On Saturday, we caught the first night of Shackleton, a new Canadian play about Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer. Presented by Calgary’s Confederation Theatre Society, Shackleton is a radio play by Paul Brown and John Hickie. It’s a radio play, yes, but in the tradition of live radio drama, it’s performed on stage. The characters wear basic costumes, and the barren staging is limited to a row of simple chairs. Behind the actors, the sound effects gadgets and the talented foley artists running them work unobtrusively in plain view.
This is the true story of Shackleton’s ship Endurance and her crew. The voyage is a famous example of leadership and teamwork in the face of extreme adversity. Thanks to their personal qualities, and to the physical stamina and plain good luck of the men of the Endurance, the entire crew survived, even after their ship sank in the Antarctic ice.
Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance
The story opens in August 1914.
As his country marched into what became the bloody First World War, Sir Ernest Shackleton was readying his ships for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. It had taken a long time and a a lot of work to get this far: fundraising, recruiting, planning, and preparations, right down to ordering jars of plums in brandy from Fortnum & Mason.
For the next three years while Europe burned, Shackleton and his men froze at the far end of the earth. Their original plan had been to cross Antarctica from end to end via the South Pole, but thanks to heavy ice and bad weather at the start, the expedition turned from exploration to survival.
The photo below shows a model of the Endurance, built to withstand the polar ice. You would have thought after the unsinkable ship Titanic went down on her maiden voyage in 1912, that claims of ships being able to beat Mother Nature would have been more cautiously made. Perhaps they were, but Shackleton had great confidence in Endurance. He didn’t foresee, or perhaps just didn’t want to consider, that she would be trapped and eventually crushed by the ice before sinking.
In October 1915, realizing Endurance was dangerously fixed in the ice, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. Everything useful the men could save and carry was taken off. On November 21, 1915, Endurance sank.
The heroic voyage of the James Caird
The most dramatic part of Shackleton comes in April 1916. Having no ship and limited supplies, Shackleton and his men had been camping on the drifting on ice floes, unable to control the speed or direction of their travel. They were finally able to land on Elephant Island in the middle of April, but no one in the world knew where they were. Shackleton realized that their only hope of survival was to get to the whaling station on South Georgia Island, and the only way to do that was in a tiny lifeboat.
Six men, led by Shackleton, got into the 23-foot James Caird, named for the expedition’s main sponsor. They left everyone else behind on Elephant Island and sailed for 15 days through ice, stormy weather, even a hurricane, across 1,333 km (829 miles)of antarctic water. Finally and with some difficulty they landed on South Georgia.
Three of the men stayed at the landing place, and three walked across South Georgia – another near-impossible journey over steep, ice-covered mountains. It took Shackleton, Captain Frank Worsley, and Second Officer Tom Crean 36 hours to go 56 km (31 miles). As the play reveals, there were disappointments along the way, like climbing a wall of ice for hours only to find no safe way down the other side, and having to backtrack. At the end, exhausted and hungry, they jumped down a waterfall to finally reach help and safety at the whaling station below.
The story of that journey in James Caird and the walk across the island is legendary and incredible. It becomes even more so when you realize just how small and open the little boat was. In the play, there’s a moment when a 100-foot wave crashes down on the boat. Now keep that in mind and look at this picture.
This is Sir Ernest Shackleton, a life-size model of James Caird in Cambridge, England at the Scott Polar Research Institute. James Caird herself, battered as she was, did make it back to England as valued cargo. She now rests at the private school Shackleton attended as a boy, Dulwich College in London and can be visited by appointment on certain days.
There is another Shackleton relic in London that’s easier to get to. Amazingly enough, after surviving the horrors of the Antarctic, Shackleton went back, aboard the ship Quest. It was his last voyage. He died of heart failure on January 5, 1922 on South Georgia Island. The crowsnest from Quest is in the eclectic and wonderful museum underneath the church of All Hallow’s Barking, which is close to the Tower of London and well worth visiting.
The play Shackleton ends with the rescue of the rest of the crew of Endurance from Elephant Island in 1916. In real life, Sir Ernest still had the crew of a second ship to worry about. The original expedition plan was for men from Endurance to use dog sleds to travel to the South Pole and continue across the continent. In the meantime, the ship Aurora would sail around Antarctica. Her men would go ashore and set out caches of supplies for the Endurance party to use. They did all this, but again thanks to the terrible weather, some of the Aurora‘s crew became stranded on the land for almost two years. They were finally rescued in January 1917, but three had died.
Sled dogs in Antarctica
Sled dogs were an important part of Antarctic exploration right up till the 1990s when they were taken off by international agreement not to introduce non-native species to the continent. Throughout the Shackleton play, we hear the dogs yipping, growling, barking, and howling. They were well-loved and would have been essential if the overland expedition had gone ahead.
At the Scott Polar Research Institute, there’s a sculpture called The British Antarctic Survey Sledge Dog Monument, with a plaque listing the names of the dog teams from 1945 to 1993. There’s another monument to Antarctic dogs, a sculpture called The Husky, at the Australian Antarctic Division’s offices in Kingston, Tasmania.
The play was a great way to feel immersed in the Shackleton expedition for an evening. Thanks to the wonderful nature of radio, you can use your imagination to realize just how hard it was, and to appreciate the full depth of the achievements. With the minimal staging and the intimacy of the Pumphouse Theatre, it was like we were sitting around hearing the explorers talk about their adventures, and reliving the very moments with them.
I was very happy to have gone, and as always, impressed by the talented people living here in Calgary.
The story of Endurance is forever inspiring.