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The Representation of Manifold Identities in Post-war Scottish Theatre

Ian Brown

Carla Sassi was not alone when she famously talked in 2009 of ‘the powerful literary strain that rigidly connotes Scottish nationhood as male, working-class and, ideologically, as socialist or republican’.1 Certainly this was an issue I drew attention to in my chapter on Scottish theatre in the Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature.2 That chapter’s title was ‘Staging the Nation’, but it continues ‘Multiplicity and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary Scottish Theatre’. This paper argues that, while there was certainly a period when Sassi’s strictures and mine held true, particularly for theatre the 1970s, there was a different version of Scottish nationhood to be found earlier in the twentieth century and a much more complex representation more recently. In the early part of the century, the difference was found, not least in the productions of the Scottish National Players, active in one way or another between 1921 and the end of the World War Two. The Players had very little to do with a concept of Scottish nationhood that was ‘male, working-class, and ideologically socialist and republican’. I will argue, however, that in the 1920s, when the Scottish National Players were attempting their version of Scottish nationhood, Joe Corrie with the Bowhill Players and In Time o Strife (1927) offered, in reaction, an alternative vision closer to that identified by Sassi. But Corrie stood, if not alone, at least relatively marginalised.

The idea of forming the Scottish National Players emerged before the First World War, largely as means of establishing a Scottish drama as opposed to the predominantly English-language West End-centred industrial-scale theatre that prevailed throughout Britain. One of its objectives was ‘To found a Scottish National Theatre’.3 The idea’s fruition was deferred until peace came and, launched in 1921 and based in Glasgow, it toured intermittently into the rest of Scotland. Its actors were amateur or semi-professional and, despite a wish by board members like the playwrights James Bridie and John Brandane that the company set itself on a fully professional footing, this never happened. David Hutchison suggests that the reason for this was that the actors ‘were understandably nervous about giving up their jobs’.4 Brandane was a driving force in the company and it presented his play The Glen is Mine in 1923, first at the Athenaeum and later that year, and again in 1926, at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow. This play typifies aspects of the Scottish National Players’ repertoire.

The Glen is Mine sets an island landowner, Colonel Murray against his son the Captain, Charlie, to whom, the Colonel, to avoid death duties, has handed over responsibility for his estate. Charlie, working with London financiers wants to mine for haematite in the glen to supply the iron industry. The colonel is horrified by Charlie’s plans:

CAPTAIN: But it just comes to this. There’s money in that old hill, so why shouldn’t we have it?
COLONEL: And you’re Highland, and can say that! Ben Creach! The deer-forest! [...] The river with oily scum on it! Labourers slouching about!5
The Colonel ‘s horror is clearly at the desecration in his eyes of industrialising his rural fastness. It is ironic in this case that the deer-forest that arose out of the impact of the Clearances is by this stage seen by him, and Brandane, as the natural state for the Highlands. The Colonel’s horror is as much at the thought of ‘labourers slouching about’ ‘his’ glen as at the oily scum on the river. The vision of the Highlands as unspoiled and idealised continues: COLONEL: [...] But the Highlands, Charlie! Is this to be the beginning of the end of them? Are the old hunting pastoral days to go – the wild free open life?6 Brandane entirely ignores the social and economic forces that have led to the depopulation of the Highlands to create this idealised free open wilderness that has now to be protected. His romantic values look back to the kailyard, while his play is written with a clear sense of social hierarchy. The Colonel is not only sure of the pristine nature of his Highlands, but is opposed to those he sees as arriviste: It’s always your profiteers that love to get their claws into our set. Makes the hair-restorer Johnny and the furniture polish man feel big to point the finger of scorn at the old families.7 Beside the established landowner’s desire to keep the Highlands as they are is a social snobbery that is entirely assured that the present hierarchy is as it should be and the Highlands should not be developed by new investment. The use of language marks here a similar sense of hierarchy, one in which the local characters who speak Scots (though in this play that is marked lightly in the use of words like ‘ken’ and ‘skelp’) are treated as comic unless they are the two young romantic lovers, Morag and Murdo. A key sub-plot is the confounding of the local merchant, MacPhedran, who is also, by offering credit, in effect a moneylender. In this position, he does not scruple to try to use his power over Angus MacKinnon, a crofter whose croft’s location is key to the Captain’s plans, to help to try to evict the crofter who loves his land. While Brandane gives Murdo a speech that attacks the hard life of crofting, he asserts the romance of the ‘free’ way of life found in the ‘Glen’. The Colonel’s generosity saves Angus and, in the end, the developers are defeated so far as the ‘Glen’ is concerned, though they find a more profitable area in the Highlands to develop. Brandane’s Glen may be saved, but not someone else’s. The romanticised way of life remains under threat, but clearly the Players and Brandane are promoting a rural, regressive and socially conservative vision of ideal ‘Scottish nationhood’.

The Glen is Mine accords very well with David Hutchison’s description of the repertoire of the Scottish National Players:

As many of the [company’s] plays [...] are naturalistic in form and set in areas where dialect was still spoken at the time of writing, it was possible to use the Scots of the particular area, and this may be another reason why dramatists preferred rural settings: they were able to use Scots without producing the uneasy situation where contemporary characters speak in archaic language. The rural setting, because dialect could be employed, possibly seemed to them to be that much more Scottish than the urban one, although there was nothing to prevent a writer from rendering the Glasgow dialect on the stage, as Unity’s writers were later to do.8 The issue that emerges here, as in other plays presented by the Scottish National Players is just what constitutes ‘Scottish’, or, for that matter, to quote another of the company’s objectives, what constitutes Scottish ‘life and character’. On the question of the identification of ‘national’ or ‘nation’ in their work, Bill Findlay remarks of the Scottish National Players and companies that followed their path: despite their ‘national’ aspirations, held with sincerity and integrity, the companies tended to have a limited sense of ‘national’ when it comes to work in a Scots idiom, in that the playwrights avert their gaze from the contemporary industrial and urban reality of Scotland, and therefore from the associated linguistic reality, too. Hence work in Scots typically has country or historical settings; settings where the Scots employed could be a traditional, conservative, country-inflected Scots, or a re-imagined Lallans.9 In effect the Scottish National Players represented an attempt at a Scottish theatre, but one frankly conservative in its artistic and social attitudes, a largely bourgeois theatre.

There is a tendency now in thinking about Scottish theatre in a post-war setting to forget the importance of the vision of Scottish nationhood embedded in the work of the Scottish National Players. Indeed, this vision largely permeated the plays presented throughout the Scottish amateur movement under the auspices of the Scottish Community Drama Association founded in 1926 and still active. In fact, the kind of ‘Scottish nationhood’ Sassi rightly identifies can be seen to arise from a reaction against the Highlandising, idealising, feminising, historicising drama that grew out of the work of the Players. Even if Brandane’s The Glen is Mine is contemporary to its time of production it is nostalgic, while other of Brandane’s work, like The Lifting (1925) – a Jacobite adventure involving resistance to redcoats – is clearly backward-looking in its identification of ‘Scottish nationhood’.

It is against a background of such drama that Corrie writes the plays he does in the 1920s and certainly in reaction to such romantic nostalgia that Unity Theatre develops its repertoire. This from George Munro’s Gold in his Boots (1947), about corruption in football, to Robert McLeish’s Gorbals Story (1948), about housing shortage, is determinedly working-class and socialist in its tone. Yet Unity was not, as we remember in the work of Ena Lamont Stewart, simply ‘male’. Neither her Starched Aprons (1945) nor her Men Should Weep (1947) expresses strong support for the male as an embodiment of Scottish nationhood, but both represent a society in which men have substantial power, and weaknesses. This was especially true of the first version of Men Should Weep where Maggie ends by killing herself. The version we are now more familiar, with rewritten in the 1970s, where Maggie faces down her husband’s male attitudinising, emerged from a later period and later ideas about the role and power of women in society.

Although Unity closed under public funding pressure in 1951, it marked, when Corrie had been tamed to become effectively a house dramatist for the Scottish Community Drama Association, a diversification of Scottish theatre away from a bourgeois ‘legitimate’ theatre. Yet, the most prominent Scots-language theatre continued to be written by such figures as Robert McLellan, Robert Kemp, Alexander Reid, and, in translation, Douglas Young. This generally did not conform to that principles of Unity, nor was it a drama that was in Sassi’ terms ‘male, working-class and, ideologically, as socialist or republican’. It was generally historically focused, with traditional views of social organisation and hierarchy. In fact, what Sassi rightly confronts as a key strain in Scottish literature and drama prevailed substantially in the later decades of the twentieth century and especially in drama in the 1970s. One should remember that, when those literary and dramatic strains developed, they were often a progressive reaction to what preceded them. When Stewart Conn, Bill Bryden and others began to write in Scots broadly in the terms Sassi identifies, they were resisting a tame, bourgeois theatre. This looked back at Scottish history, by and large, sentimentally so that ‘Scottish nationhood’ was under that influence defined in regressive terms that paid no attention to the urban and industrial nature of contemporary Scottish life. The new synthesis of popular and ‘legitimate’ theatre that came to fruition in the 1970s broke that mould, but it did so in terms of presenting maleness, working life and socialist values. From our perspective now, this may seem limited. At the time it was revolutionary and fresh.

Nonetheless, this male, working-class, socialist drama opened new doors and led to further diversification of identities on the Scottish stage. It would be redundant at this point to list the many ways in which women’s playwriting broke through after 1980 in the work of Sue Glover, Liz Lochhead, Marcella Evaristi and Sharman Macdonald, not to mention later women playwrights like Nicola McCartney and Isobel Wright. After my own play exploring gay sexuality and activism, The Fork, (1976) – performed not by a Scottish company as it happened, though the Traverse’s Chris Parr was interested in it, but by Gay Sweatshop, which toured it to Edinburgh – a number of 1980s gay playwrights presented gay themes on stage. These included John Binnie and Christopher Dean, while Rona Munro explored lesbian love in Saturday Night at the Commodore (1989). Michelle Macleod and Moray Watson have written eloquently on the vitality of Gaelic-language drama in the 1960s and 1970s in their chapter in the Edinburgh History.10 Despite the failure to survive of the companies Fir Chlis (1978–81) and Tosg (1996–2006), attempts at Gaelic-language drama have been energetic and often in the form of soaps, like Machair (STV, 1992–98), have made a longer-term impression. Now, any vision of ‘Scottish nationhood’ expressed on the Scottish stage has achieved such a range of diversity and multiplicity of identities that it is no longer possible to argue for any single vision of ‘Scotland’. As David Pattie puts it, the questioning of ‘Scotland’ by one of our leading playwrights, David Greig

seems to position Scotland as the silent partner in a never-to-be completed conversation; as though the country has no substance in itself, but acquires meaning only through a process of continual re-engagement. Greig is not simply Scottish, he exists in a dialogue with the nation, one in which neither Greig nor the nation he identified with are fixed essences. One might say that the two exist only when placed in relation to each other.11 Pattie estimates Greig’s prolific output at five plays in most years; alongside David Harrower Greig is one of the most widely translated Scottish writers, being translated into something of the order of thirty other languages. Scottish nationhood, as expressed in its drama, is now clearly manifold and firmly set in international contexts.

Twentieth-century theatrical developments, after the first strugglings in the1920s of the Scottish National Players and Corrie’s radical reaction to them, were reinforced by the work of Glasgow Unity, not to mention new writing presented by the Glasgow Citizens, founded in 1943, and the Edinburgh Gateway Theatre Company, founded in 1953. Since the 1970s, a diversification of topics, themes and language choice, whether English, Scots or Gaelic, has meant that Scottish theatre has embodied and led in the determination and celebration of the perception that there is no single Scottish ‘identity’. Rather there is recognition of many identities – linguistic, gender-based, sexual, regional and social – which make up Scottish culture, or ‘nationhood’. That ‘powerful literary strain that rigidly connotes Scottish nationhood as male, working-class and, ideologically, as socialist or republican’ has been subverted and surrounded by enhanced and enriched conceptions of what makes up Scottish nationhood. But I would always want to repeat that, in its time, in the middle of the twentieth century, that strain, which now seems so regressive, was, in its time and context, progressive. I suppose today’s literary and theatrical revolutionaries will, to the next generation, appear somewhat passé.

Notes

  1. Carla Sassi, ‘The (B)order in Modern Scottish Literature’ in Ian Brown and Alan Riach (eds.), The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh |University Press, 2009) p. 153.
  2. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).
  3. Quoted by Hutchison, ‘1900 to 1950’ in Bill Findlay (ed.), A History of Scottish Theatre (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1998), p. 221.
  4. Ibid., p. 223.
  5. John Brandane, The Glen is Mine and The Lifting (London: Constable, 1925), p. 35
  6. Ibid., p. 36.
  7. Ibid., p. 106.
  8. David Hutchison, The Modern Scottish Theatre (Glasgow: Molendinar, 1977), p. 71
  9. Bill Findlay, ‘ Modern Scots Drama and Language Planning: A Context and Caution’, in John M. Kirk and Dónaill P. Ó Baoill (eds.), Towards our Goals in Broadcasting, the Press, the Performing Arts and the Economy (Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2003), pp. 165–169, pp. 166–7.
  10. ‘In the Shadow of the Bard [...]’, in vol. 3, pp. 280–2.
  11. David Pattie, ‘Scotland & Anywhere: The Theatre of David Greig’ in Anja Müller and Clare Wallace, Cosmotopia: Transnational Identities in David Greig’s Theatre (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2011), p. 55.

 

Copyright © Ian Brown 2012

 

Last updated 26 November 2012.