This afternoon I had the pleasure of joining Helen Shield on ABC local radio to talk about Antarctic theatre and advertising. The catalyst for the discussion was the premiere of Dana Bergstrom’s Antarctica: The Musical, which had its debut at The Theatre Royal on Saturday night. This was not the first time an Antarctic story had graced the stage here in Hobart – in fact, the first Antarctic play, entitled The South Polar Expedition, premiered at the same theatre (which was known as the Royal Victoria Theatre at the time) back in 1841. Elizabeth Leane has described how “The melodrama was inspired by the arrival in the city of a returning British Antarctic exploring expedition, led by James Clark Ross, and the second-in-command, Francis Crozier” – both of whom were characters in the play. While neither man chose to watch himself depicted on stage, several of the sailors who had just returned from the far south did attend the show. Some elements of the staging may have been familiar – such as the “splendid icescape” – while others saw artistic licence used – as in the case of the marauding five foot high penguins. Although Antarctica has been visited at the time, it remained largely unknown, and images of whirlpools, bears, and other dangers abounded in the early days of Antarctic representation.
The continent has been used in a range of ways over the 175 years since – as evidenced by the fact that Antarctica: The Musical features as its lead character an Antarctic scientist. In this regard it holds some similarities to Lynda Chanwai-Earle’s 2008 play Heat, which tells the story of two scientists, both grieving the loss of their son, who spend the winter together in an isolated Antarctic hut. Chanwai-Earle’s play puts both a human tragedy and an environmental tragedy on stage, with a block of ice that is used to represent Antarctica slowly melting under the stage lights as the play progresses. In such modern plays, the materiality of Antarctica is foregrounded, and narratives of climate play out across the stage alongside those of human endeavour.
Earlier plays that feature Antarctica have variously used an empty stage, drapings of white cloth, and an ice-rink in order to represent Antarctica. As I argued in my Masters thesis, these plays can be broadly placed into four different categories – those that follow in the footsteps of Heroic Era figures (such as Captain Robert Falcon Scott); those that retell Heroic Era stories from new perspectives; those that reimagine Antarctica as a setting for stories back home; and those that – like Heat – return to Antarctica, and foreground the continent itself. Tracing these representations of Antarctica on the stage is one way of revealing ways of thinking about Antarctica as a continent – is it a place for heroes? A place of danger? A place to be protected?
These are similar questions to those posed by my current PhD project. By examining representations of Antarctica in various types of cultural production, we can gain valuable insights into the ways Antarctica itself has been both valued and imagined.