The Play

The play opens with a bare stage set in the winter of 1912. A series of ten rear-projected slides depict the journey of Robert Falcon Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, to Antarctica. A weary Scott sits writing, speaking the words as he writes. Forty-one years old, he has lost the race to the Pole and considers himself a failure. Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who reached the Pole before Scott, appears throughout the play to both taunt and debate the Englishman. In many ways, Amundsen functions as Scott’s conscience, articulating Scott’s internal doubts. With the exception of the banquet scene that opens act 2, Amundsen appears only to Scott. Kathleen, Scott’s wife, is a compellingly intelligent artist; she also appears only to Scott. This is a memory play, a mixture of the expedition narrative and Scott’s last memories.

Amundsen enters and introduces Scott to an audience of Royal Society members, who have gathered to honor the explorers. Scott, although confused as past and present bleed together, explains to the audience the difference between his and Amundsen’s strategies and ethics. Scott will train and travel on foot both to and from the Pole, hauling a one-thousand-pound sledge without the aid of dogs. Amundsen will use dogs, slaughtering the animals when they are no longer of use. During this scene, Scott’s wife, Kathleen, enters and reveals that she is pregnant with Scott’s son. Scott’s men, Oates, Bowers, Wilson, and Evans, enter hauling the heavy sledge. Oates is a hardened soldier, Bowers is an optimist, Wilson is a principled doctor, and Evans, the largest and strongest of the men, is the first to show symptoms of physical breakdown. It is the beginning of the last leg of their journey.

Kathleen reenters. She and Scott have been married for two years and have a young son. This scene delineates the differences between Kathleen and Scott. Kathleen’s artistic tastes are seemingly in opposition to Scott’s withdrawn personality and his obsessive drive to reach the Pole. Their differences, as Ted Tally points out, complement one another. Scott’s men enter and set up their tent. It is the seventy-fifth day of the journey, and they are twenty-seven days from the Pole. Their rations are running low and Evans has a deep, unattended gash in his frostbitten hand that is becoming gangrenous. Nevertheless, the men joke in the face of possible death, demonstrating compassion and bravery despite the mounting tension.

Amundsen appears and discusses Scott’s progress: Evans is ill, facing snow blindness and eventual madness. When Amundsen advocates leaving Evans, Scott concurs, confronting Evans with the accusation that he has put his own ambitions over the good of the team. As if to...

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Dramatic Devices

This is a memory play that occurs within the mind of one character, and several dramatic devices are employed to keep the narrative coherent. The bare stage allows for easy shifts in time and place. The tent, sledge, dining table, and chandelier, the only large sets employed, are quickly shifted onstage and offstage by the characters. The slides, lighting, and sound effects complement the shifting props, marking transitions between the polar narrative and Scott’s internal thoughts. Spotlights separate Kathleen (and often Amundsen) from the central action. The rear screen slides function as visual exposition, giving the audience details of the historical time and place. The scrim also serves as a device for the dramatic use of silhouette. The entrance of the characters into a scene already in progress communicates the fluidity of time and place that marks the entirety of the play. Because the play dramatizes a well-known event, it makes effective use of dramatic irony: The audience’s knowledge of history inflects the dialogue of the men who are about to die. Tally maintains a sense of tension through the existential uncertainties that Scott experiences, his relationship to the other characters, and the physical horror of their collective experience.


Sources for Further Study

Andreach, Robert J. “Tally’s Terra Nova: From Historical Journals to Existential Journey.” Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal 35 (1989): 65-73.

Huntford, Roland. The Last Place on Earth. New York: Atheneum, 1985.

Tally, Ted. Terra Nova. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1982.