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Storytelling: a wintry tale of amazing fortitude

By Bob Hicks
January 23, 2012
Featured, Theater

Launch of the lifeboat James Caird from the shore of Elephant Island, April 24, 1916. Published in Shackleton's book, "South," William Heinemann, London 1919. Photo is probably by Frank Hurley, the expedition's photographer. Wikimedia Commons

It’s crazy-new time on Portland stages for the next few days: the annual Fertile Ground festival of new works is popping out dozens of new shows all across the city, putting on almost 200 performances of pieces ranging from A Noble Failure to Rapunzel –Uncut!

But this weekend I took a break from what’s new.

I wanted to see a guy standing alone on a bare stage, talking for three hours about another guy who did an extraordinary thing a long time ago.

The two guys are the great if semi-forgotten Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and his ardent Portland champion, storyteller Lawrence Howard of Portland Story Theater.

Howard’s played this territory a couple of times before, creating a loyal following and helping to turn Shackleton into something of an unlikely local hero. On Friday, Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare: The True Story of the 1914 Voyage of the Endurance once again held an enthusiastic packed house at southeast Portland’s Hipbone Studio in rapt attention from beginning to end.

Three hours? You’re not supposed to be able to get away with that sort of thing. The contemporary solo show is a cut-to-the-bone thing – usually 90 minutes max, designed to wrap up before the audience’s patience runs out and the performer keels over in a dead faint.

Lawrence Howard

Yet even with less than luxurious seating, three hours with Shackleton and Howard was just fine, thank you very much. The evidence was clear: put together a good story and a good storyteller in a congenial atmosphere, and you can create compelling theater all night long. As one enthusiastic onlooker exclaimed while heading for the door sometime after 11 p.m., “That coulda been longer!”

It helps, from a storytelling point of view, that Shackleton faced more perils than Pauline. His story is filled with twists and turns, disastrous mishaps and raw courage, horrible luck and unlikely escapes. Expectations of fame and fortune give way to a reality of extreme physical hardship and a constant threat of death. And it all has the advantage of being true.

Almost a century ago Shackleton and his crew of 27 fellow adventurers accomplished one of the extraordinary feats of endurance in modern times. They set out from England for the South Pole but instead encountered the mother of all ice jams and got stuck in an impassable sea, at one point going 497 days without setting foot on solid land. If they weren’t quite sailing on The Flying Dutchman, it was mercilessly close enough – and yet they survived.

Shackleton’s voyage on the aptly named Endurance was his third hack at glory in the extreme south. He’d been forced by health problems to quit Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901-04 Discovery Expedition. In 1909, as leader of the Nimrod Expedition, he and three companions came within 97 miles of the South Pole – a record at the time. In 1912 the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen finally reached the pole, five weeks before another party led by Scott also made it. Amundsen’s party returned to civilization in triumph. Scott’s party, starving and exhausted, perished in the cold on its return from the pole.

Thwarted in his quest to be the first to reach the pole, Shackleton concocted a daring plan. He would lead an expedition that would be the first to cross the frigid continent – an 1,800-mile trek, much of it through uncharted territory, that would go through the pole from one end and emerge back at the ocean on the other. For all sorts of reasons the expedition was a failure. Yet it was also, in terms of survival against unspeakable odds, an almost impossible success. Shackleton and his men set out in search of one sort of glory and emerged exemplars of a tougher, more enduring, harder-won courage.

Shackleton in 1915. Photographer unknown.

Part of the attraction of Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare is Howard’s obvious affection and admiration for the men and their tale. He loves this story, and he loves retelling it: The ice floes, crashing together like tectonic plates and stacking atop one another like so many house-sized pancakes. The Endurance, finally crushed in the ice like a hard nut between harder pincers. The scramble from floe to floe, arduously towing three lifeboats. The grim necessity of killing sled dogs. The dubious pleasures of penguin stew. The 800-mile sea journey from isolated Elephant Island, which the crew had finally reached, to South Georgia Island, where help might be available: seventeen days in a small drenched lifeboat, riding 30-foot waves that rose and fell every 90 seconds. Reaching South Georgia on the island’s unpopulated wrong side, and having to trek straight across a never-explored mountain range to reach the whaling outposts on the other side. At times the story becomes so unbelievable it’s funny, and Howard plays along with it: you’re not gonna believe this, but … it really happened. Howard also pulls in his audience by making the story personal. He recounts his almost lifelong fascination with Shackleton’s life and adventures, a passion he shared with his father, and which became both glue and touchstone in their own relationship.

Although Howard doesn’t stress it, part of the story’s resonance comes from the fact that Shackleton’s adventure was one of the last great adventures of the Age of Discovery. The Endurance set sail from England on August 8, 1914 – five days after the First World War broke out. Their perilous journey didn’t end until May of 1917, when all 28 men had been delivered safely home. In that time, the 19th century had ended and the 20th had begun. It’s worth mentioning that Shackleton made one final voyage to the Antarctic, embarking on September 24, 1921. On January 5, 1922, while still on South Georgia Island, he suffered a heart attack and died. The age of heroes, in a sense, was over. Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare is partly a romantic bugle taps, from a smaller and more ironic age, for a time when life seemed bigger and better.

That may or may not be true. But it’s a helluva story.

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