'Petticoats are no joke' at 30 below

May 2, 2003

Using tarpaulins and potato crates, polar explorers staged theatrical works to save their sanity in the frozen darkness, writes Mike Pearson.

Early in 1903, Lieutenant Michael Barne rigged his sledge with a set of sails. He named his vessel the Flying Scud and for several months used it to transport his "sounding equipment" across the Antarctic ice. A photograph of the sledge shows it standing trimmed in front of the icebound ship Discovery. But incongruously, on the foresail is the word "theatre"; there are traces of an erupting volcano painted on the rear and on the mainsail, although indistinct, is the caricatured head of a "negro".

In foraging for suitable material to create the Flying Scud, Barne had resorted to cutting up the drop-curtain of the defunct Royal Terror Theatre. What had begun life as a ship's tarpaulin became a theatre curtain and then became a sail. In improvised responses to this world of finite resources, things began to circulate, to change their nature, no longer confined to their ascribed identity. Barne's small act of innovation exhibits a playful, ironic creativity. All in the "heroic age" of polar exploration was not relentless application. Indeed, for prolonged periods of enforced leisure, polar explorers were engaged in activities of "play" that kept bodies and minds occupied in the most extreme environmental circumstances.

The decision to turn the shore-hut of Captain R. F. Scott's first Antarctic expedition into a place of entertainment was taken early in 1902. After staging a lantern-slide show and songs of dubious quality in May, Barne was given the task of producing a play. The hut was equipped with a stage built from potato crates, footlights, chairs for the officers and benches for the men. On June 25, after a concert of songs, the curtain with its depiction of Discovery and Mount Erebus rose at the Royal Terror Theatre on the "screaming comedy" Ticket-of-Leave.

"There is no need for the actors to speak - their appearance is quite enough to secure the applause of the audience; and when the representatives of the lady parts step on to the stage it is useless for them to attempt speech for several minutes, the audience is hugely delighted," Scott wrote.

The cast included several troublesome crew members who were to leave the expedition early, but the production came just in time to defuse grumbling from the lower decks at their exclusion from the lectures and debates organised for the officers. Future Antarctic legend Frank Wild played Mr Aspen Quiver ("with nerves as shady as his name") to common acclaim, and the somewhat confused plot was brought to a conclusion with the arrival of two stage policemen. Several fragments of the script of Ticket-of-Leave were recovered from the rubbish heap of the Discovery hut in 1964. They now reside in the archive of Canterbury Museum, in Christchurch, New Zealand.

"I have rarely been so gorgeously entertained," Scott enthused, and rehearsals for a second production started almost immediately. By 6.30pm on August 6 - in the words of carpenter's mate Duncan - "all the Sambos are busy blackening their faces and hands and dressing". Although they were in a cold snap with temperatures below - 40F - Barne's face had taken an hour to thaw out earlier in the day - the performance went ahead as planned. A painting by Edward Wilson in the hand-produced expeditionary magazine, the South Polar Times , titled En Route for the Terror Theatre, shows dark hooded explorers following guideposts to a black hut whose tiny window is lit by yellow and red light.

The drop-curtain - decorated by Barne himself - showed a caricatured negro's head supposedly sticking though the curtain and two puns in large letters on either side. A mimeographed programme announced the "Dishcover Minstrel Troupe" (sic). At 7.30pm, the curtain rose on 12 minstrels sitting in a row. Scott noted the trouble the sailors had taken in making suits of grotesque form and vivid colours, shirt fronts and large collars from paper and wigs from frayed rope: "'Bones' and 'Skins' had even gone so far as to provide themselves with movable top-knots which could be worked at effective moments by pulling a string below." The show, apeing a popular entertainment of the period, was composed of 17 songs including Marching through Georgia and Golden Slippers, sung with gusto by the minstrels - who adopted names such as "Doughboy" (cook Charles Clarke) and "Cinders" (stoker Frank Plumley) - and audience alike. The topical conundrums and jokes - many at the expense of officers - were judged of varying quality.

But the South Polar Times called it: "One of the best entertainments that has been given in the Royal Terror Theatre."

It was also the last and - apart from the celebrations organised on Shackleton's Nimrod and Endeavour - the final manifestation of a tradition on British polar expeditions instituted by William Parry in 1819 on his voyage seeking the Northwest Passage.

With the prospect of over-wintering on the ship, Parry proposed that the officers get up a play, "as the readiest means of preserving among our crew that cheerfulness and good-humour which had hitherto subsisted". Such was the success of David Garrick's Miss in Her Teens that a series of productions was staged fortnightly on the covered quarterdeck of HMS Hecla.

Future explorer James Ross became a popular "leading lady", though at - 30F it was "no joke in petticoats".

Scripts were in short supply, and on December 23 1819, the first play written during an Arctic winter - The North-west Passage, or Voyage Finished - was premiered. It includes a hunt during which a mock bear is shot, "staggers, and runs about in confusion" and finally, having grabbed one of the crew in a hug, is "stabbed to death".

The Royal Arctic Theatre was to appear twice more - during the mid-century searches for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin and on George Nares' attempt to reach the North Pole. "Polar theatre" became an acknowledged means of alleviating the monotony and dullness of the long winter months.

It countered the lethargy and constant sense of apprehension, lessened the risk of madness and cabin fever and maintained morale in the cold and damp when there was little outside work and only housekeeping chores on board.

All ranks of the crew could participate.

In anticipation of the physical and psychological rigours to come, expeditions set out increasingly well equipped, with stage sets and gifts of costumes from famous actors such as Henry Irving. But it was the very fashioning of theatrical substance from the expedition's equipment, stores and detritus that made the activity valuable: it required imagination and ingenuity, it filled time.

"Polar theatre" and other "amusements" provide an antidote to descriptions of exploration that focus solely on heroic endeavour (and folly) and unswerving purpose. In the frozen darkness, white men played women and black men; parodied and critiqued structures of power, particularly as enacted in their own tight-knit community; reinforced the class, gender and racial politics of the age; and laboured long and hard at activities that saved their sanity, if not their lives.

Mike Pearson is professor of performance studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. A full version of this article will appear in The Drama Review later in the year.

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