Play at UC Irvine considers Ismay’s role in the Titanic

Director Don Hill, cast members Vinny Tangherlini, Megan Gainey, Amy Tilson-Lumetta and playwright Luke Yankee, left to right, share a laugh on the set of "Last Lifeboat."
(Don Leach, Daily Pilot)

On the night of April 14, 1912, an iceberg struck the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage. J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, which operated the ship, found a seat on a lifeboat and made his way through the freezing night to safety.

He escaped the wreckage but never that moment. When news hit that hundreds of Titanic passengers had perished in the water, Ismay was vilified as a coward and traitor. Two American towns called Ismay reportedly weighed changing their names. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst roasted Ismay on his pages, labeling him “J. Brute Ismay” and suggesting that the White Star Line change its emblem from a white star to a yellow liver.

Now, Ismay’s story will take center stage again in “The Last Lifeboat,” a play by Luke Yankee that premieres Friday at UC Irvine. And though the work may serve as a cautionary tale, it won’t be the kind Hearst might have envisioned.

“I kind of wanted to set the record straight about this person who had a tremendous amount to lose in this situation — I mean, almost like a character in a Greek tragedy or something, where he’s at the pinnacle and then, so quickly, he’s in the depths,” Yankee said last week after watching a rehearsal on campus.

Yankee’s Ismay, in short, is far from a brute. The playwright, who began researching the play after taking a Titanic tour cruise in Nova Scotia, instead views the White Star Line director as a well-meaning man who wound up a scapegoat for a shocked public eager to blame someone for an unprecedented disaster.

Yankee is far from alone in that interpretation. Paul Louden-Brown, a former officer for the Titanic Historical Society who has written a book on the history of the White Star Line, said evidence supports Ismay’s claim that he helped other passengers into the lifeboats and then took an available seat when he saw no one else around him in need of help.

Cliff Ismay, a fifth cousin once removed of the play’s subject, often visits schools in his native England to talk about the Titanic disaster and his family’s connection to it. After James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning film “Titanic” revived public interest in the tragedy, Ismay — who has read Yankee’s play and proclaimed it a “masterpiece” — found that his surname led to awkward moments.

“From that moment on, when introducing myself, I would often be greeted with the words ‘Ismay — Oh! Are you related to the coward of the Titanic?’,” Ismay wrote in an email. “Hurtful, yes, and I’m sure it must have been difficult for my then-young children.”

A British Board of Trade inquiry into the Titanic disaster ruled that J. Bruce Ismay did not behave improperly during the sinking, and the survivor donated $50,000 to the pension fund for widows of the ship’s seamen. Still, the perception of Ismay as a villain held its allure among some: The 1943 German film “Titanic,” commissioned by the Third Reich’s Joseph Goebbels, even portrayed him as a power-mad businessman who ordered the ship’s crew to ignore ice warnings in order to set a world speed record for England.

“The Last Lifeboat,” which tracks Ismay’s life from childhood to old age, touches on its subject’s demonization by the public; Hearst appears as a character in the play. Director Don Hill, the head of stage management for the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, at UCI, saw Yankee’s script as a natural fit for the university’s 2014-15 drama series, which is themed “Love, Lust and Greed.”

“There’s a love triangle in this play,” Hill said. “There’s certainly a lot of greed about the trials and the money claims and insurance claims and who benefits and who doesn’t, so I think it just filled the litmus test of what our season was about.”

“The Last Lifeboat,” which stars Noah Wagner as Ismay, features a cast of 12 with mostly minimal staging. Hill cited “The Laramie Project,” Moisés Kaufman’s 2000 play about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, as an inspiration. The lifeboat itself appears onstage, but the Titanic’s sinking is simulated with lighting and sound effects.

In the end, Yankee — who originally wrote “The Last Lifeboat” as a screenplay and still plans to shop it to studios — wants viewers to reach their own conclusions about whether his protagonist was in the right.

“I think he was very much a victim of circumstance,” he said. “But the play is structured in such a way that it’s kind of up to the audience to decide for themselves.”


What: “The Last Lifeboat”

Where: Experimental Media Performance Lab, UC Irvine

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, Nov. 14 through 23

Cost: $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors

Information: (949) 824-2787 or