Tuesday, March 24, 2015
All The World's A Stage: Eric Larson's Dead Wake
Two hours to curtain, my hair in curlers, still need to glob on my stage makeup and cross off handfuls of other nagging to-do tasks, why on earth am I reading a book about the Lusitania?
You remember, the Liverpool-bound ocean liner full of American passengers whose sinking by a Nazi submarine cast the U.S. into World War I? (All you Downton Abbey fans will remember this tragedy starting all the series' heir-finding plot machinations during the show's premiere.)
Eric Larson, author of Devil in the White City, has penned a new account of the disaster that brings alive the parallel stories of a prowling German U-20 submarine and an English civilian ship laden with families on deck and munitions below.
Why was I adding more tension in my life during the craziest weeks of Variety Show when our cast of dozens had daily practices late into the night and seven performances in six days? I was already nervous, why was I biting my nails over cork-filled life vests and stealthy periscopes?
Because perspective, that's why.
I don't indulge in disaster narratives for the gory titillation, for the schadenfreude, for the visceral horrors or the relief of being at a safe readerly distance. As I read Dead Wake, as I read last month's Left to Write book club choice Trapped Under the Sea, when I read (and reread) Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, it's mostly about the good writing, the art of the storytelling. But what sticks with me is the way these books reveal how thin is the veil between normal everyday life and unexpected death.
No one escapes tragedy, after all. Some disasters are more quiet than others, but none of us is immune.
All the frenzy of preparations for a show with a cast and crew of over one hundred excited amateurs, all the thousands of creative decisions involved, all the nerves, the drumming hearts, the feats of strength to overcome shyness and stage fright, all is a wisp, an echo, a memory already. Such is all theater and such is all of our ephemeral lives.
These bleak truths don't dampen the pleasures of good company and good work. Instead, the fleetness of our time together makes every moment more precious. I have been very lucky. I am very happy.
This post was inspired by Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, a thrilling account of the luxury ocean liner and the U-boat that attacked and sank it one hundred years ago May 7. Join From Left to Write on March 26th as we discuss Dead Wake. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.