So, does the end justify the means?

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.

9 replies »

  1. Wow, it looks like an amazing play. There’s a vast amount of humanity and psychology to explore on so many levels.

    My two cents, and i’ve read some on both Scott and Amundson’s expeditions as well as polar exploration in general, is that Scott was incredibly ignorant and bullheaded. Yes he should have taken dogs and eaten them…raw; he should have been wearing fur too. Amundsen and his men faced the same obstacles and demons on their trip, only they lived to tell about it. Which was a result of them not thinking themselves superior to the people who’d made a living in the Arctic for generations.

    I don’t think that it’s a question of the end justifying the means; it’s not like Amundsen cheated. He thought the problem through and came to a set of solutions, the only realistic solutions. Whereas Scott counted on a stiff upper lip carrying the day.

    The dog killing is an interesting part of the Amundsen story. Once the dogs were part of the crew, and their presence contributed greatly to the sanity level, the plan to eat them became problematic. Even for the remaining dogs, who wouldn’t eat the sacrificed dog unless it had been skinned first. The remaining dogs lived out their lives as pets.

    Still a great story for the state, wish i was there.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Lex.

    I think you may be under Roland Huntford’s influence. Huntford’s biography of Scott and Amundsen revised the earlier hero-worship accorded Scott, but was far too harsh. I believe that Ranulph Fiennes has demolished the vast majority of Huntford’s arguments, exposing his ulterior motives, and Susan Solomon has confirmed that the Scott expedition faced extraordinarily bad weather luck it had no reason to expect.

    Scott made some mistakes, no doubt, but most were of the garden variety. I’d say the primary mistake was in trusting to Siberian ponies to do the heavy hauling, then not providing proper footgear for them. That reduced the amount of supplies used for the attempt on the Pole, but there was still a fairly wide margin of error. Edgar Evans’ deception saddled the party with a sick man who slowed them considerably. Scott’s only option other than being slowed was to abandon Evans, and perhaps Amundsen would have done that. Or perhaps he wouldn’t have. We’ll never know. Titus Oates’ subsequent issues with frostbite on his feet and gangrene wasn’t even the final nail. The party got within 11 miles with two days of food left. It was there that they were pinned down by weather until they were too weak to go any farther.

    Scott definitely made mistakes, but on the whole, they were mistakes one would expect from any explorer from a non-arctic land at the turn of the 20th century, I think.

    Thanks again for the response.

  3. JS, are there such thing as garden variety mistakes when the mistakes mean a brutal death? I may have been a little harsh on Scott, but there had been enough arctic exploration for him to know what worked and what didn’t. That the Inuit knew how to survive in similar conditions was obvious, yet Scott seems to have discounted all of their wisdom in favor of a belief in European technology.

    I’m having a hard time remembering who/what i read as it was years ago, so i may be under Huntsford’s spell. But i’ve always thought that the ponies were a stupid idea. It’s as if the word “Siberian” was enough to prove their mettle, when in fact they’re native to northern China and southern Siberia…a far cry from the Arctic where dogs and reindeer have always been used. A pony can pull more, but a sled dog can run 100 miles/day in good conditions and subsist on a wider variety of food. That is, you’ll never get a pony to eat another pony, or a piece of fish for that matter.

    The weather, of course, can’t be planned for, it has to be endured. And unless you know the men who will go with you, it’s impossible to ascertain how they will handle a journey of that magnitude.

    But as Scott learned, Nature in her full force and fury doesn’t allow for mistakes. I think that may be the deepest lesson of the Scott expedition. We are puny, regardless of our plans and our technology. We simply cannot defeat Nature.

    You’re welcome, i find it a fascinating subject and the post seemed uberappropriate to me after my third day of being outside in subzero temperatures. It must be warming somewhat as the snow is falling today.

  4. Hey Lex:

    When you say, “there had been enough arctic exploration for him to know what worked and what didn’t. That the Inuit knew how to survive in similar conditions was obvious, yet Scott seems to have discounted all of their wisdom in favor of a belief in European technology,” you’re under Huntsford’s spell, I’m afraid. Same with the idea that taking ponies was stupid. The ponies would have worked just fine and, in fact, did work just fine except when the snow was too deep for them. Snow shoes would have solved that problem, and did when they were employed. The larger issues with the ponies seems to be that the man Scott sent to purchase them (I believe it was his wife’s brother, but I could easily be wrong about that) didn’t acquire the best livestock. The sea voyage to the Antarctic was also unexpectedly harsh and unexpectedly long because of unseasonal ice floes, weakening both the ponies and the dogs Scott brought with him.

    You can find Scott’s journal on Project Gutenberg if you’ve a mind to read it. In it, he actually wonders to himself if “Eskimaux” technology might not be better for some things, but makes the salient point that visiting northern North America to find out would have been completely impractical. He had neither the money nor the time.

    Your first question, though, is a very interesting one. Are there such things as garden variety mistakes when death is the result? I think it’s almost a philosophical issue you raise. One man stumbles and falls, gets up and brushes himself off. Another man stumbles and falls onto the third rail of a subway system. It’s the same mistake, but with vastly different consequences. Are the mistakes viewed differently? Perhaps. One needs to be more careful when dealing with circumstances that can kill you and others.

    Scott did make mistakes. No question. If you read his journal, you’ll see that he is always acknowledging them (Huntsford suggests that he didn’t). But he had a very wide margin of safety to begin and, even with the demise of the ponies, he still had a very wide margin. It just proved not quite wide enough. It’s as if you wanted to have brand new tread on a set of tires, but settled for more-than-adequate, but not brand new, tread instead — then crashed your car by inches by brand new tread would have prevented that.

  5. We are puny, regardless of our plans and our technology. We simply cannot defeat Nature.

    Agreed. And our only real tool for surviving those greater forces is our ability to think their problems through. When we make plans based on unexamined, blindly accepted standards of behavior, willfully ignore relevant, available information and simply refuse to think beyond our upbringing and our time in history… well, at least the men who chose to rely upon Scott’s questionable judgment did so of their own free will.

    One other thought – JS pointed out that Scott made the mistakes which might be expected of an explorer from a “non-Arctic land” at the time. Hadn’t he already spent two years in the Antarctic on a previous expedition, including two land marches? And he still couldn’t accept the relative merit of sled dogs and skis as opposed to a stiff upper lip and the old Navy spirit? He survived those marches, but did he learn nothing? And if he didn’t have the time to find out about Inuit survival methods, wasn’t that because of his own need to beat his rival to the Pole?

    I’m with Lex on this one. Tragedy, yes. Hero? I don’t know.

  6. Ann and Lex:

    This is a large topic, and I urge you read Ranulph Fiennes’ Captain Scott or, at the very least, Scott’s own journal before making up your minds. Unlike Huntsford, Fiennes is a real arctic/antarctic explorer, and is able to bring real life experience to the issue. It might also be useful to understand that Fiennes has revealed and demolished both some of Huntsford’s points and his blind prejudices. Yet, most of what is written about Scott these days is still heavily influenced by Huntsford. Huntsford is to Scott what Cicero was to Julius Caesar. The accusations fall far short of the record. It’s not that Scott was perfect or didn’t make mistakes. Obviously, he did. But the revisionism went way over the top on this, I think.

    As for sled dogs and skis, Ann, Scott had both. What made you think he didn’t? And, in fact, there were two reasons, as I recall, that Scott didn’t want to use dogs. One is that he’d had less-than-satisfactory results with them on the first expedition (your experience issue). The other is that he didn’t want to eat them, and felt the extra food he would need to pack along to feed them, and the extra weight,outweighed the increased speed he might expect and could put the operation in jeopardy.

    Skis show up in many photographs from the expedition, Wilson’s sketches (including this rather famous one: ) , and Scott’s journal, Cherry-Garard’s book, Wilson’s journal, Bowers’ journal, and … well … what made you think they didn’t use skis?

  7. I don’t know that i’m under Huntsford’s spell completely. I see one group of men wearing doubled fur parkas and one wearing canvas; the former lived and the latter died. I do not understand the squeamishness about eating the dogs (or the ponies for that matter or even Evans), except for a moral stance…which returns us to dealing with Nature, and Nature has no morals.

    All things being equal (sea journey, snow shoes, etc.), i still see dog teams beating ponies in a race to the pole. And i don’t think that we can say that the ponies would have worked fine for the duration of the journey because we don’t know.

    I’m really not trying to knock Scott or say that Amundsen was the greatest. Clearly Amundsen had distinct advantages (like many seasons in the Arctic honing his practices and learning from the natives). He had, after all, already traversed the NW passage by the time of the Antarctic expedition.

    “I may say that this is the greatest factor — the way in which the expedition is equipped — the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”

    Or you could call it experience. Amundsen had a simple plan, Scott had a complex plan…hence far more variables and chances for things to go wrong. Maybe that was the deciding factor.

    Of course, Amundsen surprising everyone and sneaking off to Antarctica probably didn’t help. And i’ve always wondered how Scott’s expedition would have turned out if he hadn’t reached the pole only to find that he’d lost it. What energy they might have gained from accomplishment was certainly lost, and then they had to march back knowing that their travails mattered little.

  8. Lex:

    I think all I can do is refer you again to the literature. It’s difficult to talk about things like the ponies when you have the impression that Scott meant to take them all the way to the Pole. He didn’t. He intended to do most of it on foot. The ponies, dogs, and motor sledges were there to set up the heavier depots at the beginning of the journey.

    Scott knew he was going to lose the race. He says so in his journal. The idea that he was surprised to lose it is a fiction. He thought he had a slim chance, but only a slim one. He knew Amundsen’s dog teams would outpace him.

    The Brits did eat the ponies, by the way.

    As you can imagine, I’m very many books (and recently) into this at the moment. I’m afraid that many of your conceptions are from one source, or from quotes from that source. That doesn’t make the source wrong, but it does make it incomplete, and makes it difficult to have an informed discussion.

    Regardless, I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Thanks for responding.

  9. I never said he didn’t have skis or dogs.

    I said he wasn’t convinced of their efficacy and didn’t use them to their maximum advantage. Not only have I read the majority of Scott’s journals at Project Gutenberg, I’ve read quite a bit about the Discovery expedition as well. They took both dogs and skis, but neglected to train their men with either before leaving… after about a year of being stuck in the ice, the men had taught themselves how to work with the dogs to move goods and transport themselves on skis; according to the captain of THAT expedition, their quality of life was vastly improved as a result (for the next year they were stuck). However, when Scott and Shackleton took them on their first march, they allowed the dogs’ meat to become tainted… gosh, wonder why they were a disappointment? How does a rational man not learn from this? How does he dismiss the best-proven tool then known for cold-weather survival because of human error?

    And logically, if he “knew he would lose the race,” he could not also have thought he had “a slim chance.” Which tells me he was running on passion, not logic – and that doesn”t impress Nature. When I read Scott, I hear a man trying desperately to make the natural world work according to his own rules and only gradually (and then not even completely) acquiescing to the inevitable.

    Oh, and Lex – Amundsen’s party didn’t really want to eat the dogs either by the time they had planned. They ate as few as possible and the rest went home with them in triumph and lived long, spoiled doggie lives. Wag wag.