The loss of some 1,500 souls when the RMS Titanic sank in 1912 has been memorialized, if that's the right word, with a century of narrative re-creation, a hit movie, countless documentaries, a Broadway musical, a Celine Dion ballad, a permanent tourist replica in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and peripatetic exhibits of artifacts. The loss of more than 800 souls — mostly employees of the Western Electric Company of Hawthorne (now Cicero) headed off for a cruise and a picnic — when the overloaded SS Eastland tipped into the Chicago River just three years later is barely known and rarely discussed. There's just a small plaque by the Chicago River. On occasion, you can see the odd surprised tourist squinting at the story and then looking over in disbelief at the narrow, serene, city-center waterway, wondering how it could have possibly happened with land just a few feet away on either side.
In its best moments, "Eastland," the theatrically muddy but emotionally powerful new musical from the Lookingglass Theatre Company, focuses in on some of the reasons. As one of the wrenching songs by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman notes, there were no rich or famous people on board the Eastland, just working-class folks, many making and laying cable. There was no assaulting iceberg to stir imaginations, just a fatal tip into the water. And whereas the bejeweled Titanic stirred the hearts and romanticizing printing presses of the Anglo-American media complex, the prosaic "Eastland" merely toppled into a filthy Chicago River, collateral human damage in a rough-and-tumble and chaotically expanding city.
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