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James Bridie’s The Anatomist
and John Byrne’s The Slab Boys

Edwin Morgan

The Devil to Stage:
Five Plays by James Bridie
The Anatomist (1930) and The Slab Boys (1978) are obviously two very different plays, but they do have certain things in common, and they make interesting comparison. They both have clear links with their authors, who know what they’re talking about. Bridie was a doctor, and his play is about doctors and medicine and medical research. John Byrne was himself a slab boy, mixing paint for the designers at a carpet factory, and his play is about slab boys in a carpet factory. So in this sense both plays carry and convey a kind of authority and confidence which is notable and convincing. Also, you could claim that both plays are comedies. Certainly The Anatomist has a large element of tragedy and melodrama, but the beginning and end seem to indicate that the play is some sort of comedy – a serious, exciting, thoughtful comedy, full of ideas and arguments, containing horror but somehow managing not to leave that as the final impression. The Slab Boys is more obviously and continuously comic, but it too has tragic undercurrents and serious ideas, and is, if you like, a ‘portrait of the artist as a young man’, with a great deal to say, or suggest, about the struggles of a working-class artist in post-war society. And finally, both plays are good theatre. Both were successful with audiences from their first production, and both have shown that they can be revived successfully. This is not unconnected with the fact that both Dr Knox and Phil McCann, the two heroes, are strongly theatrical characters. The main difference between the two plays is that they belong to different eras of Scottish theatre. Bridie was writing mainly before the Second World War, in the 1930s, and his appeal was in general that of a middle-class writer to middle-class theatregoers. Byrne is writing after the war and in the wake of the post-war change of emphasis towards realistic and often socially committed working-class plays –
Scottish People’s Theatre:
plays by Glasgow Unity writers
the tradition of plays like Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep, George Munro’s Gold in his Boots, Roddy McMillan’s All in Good Faith and The Bevellers, Bill Bryden’s Willie Rough, Hector MacMillan’s The Sash. (The Bevellers seems particularly close to Byrne’s play.) And going outside Scotland, one interesting difference is that John Byrne is asking his actors and director to show, as far as is practical on stage, the actual process of mixing paint for carpet designers – it’s a very physical play, you can’t mime it! Now this is what you also get in other plays of the period, like Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, where the play is set in the kitchen of a large restaurant, as realistically as possible, or David Storey’s The Contractor, where a huge marquee for a wedding reception is gradually set up, bit by bit, realistically and correctly, in the first part of the play and dismantled in the latter part. Both Wesker’s kitchen and Storey’s marquee are no doubt images or metaphors for something else, but from the audience’s point of view there is a great fascination in watching people at work. The Slab Boys comes into this category of play, and that is part of its hold on the audience. Plays have tended in the past to be about what their characters did or said when they were not at work, but since 1950 work has itself often become both a setting and a theme. Of course there is work in Bridie’s play too, in the background, but the work there is anatomical dissection, and this might have strained theatre resources or audience reaction!

Bridie, to look at him first, died in 1951, but in the thirty-odd years since his death we don’t seem to be much nearer any really agreed assessment of his place and value as a dramatist. His plays are not very frequently performed, and are, you may say, out of fashion. Yet when the best of them, like The Anatomist are revived, they prove to be very good theatre. So what is the problem? Bridie was himself a somewhat impish and enigmatic character. He wrote plenty about himself, for example in his autobiography One Way of Living (1939), but he likes to provoke and play with and tantalise the reader, using a good deal of mockery and irony and sometimes claiming to be less serious than he really was. The way he begins his autobiography is very typical (and I should add that he calls it among other things the History of a Happy Bourgeois – is that ironic?):

The Lowland Scot is the fine flower ...’
‘To consider curiously the Scottish Character ...’
‘Whatever we may think of the general characteristics of the Lowland Scot ...’
I found I had put in the carbon paper wrong side up. I tore out the sheet and began again.

The Lowland Scot differs from the rest of mankind in that he has no Unconscious Mind. He is aware and critical of all the levels of his consciousness, even when he is asleep or tipsy. He is expert upon himself, if upon no other matter ... One result of this is that the Scotsman is a good biographer but a bad autobiographist. His remarkably objective view of himself brings the recording of his own acts and experiences out of the field of art and into the field of mathematics. The story of an instrument of precision has poor appeal to the emotions. I am a Lowland Scot ... So far as I know there is not a drop of English or Highland blood in my veins. I am thus ill-qualified to write the story of my life or of any part of it. (pp. 4–5)

You will notice how even that simple beginning contains an elusive note: if the story of an instrument of precision has poor appeal to the emotions, then the autobiography will be incomplete.

In trying to (or trying not to!) define himself, he takes up a number of themes: education, religion, politics, nationalism. Of these, it might be worth quoting what he says about religion, since The Anatomist is in its way a play that keeps raising religious issues, especially the opposition between conventional Christian disapproval of ‘interfering with nature’ and the new ‘religion of science’ which doctors and other researchers were drawn into. Religious issues and references and images do indeed recur throughout Bridie’s plays, but he disclaimed belief, and tells us how much he hated, as a boy, having to attend services in the Pollokshields Free Church in Glasgow:

I hated the dreadful smell of varnish and damp cushions and moth balls and hot pipes and the lavender and eau de cologne on the ladies’ handkerchiefs ... I hated the creak of the minister’s boots on the pulpit stairs ... I hated the nippit faces and reverent bronchitis of the worshippers. I hated the abominable, snivelling voice with which the parson addressed his maker. I disliked most of the hymns and practically all the psalms ... I hated the cruel, stone-eroding monotony of the sermon ... I liked only the elders when they came round with the plate. Some of them, I knew, were pleasant men; and I had a sense that I was paying my threepenny-bit to get out of Purgatory. When the time came when my mother asked me to join the Church these early terrors must have fought for me and I remained an outlier and a heathen in spite of all appeals to my honour, my religious sentiment and my affection. On the matter of nationalism, and language, and the English and the Scots, Bridie was in part forthcoming, and in part undecided. He was very much concerned with the establishment of a Scottish National Theatre, but when it comes to nationalism in the larger sense he is not so ready to be pinned down; what he is quite sure of, however, is that the English and the Scots are different – that is the basis you have to start from – and the difference is what he and Moray McLaren investigate in their letters in the book called A Small Stir (1949). It is instructive to remember how mercilessly the poor Englishman Mr Raby is mocked in The Anatomist for his inability to understand Scots accents; even the genteel Edinburgh delivery of the Misses Dishart seems to flummox him (‘Are you fond of Naples, Mr Raby?’ ‘Yes, ma’am. I like them very much.’). The play uses English (Raby), Scottish-English (Knox and the Disharts), Irish-English (Burke and Hare), the various kinds of Scots (Mary Paterson, Davy Paterson). Bridie relishes the variety, as a dramatist, but he also enjoys pointing to the fact that a Scotsman and not an Englishman wrote the play. In one of his letters in A Small Stir (pp. 137–43) he comments: A week or two ago, a Sunday newspaper offered me some money and I wrote them a playful article about Scotland ... I hinted that God, from time to time, had been very lavish in providing Scotland with perfervid and original minds. I suggested that Scotland was waking up, now ... [1949] I expressed the fantastic wish that some of Scotland’s remarkable men should come out of the land of Egypt [i.e. exile in England] and sport their kilts of many colours in the land of Scotland, where they were born and where, presumably, they could still flourish. He went on to describe the reaction to his article: letters of praise from Scottish nationalists, and a spate of vicious letters from England about Scottish ingratitude for all the good things England had done for the Scots since 1707. This English view of history he won’t accept – even though a lot of his own income as a dramatist came from London theatres. As he puts it, ‘any serious resistance to their kindly despotism brings out the worst side of the English.’ And he warns us, finally, not to underestimate them, if we do resist or oppose them. ‘Moscow has nothing on the English in making adverse witnesses talk nonsense. They do it without drugs, or hypnotism or torture, or even the use of mirrors. They do it by magic.’

So overall you have the picture of a moderate-minded, non-religious, ironical, middle-class Lowland Scot from Glasgow who discovers his talent for writing plays during a period of renascent nationalism, and also a period of violently clashing ideologies such as Communism and Fascism, and who – perhaps this is the most we can say – is enormously interested in the ideas and movements of the time but finds it hard to commit himself to any of them. His characters toss ideas about, playfully or sceptically or seriously; and often the drama is set in motion through a contrast or opposition between a mocking or reductive spirit and some character who is possessed and obsessed by some new idea pointing to the future, like Dr Knox in The Anatomist who sees the necessity for regular dissection in medical training and research, or the young medical student Charles Cameron in A Sleeping Clergyman’ who studies the germs of his own disease under the microscope although he’s dying of tuberculosis. And the temperament of Bridie does not permit even these two characters to come through as unsullied heroes: the attitude to Knox, in his involvement with the Burke and Hare murders, is highly ambiguous, and any virtues in the desperate Charlie Cameron have to work themselves out three generations later as the play moves in time from the 1860s to the 1930s.

In The Anatomist, the medical subject of body-snatching and dissection suited Bridie as a doctor, but it also leads him right into highly dramatic human situations involving murder, prostitution, crisis of conscience, dedication to an ideal, the place of love in life, the place of the scientist in society – many themes emerging from realistically presented human dilemmas. Yet there is something more, in that Dr Knox (as I mentioned earlier) is highly theatrical, he is, if you like an actor in his own drama – it’s not for nothing that he feels he’s like Hamlet, engaging in banter with Mary Dishart as Ophelia, near the beginning: ‘You are facetious, Mr Knox.’ ‘Your only jig-maker.’ A jig-maker is a deviser of little theatrical interludes or epilogues, as Hamlet is, and perhaps Knox is too. Bridie was attracted by the theatrical possibilities of someone who was himself theatrical: the interest to the audience of an outwardly rather bizarre figure, unhandsome, bald, with an eye-patch, yet dressed like a dandy, fascinated by and fascinating to women, commanding a loyal following of students, full of playful or cynical or brutal conversation yet totally and knowledgeably committed to medical teaching and research, a man who plays the flute so badly yet so engagingly in Amelia Dishart’s drawing-room that she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and yet the very man who is unwilling to question the true provenance of the bodies brought to him for dissection – a man of so many sides, so many contradictions, that he becomes a perfect focus for Bridie’s ambiguous purposes. The Actual difficulty of knowing what Knox as like in real life in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh (and this difficulty remains, despite the book on him by Isobel Rae, Knox the Anatomist, 1964) is precisely what draws Bridie to him as a dramatic subject. In Bridie he is a great anatomist; he is a tragic-comic, half-ludicrous lover; and there are suggestions that like Faust he has a touch of the Devil, as in the conversation between Paterson and Raby at the end of Act 2: ‘It’s a nice morning, Mr Raby.’ ‘Yes ... I say, he’s a cool fish, the Governor.’ ‘Robert the Devil they call him.’ ‘Deep, ain’t he?’ ‘As deep as the pit.’ ‘What do you think? Does he think they knocked that girl on the head?’ ‘His Maker only kens what yon man’s thinking.’

These contrasts in the main character are then built up by Bridie into a play of contrasts, and especially the movement from the genteel Edinburgh drawing-room of the first act to the low-life scenes in the Canongate tavern in Act 2 and back to the Disharts’ drawing-room in Act 3; and the use of the Disharts’ house as an impromptu lecture-theatre for Knox and his students at the end is a brilliant contrast, bringing the medical and non-medical themes together. The middle act, with Walter getting drunk, and Burke and Hare luring the beautiful Mary Paterson to her doom (Don’t you worry, you’ll sleep sound this night,’ as Hare says), and then the tea-chest brought in with a lock of red hair caught in the lid – all this has so much inherent Melodrama that it presents a real challenge to the producer: but it can be done, it can give us a genuine pathos and the pathos is helped by the fact that Mary is no shrinking waif but a very robust character, strong-armed and strong-mouthed, so that her becoming a victim of the murderers is all the more striking and effective. This pathos makes Knox’s possible guilt, in turn, all the more strong as a dramatic theme. Indeed some critics have blamed Bridie for not making Knox, at the end, a complete villain, perhaps being condemned in court for complicity in murder, or alternatively, for not giving him a clear vindication as an innocent sufferer in the cause of science. But I think Bridie was right in not making it a morality play. The ambiguity is essential. The end, in its own way, is in fact very positive, even frighteningly so, in the emphasis it places on the sheer power of Knox’s personality, his Nietzschean imperturbability, and the comic undercurrents in his last speech never undermine its near-grotesque yet heroic stance.

With you I shall take the liberty of discussing a weightier matter ... ‘The Heart of the Rhinoceros.’ This mighty organ, gentlemen, weighs full twenty-five pounds, a fitting fountainhead for the tumultuous stream that surges through the arteries of that prodigious monster. Clad in proof, gentlemen, and terribly armed as to his snout, the rhinoceros buffets his way through the tangled verdure engirdling his tropical habitat. Such dreadful vigour, gentlemen, such ineluctable energy requires to be sustained by no ordinary forces of nutrition ...

Turning to The Slab Boys, we can see that John Byrne does not want or need the strong contrasts of scene or environment you find in Bridie. The two acts of the play are both set in the slab room of a carpet manufacturer in Paisley in 1957, and the action takes only one day. There is a sort of classic concentration or unity about this that seems to suit Byrne’s double purpose: to use a fairly claustrophobic setting (‘a small paint-spattered room’) where his characters will constantly be forced to interact, and to suggest the idea of escape, whether into the dubious promotion of the design studio or out into the ‘real’ world where an apprentice designer might become a real artist. And whereas Bridie wants to have moments of calm or quietness interspersed among the loud or argumentative or violent passages – variety of pitch as well as variety of tempo – Byrne’s play goes fast and hardly ever lets up. There’s a curious sort of paradox in the fact that although The Slab Boys is a very funny play, almost continuously so, and might therefore be thought somehow to be indulgent or easy-going compared with the high drama of a play about body-snatching, it has a hard edge, a rawness that hits a few nerves, even through all the fantastic and often black humour, whereas it could be argued that Bridie sometimes falls back on stereotyped emotional triggers that seasoned theatregoers may resist. But perhaps that is only because Byrne is our contemporary, and we really feel the thrust of how he says what he has to say about work or art or hospitals or growing up or growing old in our time – there’s no historical escape back into 1828. (When I say ‘in our time’ I realise of course that the events of the play are already thirty years back, and Byrne has an acute sense of period; but it is still a good deal nearer to us than Bridie’s Burke and Hare world.)

The quickfire inventiveness of the verbal humour is what immediately hits the audience. It spreads all through the play, but its power centre is the hilarious double act of Phil McCann, the would-be artist, and his friend Spanky Farrell, both nineteen and both from beautiful downtown Ferguslie Park. There is a great joy in these exchanges, either with each other or more usually against a third character. Sometimes when they gang up on poor Hector or puzzled Alan or the unfortunate Jack ‘Poky Chops’ Hogg, they remind us a little of Pinter’s Goldberg and McCann (another McCann!) in The Birthday Party. At other times their backchat and stand-up routines are more like the clowning in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. They relish – and this is not at all unrealistic, though exaggerated:; teenagers do it all the time – putting on other voices, becoming other characters, acting out satirical scenarios through their imitations, e.g. their fondness for contrasting Ferguslie Park and Stobo’s carpet factory with the Frank Richards world of Greyfriars School and the Owl of the Remove and all its pukka hierarchies.

HECTOR: My bloody wireless! That was for my Maw’s Christmas present.
PHIL: Bless my boater, did you catch that, Cherry? A yuletide cadeau for the squirt’s Mater and blow me if old Quelch ain’t went and confiscated the blighter!
SPANKY: Christ, Nugent, that’s torn it.
PHIL: Buck up, Pygmy Minimus ... Cherry and I’ll think of something. Any ideas, Cherry, old chap?
SPANKY: How about a set of cufflinks?
PHIL: I’ll wager that beast, Bunter had a fat finger in this ... (p. 5)
Or at the very end, Phil and Spanky left on stage, Phil dismissed from the factory and still hoping to get to Art School sometime, Phil has the last word, distancing himself from his misfortune by putting on the public school persona once again. PHIL: I wonder what the Guv’nor’s got for one’s tea t’night? Plate of jolly fine mince, perhaps? Or a shoulder of lamb to cry on? Best fling the leg over the trike and zip back to Fairyland ... find out, eh? Confront the old duffer ... break the news about the scribblin’ school, the sack, and ... oh, yes, the Old Dear’s impromptu dip, what? Might stop off en route and chuck a bottle of bubbly in the boot ... cheer the little tike up.
(picks up dustcoat) Would you mind stuffing that down Quelch’s throat as you leave, old bean? Thanks. Oh, and do pop a few of Bunter’s boils for me, there’s a good chap. Think I’ve got everything ...? Yes. Gosh, and All Serene, what a bally day. Started off pleasantly enough ... one’s Mater off for few days in the country ... but, fuck me, if it ain’t gone downhill since then. Fuck me, if it ain’t! (Pause) Christ, I’ve just remembered something ... (Takes a couple of steps and executes a cartwheel) Giotto used to be a Slab Boy, Spanks! (pp. 43–44)
Phil gives the play a positive, hopeful conclusion (only just, but he does), in his own voice, and by his own action, his physical cartwheel being the equivalent of the perfect circle which according to legend Giotto was able to draw.

There’s also the running humour of their attack on the middle-class Alan with his Parker pen – they refuse to give him any real identity by calling him everything but Alan (except once): Archie, Eamonn, Albert, Adam, Arthur, Alfie, Aldo, Agnes ...

And apart from verbal humour, there’s the use of classic physical farce situations, like the number of times Hector is bundled back into the cupboard in Act 2 – funny, if a bit overdone, though it fits in with the general physicality of the play.

As regards what I called the ‘hard edge’ of the play, there are two points I would note. The first concerns the fact that Phil McCann, the hero of the play, is a talented nonconformist who is trying to tell us something about the system in which he feels he’s caught, or in danger of being caught. Whether he will ever make it as an artist we don’t know (he’s still an unsuccessful artist at the end of Still Life style='font-family:, the third play in the trilogy), but we do know that he has real talent and that he cares about matters of art. With all the joking and fooling around we might not be sure, but it’s made clear at one or two particular points. Near the beginning of Act 2, Jack the designer criticizes him for apparently taking nointerest in the business, in the details of carpet designing, and Phil is angry because Jack has assumed he would not be interested in some design magazines he’s going to lend Alan. It’s a social thing as well as an artistic thing. Jack’s unspoken assumption is that slab boys from Ferguslie Park don’t read design magazines. Phil bursts out:

PHIL: Ach, pish, Jack! ‘Some of us take a pride in what we do’ ... You? You lot! You’re a bunch of no-talent no-hopers, arse-licking your way up the turkey-runner to Barton’s office, a fistful of brushes in this hand and the other one tugging at the forelock ... ‘Good morning, Sir Wallace, by Christ but that’s a snazzy Canaletto print up there on the wall next to that big clock that says a quarter to eight ... Suffering Jesus, is that the time already? My, but how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself. Pardon me, while I flick this shite off my boot ... Just after stepping on one of Jimmy Robertson’s sketches ... it’ll wash off, I’m sure. What? No, no, not at all, Sir Wallace ... of course I don’t mind putting in a bit of unpaid overtime ... it’s results that count, isn’t it?’ Jack, you wouldn’t know a good design from a plate of canteen mince. Interest? As soon as Barton starts revving up his Jag you’re the first one out the door and the leg over the bike before Miss Walkinshaw’s even got her teeth out of her waterjug! (p. 24) The other area where the play has a bite and isn’t merely entertaining concerns Phil’s mother. This comes out especially in relation to Alan and his happy family background. In Act2 Phil learns that his mother has vanished from hospital and might be anywhere. Alan enters, and Phil takes it out on him (unfairly – but that’s the play!): SPANKY: Leave him alone, Phil ... he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
PHIL: I bet you he doesn’t. (To ALAN) What do you know about getting up in the middle of the night in your shirt tail to say five decades of the rosary over your Maw’s open wrists? What do you know about screaming fits and your old man’s nut getting bopped off the Pope’s calendar? What do you know about razor blades and public wards and row upon row of gumsy cadavers all sitting up watching you stumble in with your Lucozade and excuses? Christ, what one’s mine? Is that you, Maw? What do you know about living in a rabbit hutch with concrete floors and your old man’s never in and you’re left trying to have a conversation with a TV set and a Maw that thinks you’re St Thomas Aquinas? What do you know about standing there day in, day out in the Factor’s office asking for a move and the guy with the shiny arse on his trousers shakes his head and treats your Old Dear like dirt? (p.36)
This again, like the outburst on art and design, is a social outburst as well as a personal one, and it’s strong. It brings across the vividness of Phil as the central character and it also makes him a spokesman, without being soapboxy or strained – what he says comes out of his actual teenage experience. It is still, in the way he talks, comic; but it bites.

Like The Anatomist, The Slab Boys has been criticised for not having a real climax. At the end, the characters are getting ready for the Staff Dance. Hector has been promoted to designer, Phil has been sacked, Phil’s mother has been found, fished out of the river safely (‘the grappling hooks did not break the skin’ as the ambulance man says in a last flick of black humour), and that’s it. Perhaps the answer is that it’s the first play in a trilogy? But even the trilogy as a whole lacks a really convincing climax. Things are still open-ended. Perhaps there is more to follow? Middle-aged one-time slab boys? It’s interesting that Byrne’s more recent play, Tutti Frutti, which for most of the time seems very slow and unstructured, does have an undoubted climax, a literal coup de theatre, with an aging rock star setting fire to himself in his leathers in the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow. But that was television. Maybe Byrne likes to do things differently in the theatre. At any rate, there seems no doubt that in The Slab Boys he wrote something which combines a lot of entertainment with some pungent comments on the world we live in, and perhaps the unfinished action is a part of the comment.


Quotations from the plays are taken from James Bridie, The Anatomist, Constable, London, 1931 (second edition, revised, 1932), and John Byrne, The Slab Boys, Salamander Press, Edinburgh, 1982. The other plays in Byrne’s trilogy, Cuttin’ a Rug and Still Life, were also published by Salamander in 1982.

Text of a talk given to a conference on Scottish literature organised by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, University of Strathclyde, 3 October 1987.


Copyright © Edwin Morgan 1987


Last updated 30 September 2013.