But everyone knows Titanic now.
“Now we’re proud of it. There was a line my father often said that I put in the play: ‘She was all right when she left us.’ That was his view,” Gordon says.
“Legends have grown up about the bad rivets and the bad steel. Bollocks. It was driven at 21 knots into an ice field at night. That’s what happened. They’re very proud of it now. But then? They hung their heads.”
As 'The Boat Factory' makes clear, the process and craftsmanship of Belfast shipbuilding was astounding.
“They started with a sheet of steel laid flat on keel blocks in a dry dock. Then they attached more sheets of steel to it through drilled holes with rivets,” Gordon says.
“Then you built the two sides up and up and up until you had the shell of a ship. Into that you put the walls between and the engines and the floors.
“They made their own steel, they made their own concrete. They built the biggest dry docks in the world to build the Titanic and the Olympic. That’s the backdrop to the play.”
The reason the Belfast shipyard didn’t survive was because it was too labor intensive. Air travel also spelled the end. The arrival of The Troubles also changed the North’s history, and all of these elements are not shied away from by the author on stage or in conversation.
“I do tackle the political aspects and the sectarianism in the play. People often dismiss the shipyards and say, ‘Oh, that was just a sectarian place.’ But listen, the whole of the North had sectarianism going on. When the place employs 35,000 men you notice it more,” Gordon offers.
What Gordon discovered researching the play was the intensity of the relationships that grew up in the shipyards.
“These guys saw each other more than they saw their own families. From early Monday morning to Saturday afternoon. Sunday was the only family time and they went to church,” he says.
“There was a siege mentality over partition and the concern the Catholic Church would take over the whole country. They were fed this information and told to band together as an industry. It had a father and son tradition.”
It wasn’t quite the exclusively Protestant tradition that many think. “A lot of Catholics did work there, and very often they were protected by the people they worked around. They would say, ‘Don’t you come in tomorrow it’s coming up to the Twelfth.’”
What the shipyards were really about, Catholic and Protestant, was staying alive and making a living, Gordon explains.
“It’s a vanished world. Because that sense of community has disappeared we’re very isolated now and don’t know our neighbors. Things are more suburban now. People died for each other in the shipyards. That seems impossible to imagine now.”
The Boat Factory is playing at 59East59 Theaters in New York until June 30. For tickets visit www.59e50.org or call 212-279-4200.
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