Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Literary critic Robert J. Andreach calls Terra Nova a spiritual journey, an existential quest that Tally created by altering some aspects of the historical record. For example, Scott used both ponies and dogs during the initial stages of the expedition. When the ponies were no longer of use, they were shot and fed to the dogs. The omission of this fact from the play creates a greater moral opposition between Amundsen’s brutal realism and Scott’s heroic idealism. In the vast wastes of Antarctica with the race lost, Scott embodies the human condition—a man adrift in a meaningless universe. However, in a land hostile to all life, Scott and his men retain their humanity, and it is this fact, as Amundsen points out, and not the success of their journey that gives meaning to their lives and deaths.
The nineteenth century was the heroic age of exploration, and Scott was a remnant of its adventurers. Through the character of Amundsen, the play examines the relationship between the rhetoric of heroism and the actual experience. By 1912, when Scott’s expedition reached its end, one century was dying and another was being born. The cynicism voiced by Amundsen during the play foreshadows the ideological shift from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Scott’s doomed notion of the British ideal of nobility and sportsmanlike ethics is the last gasp of Victorian optimism in a world on the brink of war and moral chaos. The inscription of the Boer War through the character of Oates etches Tally’s point in greater clarity. Britain’s standing as a world power, achieved through rapid colonialism, reached its height during Queen Victoria’s reign. While Scott and his men die in Antarctica, the sun is setting on both the British Empire and the imperialist ethics that made that empire great.
Scott emerges as a tragic hero. Deeply flawed psychologically, withdrawn, unable to connect closely with people, and obsessively ambitious, Scott is also courageous and caring. Terra Nova is, above all, a fascinating psychological study of a man consumed by ambition. Because the facts of the expedition are well known, the psychological tension created by Scott’s struggles and sacrifice forms the play’s core.