From time to time the news cycle offers up an event of such import and complexity that it can only be comprehended through the medium of musical theater. This week we offer a rare look back at a much earlier work by resident composer Ben Greenman: a tribute to the June 1881 sinking of the USS Jeannette, which was seeking passage to the North Pole through the Bering Strait. It was originally published in the New York Herald—whose publisher, James Gordon Bennett., Jr., owned the Jeannette and co-financed the expedition—in 1891, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the tragic event. Unlike the more modern musicals, this one was written in the fashion of a Harrigan-Hart production; In fact, a critic at the time suggested that Harrigan play the role of the sailor, and that "seafaring is not so distant from 'The Mulligan Guards' Surprise' as one might imagine." Because the musical itself was long—more than five hours—we have chosen to reproduce only its centerpiece, the mournful and yet jaunty "Sailor's Song."
[The ghostly figure of a SAILOR appears. Icicles hang from his beard.]
The HMS Pandora
Her name contained a warning
Perhaps we should have heeded it
And avoided needless mourning
A few years after she was built
James Gordon Bennett, Jr. bought her.
From Le Havre to San Francisco:
That was where he brought her.
Bennett was a wild man
A rich man who lived fast
He published the New York Herald
His personal fortune was vast
He made his name financing Stanley
He lived like a rogue and a dreamer
He placed his money and his trust
In this bark-rigged wooden steamer
He renamed the ship the Jeannette
And decided he just couldn't wait
To sail up to the North Pole
Via the Bering Strait
So just above the Napa River
In Mare Island Navy Yard
The Jeannette was given new boilers
Her hull was thickened and made hard
On the eighth of July, eighteen seventy-nine,
She departed from the dock
The weather was cold and rainy
The time was half past ten o'clock
She sailed under Naval command
Though she was a peacetime ship
Twenty-eight officers and enlisted men
And three civilians made the trip
The captain was brave George DeLong
An upright Navy man
He pledged himself to fully serve
His patron's fateful plan
The ship's Chief Engineer
Was George W. Melville
The names of these fine sailors
They stir my spirit still
It took a month or maybe more
To reach the Norton Sound
Then we sailed away from St. Lawrence Bay
And the crew was Arctic-bound
By September we had spotted
Herald Island. (As some tell it,
It was named for Bennett's newspaper
When in fact Henry Kellett
Back in eighteen forty-nine
Had landed there and named it.
Walked around it, kicked some stones,
Put a flag down and then claimed it.)
Near Herald Island, in the water,
Was Wrangel Island, small and cold,
DeLong tried to go east of there
His orders were perhaps too bold.
Then came that fateful winter day
Which began like any other
One sailor dreamed of flying,
Another of his sainted mother,
Another still of sitting
On a warm beach way down south.
The name of his young girlfriend
Lay gently in his mouth.
"Come up, come up," the captain said.
"We're locked into the ice."
It hemmed us in on both our sides
And held us like a vise.
At first we didn't mind it
Our eyes stayed on our goal
We were drifting Northwest
Ever closer to the Pole
Our instruments were working
Our spirits remained high
We took our soundings and positions
We marked the stars up in the sky
In May of eighteen eighty-one
We spied some islands in the distance
We gave them names and marveled
At our sturdy craft's persistence
But marveling is irony
And pride precedes a fall
And soon enough our progress
Had slowed down to a crawl
Now the ice was pressing in
And crumpling the hull
The way a great and fearsome weight
Can crush a grown man's skull
We jumped off the Jeannette
And unloaded our supplies
Dragging three small boats to safety
We heard our ship's last cries
She sank on June 13th
In the early hours of dawn
We put our packs upon our back
And went to soldier on
We searched for open water
Our hope was strong at first
But some were felled by cowardice
Others by hunger or thirst
The three small lifeboats we had manned
Eventually broke through
One drifted off, forever lost,
Thus leaving only two.
Of those two boats, one came to shore,
George DeLong was inside.
Some scouts were sent ahead
The men who stayed behind all died.
The third boat reached the Lena River
Its sailors lived. But then
Melville showed his mettle and
Went back to find the other men.
Beneath the frozen corpses
Were the expedition's notes.
Those he brought to safety
With a fleet of rescue boats.
Twenty men were lost in all
Only thirteen kept their lives
Thanks to Melville's bravery
Our memory survives
Time has kept on moving
It's what time tends to do
And we wish to be remembered
The lost men of that crew.
So I claim this month for us,
The men of the Jeannette
We are all that's happened
And what hasn't happened yet
Once a year, please think of us,
Who expired in polar snow,
And not J.J. Abrams's birthday
Or that of Ross Perot.
Do not think of Paris
Or what happened to Tony
Or the newly filed divorce papers
Of Keener and Mulroney
Think instead of the Jeannette
And the men who took her north
Summon up our story
Let our memories come forth
I was among the twenty
I perished with a groan.
The ice was all around me
And I was all alone.
Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction. His latest book, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both, was recently published.
Previously: Fragments from 'Dan! The Musical'