suffer. Therefore, blame needs shifting to the crew of the American-owned liner, the California. They decide that unions representing shipyard workers will be excluded from the proceedings. A public outcry will be inevitable, but minor - they're little people, after all. That decided, the toffs turn their talk to boxing and brandy.
A bit of effective spotlighting work shifts the scene to a meeting of the California's crew. The shift in status is conveyed through low-key (no wigs or moustaches) but realistic costuming: simple suits for the officials; rough cloth garments for the crew.
Captain Stanley Lord describes the 'bloody pantomime' of the American inquiry. He is determined to avoid a repeat and vigorously enforces the party line: they did not recognise the flares as distress signals, nor the ship as Titanic. Second mate Herbert Stone remembers otherwise, but won't contradict his captain. 'He intimidates me,' Stone later pleads with his disappointed wife, 'like my father!'. Third mate, Groves meanwhile seems a posh dilettante with an eye firmly on his own prospects.
The inquiry gets underway under the watchful eyes of Queen Victoria. Now the appropriateness of the play's location becomes apparent. The audience are part of the play. The public gallery role is highlighted when the president of the inquiry addresses the audience - mentioning 'the number of fancily dressed ladies' who no doubt hope to impress attending aristocrats.
First Captain Lord and then his officers are grilled by an eager Sir Rufus and an incredulous Lord Mersey. Manifestations of class warfare are inescapable for a 21st-century audience. These moments provide some of the most striking performances. In giving evidence, the Titanic's lookout is humiliated for sport by his 'betters'. His outraged 'Does anyone else want to have a go at me?' stands for a larger societal injustice.
In both inquiry and play, the President's role is to seek clarification. He opens up and invigorates what might otherwise be dense material, dissecting witness testimonies for contradictions.
Captain Lord is introduced as a bully and scapegoat, but evolves into something more complex. He is a man who went to sea at 14 and worked his way up to his first command at 28, but lacked the personal authority a captain should have over his men. He terrified his crew into obedience instead of managing them. He made a habit of avoiding them too, and so remained in the chart room while the Titanic crisis unfolded. It is a portrait of a man truly out of his depth.
The 2nd and 3rd mates provide layered moral contrast. Stone is his captain's man, all working-class solidarity despite ethical misgivings. The better spoken Groves happily sinks his naval superior (but social inferior) to save his own career. We know the play works when we feel by turns embarrassment, anger and frustration on behalf of the various characters.
The 1950s epilogue is of mixed effectiveness. It is interesting to see a confrontation between an aged Captain Lord, still seeking to clear his name, and the wife of the now destitute and guilt-ridden Stone. However, it does feel a bit maudlin. The journalist who orchestrated their meeting is all too smarmy, and this caricature undermines the sense of reality that had been so carefully crafted.
It would have been better to stick to the coda in which, to the perfectly judged strains of 'Nearer My God To Thee', the lawyer Dunlop narrates the fate of those who we've come to know so well over the past hours. While Lord Mersey and Sir Rufus Isaacs saw their stars rise, 'the scarred victims of the California are left to stumble through the debris of their shattered reputations'. One by one they drift out of the spotlight, past the audience, through the Council Chamber doors, and back into the mists of history.