Fragments from 'Jeannette! The Musical'

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.]

SAILOR

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'