The Infinity Monologues: An Excerpt
In this play, part-history-part-fiction, Amelia Earhart, Stephen Hawking, and Lawrence Oates (of the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole) recount together their stories of confronting, examining, and ultimately entering, the infinite. Due to exhaustion and lack of provisions, none of Scott’s team returned from the Pole; Oates disappeared without a trace. On the last leg of her flight around the world, Earhart disappeared into a blue sky, never to be seen again. And Hawking, according to my play, resisted disappearing into the black hole of his disease, while laying a scientific theoretical foundation for a surprising and boundless immortality.
The following excerpt is from Oates’ story. A former military man, Oates departed on his own terms, with perhaps the greatest last words in history. Stepping from the tent into a snowstorm, he told the others, “I’m just going out, and I may be some time.”
(enters from darkness offstage into light downstage; remains thoughtful a moment, preparing to speak, deciding how to begin)
I was with Scott at the South Pole, aboard the Terra Nova. I was there, on the ice, in the snow. At the end.
(pauses, surveys audience as if to let his words settle in)
By 1910, I had grown weary of the military and its routine. Though I was a Captain in the Dragoons, I needed something new. Something that would test me in the way war had done nearly a decade earlier. When I heard of Scott’s expedition, I knew it was the thing for me.
No one had ever made it to the South Pole. Wars had been fought since the beginning of recorded time. Empires had risen and fallen, replaced by other empires which would, in their turn, also fall. But Antarctica had remained unconquered, belonging to no nation on earth. The South Pole at that time was nothing more than an idea, an as yet unseen mythic place. One of the last. So ... I resolved to see it. To make it real.
(wanting to help us see the deep core of his motives)
Listen, it had never been about getting to the pole first. Not for me. Scott was different: “The honor of the Empire,” and all that. Heroic blather. For me, it had always been about getting there. Only that. To go literally to the end of the earth, the longitudinal point from which it is impossible to go further. To stand at the edge, where you must either retreat ... or step into the void and feel it take you. Where your choice is a simple “yes” or “no,” as clear and sharp as the Antarctic air.
That’s what I wanted. That’s why I went.
(his tone shifts, as if thinking aloud, recalling brutal details)
By god, we struggled. All those miles — hundreds and hundreds of miles — of ice and snow. Day after day after day. We were always cold, always at the end of our rope it seemed. I’d taken a ball in the leg when we fought the second Boer War. And I was never right after that. It hampered me, I’ll admit. Slowed me down. But I managed. We all did. It’s a wonder we got there at all.
And then to find that Amundsen had beaten us weeks earlier ...
When Scott wrote of the pole, “Great God! This is an awful place,” he was right. It was. It was stunning. In its bleakness, its immensity, its blinding, awe-inspiring monotony. White expanse as far as you could see. Sky. Snow. Where did one begin and the other end? It was as if we’d reached some kind of infernal heaven. Or divine hell. Just what I’d imagined, but so much more. And so much worse. A pure, boundless nothing.
(by now, Oates is gazing out over the heads of the audience, into the distance)
We were looking into the face of God, and it knocked us on our arses. Magnificent. Terrifying. And utterly devoid of compassion. Or regard. Or any feeling whatsoever.
Scott spoke for all five of us, because at that moment we had not the words to speak for ourselves.
(simultaneously rueful, matter-of-fact, and amazed)
It was a grand project, but we had gone too far. How could we return from that? How could we re-enter the world, rejoin our families, chat about the weather with neighbors? When you’ve gazed into the infinite, there’s no coming back. Not in any way that would make sense to those who wait for you. What happened to us after that was inevitable. Not because we failed, but because we succeeded too well. Amundsen planted a flag in the snow, and left. We stopped, opened our eyes, opened our minds. And we were scoured clean, hollowed out. There was nowhere to go, so we stayed. At the end, Scott, Wilson, and Bowers settled into a sleep from which they never awoke. But not before I’d made my decision, not before I had stepped into the abyss outside the tent, telling them ...
... not to wait up.
It was my only choice. When your earthly sight is taken, when your senses no longer make sense, when the sun and snow burn through your sockets and open you up as big as the universe, nothing can ever fill you again.
I knew what I was doing when I left the tent. It wasn’t a sacrifice for the good of the team, like the history books say. It was my simple “yes” to a simple and terrible question.
(Oates begins to walk upstage; turns briefly to face audience)
They never found my body, because there was no body to be found.
(he disappears into darkness upstage)
Jack Bushnell, a retired UW-Eau Claire English professor, is an award-winning essayist, children’s author, and playwright. Though he enjoys cold and snow and especially animal tracking, and though it occupies an increasingly large place in his writings, he has so far journeyed to the South Pole only vicariously, through his characters.
The Infinity Monologues was a recent winner in Chameleon Theatre Circle’s 20th annual New Play Contest, and was featured in their New Play Festival at the end of September 2019 in Minneapolis.