Ted Tally was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1952, the son of a teacher and a school administrator. He became seriously interested in theater in ninth grade, when he was given a part in a school play. What attracted him most about the experience, he has told one interviewer, was "the intensity of relationships born in the brief life of a production." He illustrates this depth of feeling by recalling that on "the day they took down the set, [I was] practically weeping because this wonderful experience was over."
He continued his involvement with theater throughout high school, winning a state drama award for playwriting in his senior year with a script called “Sand Creek.” This success he describes as "the biggest thrill I've ever had in show business."
Thus primed by early commitment and success, he attended Yale University as an undergraduate, earning his B.A. degree in 1974, and moving on to the graduate playwriting program at Yale Drama School. It was there, in 1977, at age 24, that he wrote Terra Nova.
The play was given its first professional production at Yale in the same year, and scored an instant critical success. It then moved on to productions in regional theaters across the country, from Los Angeles to Portland, Maine. In 1984 it was staged in New York, where it won that year's Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play.
While Terra Nova was making its way through the regional theaters, Tally was busy writing other scripts. These include Hooters, a comedy about adolescent sexuality, first produced in New York in 1978, and Coming Attractions (1980), a satire on the American penchant for turning sensational crime into television entertainment. These works for the stage earned admiration and praise from his peers. Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, Wendy Wasserstein, calls him a "genuine craftsman in the best possible way, [who] knows how to tell a story . . . from comedy to a horror story." And Lincoln Center Artistic Director, Andre Bishop, lauds Tally as a "superb writer in dialogue, a great craftsman [who] could move from black satiric comedy . . . to real historic epic."
Despite the commendations from his contemporaries, however, Tally was feeling unfulfilled in his career as a playwright. By age 35 he still had not reached a large audience or scored a significant commercial success, and his work remained unproduced on Broadway. "You're going to be 40, you're going to be 50," he thought at that time, "people are going to meet you at cocktail parties and say, 'Oh yes, you wrote Terra Nova.'" Not wanting his life to be summed up in a single accomplishment, he decided to refocus his energies away from theater and toward the writing of screenplays. He intended, he says, to "reinvent myself" as a "literary carpenter," specializing in adapting work from other media to the screen.
He finally achieved the widespread recognition and success that had eluded him in the theater in 1991, when he won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for The Silence of the Lambs.
Terra Nova traces the fatal progress of Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the South Pole in 1911-12. The playwright specifies, however, that "No attempt should be made at the literal representation of an Antarctic landscape." Instead, the script tells us, this environment should be "suggested, both in its starkness and its beauty. The setting above all should be simple and flexible, close to a bare stage."
It is important to note the playwright's rejection of scenic literalism. This reflects the dramatic structure of the work, which is organized as a complex sequence of flashbacks occurring in Scott's mind as he sits dying in his tent at the end of his failed adventure. Because the world we see on stage is compounded of Scott's memories and fantasies, the setting must be correspondingly suggestive or allusive.
On the other hand, the playwright does ask that, "in contrast" to the abstract set the, "hand properties such as the sextant, and small set pieces such as the stove, should be as grittily realistic as possible." Perhaps this is to mimic the perceptual features of dream or reverie, in which objects in the foreground are often sharp and clear, while the background remains shadowy and undefined.
These foreground objects reflect the historical setting of the action, which encompasses both the expedition to the pole in 1911-12 and various scenes from Scott's life preceding it. The grittiness of the Antarctic gear--the soiled parkas and sweaters, the battered equipment--stands in stark contrast to the elegant clothing and furnishings of Scott's Edwardian English milieu. The harshness of the polar mission is thus highlighted against the comfort of the life Scott chose to leave behind.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND. Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) was a British naval officer who made his first attempt to conquer the South Pole in 1901. He and his companions came within 450 miles of the goal, but had to turn back because of illness. As a result of this heroic near-miss, Scott was promoted to Captain in 1904 and made commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1905.
In 1907 Ernest Shackleton, a member of Scott's 1901 group, mounted his own expedition, coming to within 97 miles of the geographic pole, and providing an incentive for further exploration by Scott.
Yet another challenge to Scott appeared in 1908 when a splinter group from Shackleton's party raised the Union Jack over the South Magnetic Pole after having traveled more than 1200 miles on foot and without the assistance of dogs or pack animals.
With the example of these two polar expeditions in mind, Scott organized another journey to the pole in 1910, sailing on June 10 for Antarctica on the ship, Terra Nova. After the long voyage and preliminary preparations along the coast, Scott's party of five--himself and four companions--set out by foot for the geographic pole in November, 1911. Like the group that reached the magnetic pole, Scott traveled without animal support, his thousand pound sledge being hauled by the men themselves.
Meanwhile, on a different part of the continent, and without Scott's knowledge, another expedition organized by the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, was also making for the pole. A veteran of the first scientific exploration of Antarctica led by de Gerlache in 1897, Amundsen had several advantages over Scott.
For one thing, he was not squeamish about using dogs. When they hauled the sled as far as they could, they would be turned into food for his men and for his surviving animals.
For another, his base camp was 69 miles closer to the pole than Scott's. And for a third, he began his trek thirteen days earlier than Scott's party.
He and his four men set out for the pole with 59 dogs. They reached their destination less than two months later, on December 14, 1911, with 18 dogs remaining. Forty-one had become protein for the expedition.
Scott, disdaining such "barbarity," relied entirely on human labor. Starting later than Amundsen, traveling farther, and without the advantage of canine assistance, Scott arrived at the pole on January 17, 1912, to find the Norwegian flag flying tauntingly in his face. "Great God!," he wrote in his journal, "This is an awful place! And it's terrible enough to have come here, without the reward of priority!"
Getting to the pole was bad enough; the return trip would be Scott's undoing. The wear and tear of eighty days of travel through an unforgiving landscape in brutal weather began to tell on the men.
Petty Officer Edgar Evans, having injured his hand, began suffering from relentless frostbite. He twice fell into crevasses in the ice, bashing his head. In his handicapped condition, he was slowing the party down while consuming scarce rations. In February he died in the middle of an Antarctic nowhere, between the pole and the resupply camp.
By early March, Captain "Titus" Oates was also severely hampered by frostbite, losing chunks of his feet to the polar cold. No longer able to haul the sled, the stoic soldier committed suicide by intentionally losing himself in a raging blizzard on March 7.
On March 21, 1912, with his party now reduced to three, and his fuel and provisions perilously depleted, Scott clawed his way to within 11 miles of One Ton Depot, the resupply camp. He had two days' worth of food and one day's paraffin for heat and cooking. He might have covered the remaining 11 miles with those resources, but then the Antarctic struck. On the night of the 21st a blizzard arose that lasted nine days. When the storm ended, Scott and his men were dead.
On March 29, eight days into the killing storm, Scott made his final journal entry: "Everyday we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end can not be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write any more."
The bodies lay in their tent for eight months before a search party discovered them on November 12, 1912. All that survived of Scott's great enterprise were personal diaries and papers, some scientific records, and 30 pounds of rock samples taken from the pole.
THE STAGE VERSION. Tally is essentially faithful to the historical facts of Scott's undertaking. He shows us the grinding effort of hauling the sledge through ice and snow, the bitter disappointment of coming in second in the race to the pole, the delirium and death of Evans, the suicide of Oates, and the final storm that swallowed Wilson, Bowers, and Scott.
These events, however, are not presented as a straightforward, objective narrative. Instead, they are filtered through the consciousness of the dying Scott. The play's first scene is in the tent of the doomed expedition as the nine-day blizzard howls outside, and its first lines, from the final pages of Scott's journal, are spoken by the explorer shortly before his death: "Message to the public. The causes of the disaster are these. (He does not move, and the light on him does not fade.)" The play moves in two directions from this first (and terminal) moment: backwards in time, and laterally in psychic space. We see "real" scenes from Scott's past life in England and from the expedition itself as he must be remembering them during the storm; and we also see what can only be scenes of fantasy or delirium in which Scott encounters an insistently taunting and sardonic Amundsen, or in which he returns to London to dine elegantly with his resurrected comrades, or to commune with his wife, Kathleen.
These imagined voices engage Scott in an ongoing dialogue about his own nature, and about the fatal connection between his character and the failure of his expedition.
Scott is tormented in particular by the voices of Amundsen and Kathleen.
The former mocks his diffidence and idealism, telling him, "Success is a bitch. Grab her, and have her--but don't stand under her window with a mandolin." Above all, Amundsen says, don't imagine the rules of civilized society prevail at the pole: "Playing the [civilized] game means treating your dogs like gentlemen, and your gentlemen like dogs. You're an infant, tickling yourself with a razor." And again: "There's one way to live here [in the Antarctic], one only! Everything is a tool . . . even a man! If it breaks down you throw it away and you march on! It's brutal, yes! And it's ugly. But anything else is sentiment and it will kill you."
Kathleen, on the other hand, questions the value of Scott's success, challenging him to defend the validity of the expedition itself: "don't you ever feel just a bit of a sham? . . . For capturing so much attention with what was, after all, a kind of stunt? . . . To me it's all nonsense." And yet she recognizes how central to Scott's identity are his ideals of daring and honor, and his need to affirm himself through the lonely pursuit of the pole.
The plot is a constant counterpoint of these voices with scenes from the expedition, as Amundsen's ironic mockery and Kathleen's skeptical acceptance draw Scott ever deeper into an understanding of the "causes of the disaster."
SCOTT. Following each of the names in the list of characters, the playwright has placed a line of dialogue that expresses the central attitudes and motivations of the people in the play. The quotation for Scott is from a speech he gives to his wife describing what drives his quest to reach the pole: "they'll remember me all right, for about two years, my name on some bloody little plaque in the fifth-floor lavatory at the Admiralty!" This is Scott musing about the transience of the fame he achieved from his near-miss expedition of 1901. His whole life will be summed up, he fears, as a plucky failure, a non-achievement fit to be memorialized only in a men's room. This is why he must reach the pole, so that his life will amount to something significant.
His ambition, however, is tempered by his idealism. "Patriotism is not a joke," he tells Kathleen after she has been mocking his high-mindedness. And he adds, "Honor and daring and sacred duty are not empty words. . . . Those words are our glory, they made the British Empire what it is today." Intoxicated by these stirring sentiments, he makes one of the decisions that leads to the disaster:
No journey ever made with dogs can approach that glory which is realized when a party of men go forth to face hardships unaided. . . . Our final victory . . . will be all the sweeter, all the nobler, because we will know we've taken the prize by playing the game as it ought to be played!
He is thus torn between idealism and a hunger for achievement. This proves to be a deadly combination, a contradiction that is fatal to him and his men. As the play shows us, the Antarctic is not an environment congenial to high-minded abstraction. One must be as ruthless as the polar climate to conquer the pole, and Scott is not. Instead he remains an English gentleman to the end, dying because his civilized scruples cannot support his dangerous ambition. As he says, he will approach the pole, "Not with cheap tricks, or cruelty to brute beasts, but with the pride of English manhood!"
AMUNDSEN. Amundsen's quotation is short and pointed: "Think of the details." Unlike Scott who is obsessed by honor and glory, Amundsen considers protein. What Scott would see as Amundsen's low-minded, even barbaric, plan for eating his dogs, the Norwegian views as a necessary piece of realism, a practical way for staying alive in a place that, he says, "wants so much for you to be dead." He is thus Scott's foil, the character who clarifies, by contrast, the qualities of his rival.
KATHLEEN. Tally gives Kathleen a line that expresses her love both for Scott, and for familiar places and cherished memories: "You know the place, right along where the river flows into the sea," she writes in her diary, describing to her absent husband how she recently visited one of their special haunts. She is committed to her marriage, her home, her children--the whole sphere of personal relations and domestic satisfaction. Just as Amundsen's ruthless practicality contrasts with Scott's idealism, Kathleen provides a foil for her husband's restless ambition. Early in their relationship she wants to know why Scott is obsessed with the pole:
A place where you might be killed at any instant is not a place worth going to at all! That's merely vulgar. I should think it would make more sense to go to a place where one might suddenly, at any moment, become alive!
Coming to life for her means choosing to marry Scott:
Though you seem to be a most contrary man, and as different from me as chalk from cheese. . . . I've made up my mind anyway, so our differences scarcely matter. I knew last night when I chose you. . . . You are the man who will give me a son. . . . With the benefit of wedlock, or without, as you wish.
Behind her attachment to domestic fulfillment lies a shocking audacity, a willingness to question the conventional morality of her time that makes her into something like a proto-feminist. In criticizing Scott's idealism, and his devotion to Empire and adventure, she raises a disturbing, and prescient question: "You may go to the pole, Captain Scott, but what of your young worshippers left at home? What adventures will remain for them? How shall we satisfy so many?" Here the playwright seems to be linking the hunger for noble exploits with the Great War that looms in the near future, suggesting that the young men who so enthusiastically volunteered for the front were acting in the spirit of their hero, Scott, and seeking the satisfaction of nobility and danger.
Despite her skepticism about Scott's ambition, however, Kathleen ultimately accepts his need for risk and fame. When he protests that she is sufficient for him, she responds:
No. You'd always measure me against what might have been. I'd always come out wanting. . . Well you're going back, of course you are. You're the best man for the job, anyone can see that. . . . Go or stay . . . I don't care . . . so long as you'll only be happy again.
BOWERS, WILSON, OATES, AND EVANS. These are the members of Scott's party, and each brings a distinctive voice and attitude to the expedition.
Bowers is the joker in the deck, the kind of man who meets hardship with a sense of humor. "Lovely spot for a picnic," he says of the howling arctic wasteland, "hope we shan't be bothered with ants." One of those who survives to the end, his wit is instrumental in helping him cope with adversity.
Wilson is a close friend of Scott, and shares many of the Captain's ideals. When things turn desperate and Scott advocates the mercy killing of the delirious Oates, Wilson protests, saying, "Has it come to this, then? . . . I recall a friend who couldn't bear the thought of hurting dogs." However, Wilson is more resilient in the face of failure. While Scott is crushed by Amundsen's priority, Wilson takes a more easygoing view. The line of dialogue next to his name makes this clear: "Gentlemen, I've one last cigar that I'd been saving for this moment . . . And I say, to hell with the Norskers, I'm going to smoke it anyway."
Oates reveals himself most fully when he chooses to walk into the storm and die rather than burden his comrades with his useless presence. The piece of dialogue that accompanies his name lets us see why he took this drastic step: "I'm a soldier, aren't I? And all a soldier needs to know is his duty."
Evans, who concealed the wound on his hand so that he wouldn't be dismissed from the expedition, presents the first insurmountable obstacle to the enterprise. Dying, unable to pull his weight, consuming the dwindling rations, he contributes to the calamity. And yet his behavior, like Scott's, is motivated by the noblest intentions. As his line of dialogue says, "I thought it'd be worth a hand for that--to go to the Pole. To be one of the first." And like Scott, he is done in by his thirst for fame and adventure.
Tragedies are about noble characters who, ironically, contribute to their own destruction. This is certainly the case with Terra Nova. What Tally traces out through the play are the "causes of the disaster" as they are to be found in the hero's fundamental nature.
With his rations spent, a blizzard howling outside his tentflap, and his last two companions dying beside him, Scott lay in his sleeping bag writing letters with his frostbitten hand. A dozen of them--to the families of his men, to his friends and colleagues, to his wife, and to the British public. In those letters he explores what Amundsen calls "the pattern revealed"--the meanings behind this catastrophe.
With his own dramatic patterns in mind, the playwright, as we have seen, imagines Amundsen as Scott's moral opposite, as the realist whose ruthless pursuit of victory in the race to the bottom of the world negates Scott's gentlemanly idealism. When Amundsen butchered his dogs, one of Scott's biographers tells us, "he could not take his eyes off the delicate cutlets spread out on the snow, and in the tent consumed five and wanted more." Scott also killed his animals--ponies--and ate them too. But he wept when they died, a true Englishman even at the Antipodes. As Tally has him say in the play, "One doesn't cease behaving properly simply because one is entering a wilderness."
Because he couldn't stop behaving properly. He brought no dogs on that final journey; he bore up with the wounded Evans instead of abandoning him in the snow; and he nurtured Oates along, useless after his frostbitten toes came off with his boots.
And so in Terra Nova the "pattern revealed" is something like this: Scott failed because of his decency, because of the moral baggage he dragged with him from England--and not because of the thousand pound weight of his sledge. Scott, the loser, ends his hour upon the stage speaking of "hardihood, endurance and courage," while Amundsen, his nagging antagonist, having won and survived, fades from view. In Tally's disturbing play, virtue itself is the hero's tragic flaw.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Is Kathleen right when she denigrates Scott's adventure as a mere "stunt?" What is the value of such dangerous expeditions?
2. What does Amundsen mean when he tells Scott that he must "grab" success, and not "stand under her window with a mandolin?"
3. Was Scott right in nurturing Evans and Oates after they became useless to the expedition?
4. Are there contemporary equivalents of Scott and Amundsen?
5. Was Scott being too scrupulous by refusing to use, and eat, dogs on the expedition?
6. Does the play lead us to admire Scott, or to view him as foolish?
7. Does the play lead us to admire Amundsen, or to view him as brutal?