American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

LONGITUDE 49 (first perf. 1950; pub. 1952). Written by ex-merchant seaman and Maritime Union official Herb Tank (1922-1982), Longitude 49 is a well-crafted example of agitprop drama set aboard the American tanker Mackay docked in Abadan, Iran. Here the “workers” include Brooks, a black union delegate; Maguire, a disillusioned old radical; the country boy Alabama; and Blackie, a drunken ex-prize-fighter simmering with revolutionary fervor. The “capitalists” are represented by an anonymous Captain and Mate, who are concerned that Brooks’ distribution of left-wing literature aboard the ship will cause dissension. The villainous Mate shoots Brooks, who had been subduing the inebriated Blackie to prevent him from attacking the officers. A blood transfusion provided by Alabama fails to save Brooks’ life. The Captain, who initially encouraged the Mate to trump up a charge against Brooks, now turns on him in the face of solidarity among the crew. The crew’s union-inspired strength precludes a more violent reaction, symbolized by Maguire’s discarding a gun through a porthole.

Longitude 49 nicely captures the camaraderie of the forecastle and mess- room and is dense with details of the tanker trade. Brooks, the Mate, and the Captain are vaguely reminiscent of Billy, Claggart, and Vere in Herman Melville’s * Billy Budd, Sailor* (1924). The resolution of the plot turns on the need to maintain the status quo and on maritime law, though Tank’s sympathies are unambiguously with the crew. The play is also reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill’s* S.S. Glencairn* cycle (1919). The original New York production notably featured Sidney Poitier as Brooks. There were also productions at the left-wing Unity Theatre in London, in East Berlin, and in Czechoslovakia. [See also DRAMA OF THE SEA]

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