Two Words for Snow: A Play


83 pages
ISBN 0-88995-310-4
DDC C812'.54





Reviewed by Ian C. Nelson

Ian C. Nelson, Librarian Emeritus, former Assistant Director of
Libraries (University of Saskatchewan) and dramaturge (Festival de la
Dramaturgie des Prairies).


Richard Sanger’s facts and characters’ names are historical, but Two
Words for Snow is resolutely a work of the imagination. And what an
imagination it is, condensing both grand and personal themes into a play
that was called extraordinarily moving and passionate in a limited-run
production that was also labelled a must-see show.

A nominee for past Chalmer’s and Governor General’s Awards, Sanger
is a poet, a playwright, and an essayist, as well as a notable
translator of Spanish plays (Lorca and Lope de Vega). His command of the
word is evident on every page of this script, in which—with a kind of
minimalist dialogue—he steadfastly keeps the large themes of his play
before our eyes even as his characters work through their own personal
agendas. He does this without excessive exposition and with virtually no
hint of forced or extended explanation. He has ingeniously set the play
in two times and places: Commander Robert Edwin Peary’s Arctic camp
just before his final attempt to reach the North Pole in 1909, and the
Eskimo Room of the American Museum of Natural History in New York in
1935, where Peary’s son has come to insist that the story of his
father’s questionable feat be made unassailable. The plot then
revolves around Matt Henson, an Inuktitut-speaking African-American
“shadow” who accompanied Peary and who holds the secret of what
really happened on the expedition. In one most telling line, the Henson
says with exquisite cultural irony, “I’m just an old elephant; I
don’t forget.” Therein Sanger manages to suggest the historical
cycle of civilizations coming into contact with one another and the
manipulation and lies that make up their bedding down together. The
metaphor is apt, as the embrace of colonial ambition takes its toll on
the relationship between Henson and an Inuit woman. With personal
alliances turning on a dime, a series of sharp racial slaps in the face
have deep repercussions for the heritage that will be left to the sons
of the protagonists: “We’re all primitives, Mr. Peary. Some tribes
just hide it better.” Two Words for Snow is highly recommended.


Sanger, Richard., “Two Words for Snow: A Play,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 20, 2024,