by JS O’Brien
Sunday, January 18 will be the 97th anniversary of the day Robert Falcon Scott’s British Terra Nova Expedition arrived at the South Pole in 1912. As many may know, there was a race to the Pole with the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen — a race the British lost. They also lost their lives, with the weakened, last three members of the five-man team to reach the Pole slowly dying of dehydration, starvation, and gangrene only 11 miles from the safety of One Ton Depot, where supplies, medical attention, and a relief party awaited them.
At the time, the story of the party’s demise made headlines larger than those for the sinking of the Titanic, because the elements of the story, interpreted in an ever-so-slightly-post-Edwardian way, made for a tragic tale in the heroic literary tradition. In many ways, those elements still do, but with a twist that is both modern and at least as ancient as Sophocles.
Terra Nova is an utterly marvelous but rarely performed play about the Scott Expedition written by Ted Tally, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Silence of the Lambs. Tally wrote Terra Nova as a graduate project at Yale, and it went on to win the Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play — a nearly unheard of accomplishment for a first-time effort. The play is currently being produced in Longmont, Colorado through January 24, and this trailer provides some insights into the history, production, and script.
Tally’s approach to Scott’s story would hardly be embraced by pre-Great-War English. The newspaper articles from the day focus on self-sacrifice, courage, and refusal to do things the “wrong way.” Tally turns that into a tale of hubris: the mistaken ideal that Nature plays by rules recognized by humans, and that sheer force of will can overcome physical realities. In the heroic, tragic tradition, he raises the question of the hero’s fatal flaw and the role played by fate, or mere chance, in the hero’s demise.
As the story goes, Scott decided that his party would walk to the South Pole and back, eschewing the use of dogs, covering roughly 1,600 miles over ice, rock, crevasses, and deep snow, while rising over 9,000 feet in elevation on the southbound leg, wearing clothing that was mostly wool covered by wind breaking canvas. His party hauled sledges, sometimes weighing as much as 1,000 pounds, loaded with paraffin oil (for heat in the tent and for melting ice for drinking water), tins of food, shelter, extra clothing, scientific and navigational instruments, and the like. According to Susan Solomon, author of The Coldest March, Scott and his party ran into the worst weather imaginable. It was substantially colder than normal, and the following wind Scott expected to help move the sled by sail on the return march never materialized, as the best weather research of the day suggested it would.
Scott’s party endured day after day of temperatures in the -30F to -40F range on its return home, which turned what should have been an easy surface for the sled into a rough, unyielding, high-friction drag on the men. Snow so cold that the men felt it had the properties of sand slowed them, as did ridges of ice formed by wind that ran perpendicular to their path. An injury to Edgar Evans, the largest and strongest man in the party, also retarded their progress, as did the later deteriorating condition of cavalryman Titus Oates. Both died on the march, Oates in spectacular fashion as he ran out of the party’s tent into a blizzard, sacrificing his life to avoid continuing to slow his companions.
Tally does an admirable job of balancing the realities of modern cynicism with the essential nobility of what Scott and his companions attempted to do. The Great War (WWI) changed Europe in a very fundamental way. To a large degree, post-war Europe (and Great Britain in particular) traded its unbridled optimism for persistent skepticism about behaviors it once would have lauded as being driven by the most admirable of human traits. Scott’s reputation, once sterling, has been eroded by modern weighting that tends to value ends over means.
And it is means and ends that are at the center of Tally’s play, as they are the center of so many others. Tally’s Scott is a classically heroic figure, endowed with both larger-than-life qualities and with a fatal flaw. Unlike most other heroes, though, Scott’s primary flaw is an insistence on doing things the right way and, secondarily, the hubris that the right way will lead to the right outcome. Lear’s flaw is foolish vanity, Macbeth’s unbridled ambition, Hamlet’s intellectual paralysis, and Oedipus’ willful ignorance about killing his own father in the face of a prophesy saying he will do just that. None of those flaws are qualities we tend to admire the way we can admire Scott’s, and like Macbeth, Scott is beset by outside forces beyond his control — the weather and a fatal injury that party member Evans covered up — that beg the question of just how responsible Scott is for his and his party’s demise. Should he have abandoned the sick and injured members of his party that slowed the others down and, ultimately, cost all of them their lives? Should he have had dogs haul him to the South Pole, eating the dogs as the sled load lightened, the way his antagonist, Amundsen did? For that matter, should our soldiers abandon their wounded? Should we fire the disabled in our businesses, so that the rest of us can prosper?
Where, exactly, does the “entire thing become worthless,” as Tally’s Scott asks of himself?
Terra Nova is an ambitious play for an ambitious ambiguity. It is not produced often. Plays that have little name recognition rarely are, regardless of their merit. If you live in Colorado, or will be visiting before the play closes on January 24, you might be well advised not to miss it. You can buy tickets by visiting this site or by calling 303-772-5200. A review of the show is available from the Denver Post.