8th April 2019
Q&A with Peter Arnott: Unspotted Snow is at Macrobert Arts Centre on Thu 25 Apr
Q. What was the catalyst for the play?
A. I was writer in Residence at the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland 2009 to 2011…initially to celebrate Murray publishing “Origin of Species” in September 1859. Frank McLintock’s book “The Voyage of the Fox” (about his search for Franklin’s remains) came out in the same month…and Murray also had Franklin’s original manuscript written in pencil on his 1822 expedition…complete with sweat stains from Franklin using the paper as insulation. So I got interested…
Q. What was it about John Rae that made you want to pay tribute to him?
A. Rae, unlike Franklin and indeed any of the mainstream of 19th Century British explorers of the globe…was uninterested in conquest, in the imposition of religious, commercial and imperial norms on the wilderness. Like John Muir in California, he anticipated a much more “modern” holistic approach to the natural world, not seeing people as being conquerors of empty space but as inhabitants of a planet shared with other forms of life…and everything he did, the huge strides he made in mapping the far North of Canada, to his adaptation of his snow shoes, was of a piece with that view of life. A greater culture clash with the project of imposing the Cross and Commerce on the wilds, of “civilising” the globe by force and technology…as exemplified by the hubris of Franklin, or his later admirer, Captain Scott…could scarcely be imagined. So on purely dramatic grounds, that became the focus of the story both in the Arctic and in the media management operation in which Lady Jane Franklin was so formidable an operator, and where Rae was as out of his depth as Franklin had been on an ice floe.
Q. What was it about the reporting of the expedition that you found fascinating?
A. It was the clash of values as well as that of personalities. Lady Franklin recruited all the cultural big guns of her time: Tennyson, Dickens, and a young Wilkie Collins, so that the defense of Franklin and the celebration of his success became a cultural imperative. An actual sympathetic understanding about what had actually happened to the two ships, the Erebus and Terror, and to the crew of 129 souls, became quite impossible. It’s only recently that the story has started to get put together, with the discovery of the ships (all since I started work on the story) and most importantly, the proper noting and annotation of the stories told about the lost “kablunas” by generations of Inuits ...whose testimony was abhorrent at the time and was ignored pretty much until the 1990s.
Q. How does this reflect on media in our times?
A. We are living in a very tribal era, interestingly enough, where media algorithms keep us separated from each other in self contained bubbles of reality into which anyone thinking differently is electronically excluded. And versions of reality is what drama, particularly this drama, is all about
Q. The play is in two parts, why this format?
A. The split between realities I mentioned before is part of it. But mainly I wanted two worlds in which people were in and out of place. So in the first half, a kind of horror-comedy, we have an encounter between three of the last survivors of Franklin’s expedition encountering Inuit ladies to whom they utterly fail to explain themselves…and then, in a curious echo of that, we have the inhospitable wilderness of Lady Franklin’s Drawing Room…where John Rae again finds himself telling a story that his audience simply cannot…or will not…understand.
Q. What do you hope audiences will take away from the play?
A. Curiosity is almost always good…