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Fridtjof Nansen’s polar express

By Bob Hicks
January 24, 2017
Culture, Theater

East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. But Rudyard Kipling didn’t say anything about north and south, and as Lawrence Howard points out, when you’re living on a globe, eventually they do meet: It’s inevitable.

Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater and spinner of a string of Armchair Adventures, has chronicled in several tales the travails, disasters, endurance and occasional triumphs of the men who attempted to conquer the South Pole in the early years of the 20th century: Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, and their crews.

Lawrence Howard reimagines the icy north. Photo: Scott Bump

With his new solo show, Nansen of the North, Howard for the first time in his polar adventures heads north instead of south. And he travels backward into the 19th century, a place he’s taken us before with his Armchair tales about The Essex, a Nantucket whaler that was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, thus inspiring Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; and John “Babacombe” Lee, a Victorian thief and laborer who survived three hangings after being convicted on slim evidence of slitting a seaside spinster’s throat in 1884.

Nansen of the North is the story of Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer who made it to 86°13.6’ N during his North Pole Expedition of 1893-96, the closest to the pole that anyone had come to that point. After finally returning home he was hailed as a national hero and cultivated for his breakthroughs in polar procedures by a string of ambitious explorers who would carry his methods with them as they took a crack at the Antarctic continent. As Howard says, Nansen was the link between north and south.

Nansen premiered Friday evening at The Fremont Theater as part of the citywide Fertile Ground Festival of new works, and will have two more performances in its initial run, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28.

Nansen, in cold gear. Photo: Henry Van der Weyde, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

People who’ve seen other episodes in the Armchair Adventurer series have a good idea of what to expect. Those who haven’t are in for a fascinating ride, part historical enthusiast’s research and part summer-camp fireside tall tale. Howard is a captivating yet disarming raconteur, the shaggy prof whose class everyone wants to take because he laces his lectures with the thrill of seeming to be there when the history’s being made. He finds a sweet spot between reminiscence and reportage, speaking with calm urgency and a blend of wonder and humor about events of extraordinary hardship and courage, able to suggest in a few quick sentences just a shiver of the feel of a long winter spent in a burrowed-out room in the ice in temperatures 50 below zero. For Nansen he’s onstage alone with nothing but a large map on which he sometimes traces the route of the explorer’s journey. Otherwise, it’s words and imagination.

And a crackling good story to tell. Nansen, who was born in 1861 and died in 1930, was a champion skier and ice skater and got into the exploring racket young, leading the first crossing of the Greenland interior in 1888 by making most of the trip on cross-country skis. He was a scientist and scholar, making discoveries about the central nervous systems of lower marine animals that would prove helpful in the establishing of the discipline of neurology, and his interest in the North Pole was sparked largely by scientific inquiry. Other ships venturing into the frigid Arctic waters had been crushed by ice floes wedging and slamming them from either side. Nansen was intrigued by the idea of traveling northward in a ship with a broad hull shaped to bob above the ice as it squeezed in, letting the ice lift it to safety; he also thought the drift of the sea would lead him in an upward arc toward the pole. He planned meticulously: how much food for how many days; how many dogs to last how long; how to shoot the dogs at intervals in order to lighten the load and feed the remaining dogs.

Artist Lars Lorde’s depiction from a photograph by Nansen of the dugout hut where Nansen and fellow explorer Hjalmar Johansen spent the winter of 1895-96. From Nansen’s 1897 book “Farthest North” via Wikimedia Commons

On his adventure some things went as anticipated and many did not. How it all turned out is Howard’s tale to tell, not mine, and he tells it well, with a terse forward drive. The main part of the story is about the adventuring itself, with enough detail to put it in perspective but not enough to slow the thing down, and toward the end Howard veers into the aftermath of Nansen’s exploring days, which is at least as remarkable as the tale of survival in the far north. A little like John Glenn, who followed his journeys into space with a long political career, Nansen became a leading international citizen. He took a role in Norway’s separation from Swedish rule, became diplomatic minister to London, and after World War I he was instrumental in the forming of the League of Nations. For the League he organized the repatriation of close to a half-million prisoners of war who were stuck in a limbo after the war without papers; the “Nansen passport” is still a model for dealing with the many refugees who have lost their official identity records. He fought to alleviate famine in Russia, and led the resettlement of 2 million Russians uprooted by the revolution. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He gave the money that came with it to international relief organizations.

You could say that Nansen was a Norwegian through and through, and probably a Norwegian First, but he was very far from being a Norwegian Only. As a scientist and explorer and statesman he believed that everything was connected, and so responsibilities were as well. A model, maybe, for the modern age.







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