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Arts in Review

Exploring cultural performance in the search for the Franklin expedition

It’s -30°C. The sun hasn’t shone for weeks. Your toes are frozen. They will fall off.

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image: creative commons

By Christopher DeMarcus (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: October 30, 2013

image: creative commons

Franklin led the expedition to the North, bizarrely packing a printing press and fine china.

It’s -30°C. The sun hasn’t shone for weeks. Your toes are frozen. They will fall off.  Beyond the 60 feet of your ship’s open deck is nothing but ice and darkness. There is only the cold and the crew: all lonely men, thinking of mutiny.

But there is a play to perform. You’ve worked on it for as long as the sun has disappeared. You could have brought more food and supplies, but instead you chose to bring a printing press on board to make scripts and playbills for the men. You left that extra sheep at home. There wasn’t space for it. You needed to fit all the costumes and props onto the ship.

The only thing between your men and mutiny is the performance. It’s time for a musical comedy in the Arctic.

A tale from high school history, the Franklin expedition was a mission by the Royal Navy in 1845. Their goal was to find passage in the Arctic, but the expedition—all 128 men—disappeared. The British Navy first sent out ships in 1848 to try to find the lost enterprise, a search that continues to this day.

As a part of this past week’s throne speech, the Harper government promised it will “work with renewed determination and an expanded team” to find Franklin and his lost crew, now over 150 years old.

At The Reach art gallery, UFV professor Heather Davis-Fisch gave an astonishing lecture about the hunt for Franklin.

But her research has a twist.

“There were two different plays performed in one evening; one for the officers and one for the crew,” Heather explained, “ensuring that friendships and bonds only developed with men of comparable ranks.”

Davis-Fisch has done extensive digging on how the navy maintained social stability in total isolation: the crew performed stagings of the plays Zero and Harlequin Light. She explained how British marine life used the power of theatrical narrative to enforce their social structures, to educate, and to survive.

In many ways we use theatre the same way today, be it in  middle school productions or in prisons. The production provided a recreational activity that still enforces the authority of officers over crew.

But it wasn’t all about enforcing social ties. There was respect for performance and theatrical talent, too. “Actors were clearly rewarded for doing their job well with applause and reviews in shipboard newspapers.” she said. The printing press for onboard ship newspapers was vital to maintain civility during the mission.

Taking up valuable space, musical instruments and costume trunks took precedence over more essential supplies.

The productions were part of the ideology of British imperialism, Davis-Fisch explained. “The [play] showed that the Arctic could become, through the slap of an imperial bat, as familiar and domestic as the British characters in it.”

The enthralling and charming lecture was followed by a group discussion of modern experiences in the Arctic. What was made clear was that the story of Franklin’s expedition is a form of observational narrative in itself. History as a play, a theatrical analogy that we use to understand the unknowable world of the vast and lonely Arctic.

For a more in-depth exploration about about how performance relates to cultural structures, you can read Davis-Fisch’s book Loss and Cultural Remains in Performance: The Ghosts of the Franklin Expedition. 

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