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Scottish Drama: an overview

Edwin Morgan
ScotLit 20, Spring 1999

Sir David Lyndsay’s
A Satire of the Three Estates
The general assumption in the past has tended to be that an overview of Scottish drama would not take very long. Between Sir David Lyndsay and James Bridie, what was there of any lasting importance? The spirit of theatre seemed to have found Scotland an uncongenial place. If we now want to modify that belief, we still have to admit that there were bleak periods when not much was happening – notably in the 17th century. But popular kinds of dramatic or semi-dramatic entertainment, shows and spectacles, communal celebrations don’t die out, even if they have to watch their step or go underground in oppressive or authoritarian or anti-hedonistic times, and they are always ready to be thawed out again, like cryogenic Lords of Misrule, whenever society gives them a chance. It isn’t surprising that there should be this subterranean continuance. Lyndsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaits did not come out of a vacuum. If it seems unique, this is because other plays and playwrights that we know about from the medieval period have left no trace except their names or titles. There were also wandering minstrels, frowned on by the law, who could sing, dance, mime, tell stories. And there were authorized minstrels attached to the court, both men and women, singers, dancers, jugglers, acrobats, clowns and jesters. At the court too, which was a natural centre of entertainment, there were splendid masques, festivals, tournaments, often with elaborate stage effects. And everywhere there were folk-plays and folk-revels on May Day, at Midsummer and New Year. Guisers with their faces blacked up would dance through the churchyard, men dressed as women and women as men. Bakhtin would have loved these reversals and confrontations, the very essence of drama. So it won’t do to say that the Scots are by nature undramatic or untheatrical. But they suffered a double blow with the loss of the court to England in 1603 and the clampdown of religious censorship after the acts passed by the reformed kirk’s General Assembly in 1575.

So are we making grand gestures about the death of drama? What actual plays have we got? I think it’s important, in any survey like this, to at least remind ourselves of the evidence. The world, as Wittgenstein said, is everything that is the case. Let’s not forget George Buchanan’s Latin tragedies, available to us in Robert Garioch’s Scots translations as Jephthah and The Baptist, both based on biblical stories, Jephthah being much the better of the two. These were not closet dramas. Jephthah was written to be acted, and it was acted, by the college students Buchanan was teaching in France at that time. It has a thoroughly dramatic subject – Jephthah, ruler of the Israelites, makes a vow to God that if he defeats his enemies the Ammonites in battle he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he returns (possibly thinking of a dog or some other domestic animal), and is horrified when he sees his only daughter coming out to meet him. Can he, and should he, carry out his rash but solemn promise? [Judges XI] The play became very popular on the Continent, and was translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, Polish and Hungarian. It, and Buchanan’s other plays, had a marked influence on French classical tragedy. The irony is that it was not translated into Scots or English, and so this Scottish playwright had no influence in his own country. If he had had, we might have produced a Scottish Racine in the 17th century! But still, Jephthah exists; we have it now in a good Scots version, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be regarded as a play to be played, a part of our repertory.

Another contemporary of Sir David Lyndsay, though we don’t know who he was, wrote the comedy of Philotus which was published in Edinburgh in 1603 and was very possibly (though there’s no record of it) produced at the court of James VI (who liked to encourage drama) sometime during the 1590s. The interest of this piece is that it’s the only romantic Renascence comedy in Scotland, written in verse, in Scots, with a story taken from English, Italian, and eventually Classical sources, young lovers, plenty of mistaken identity and cross-dressing (both ways), and a happy outcome. Philotus is a wealthy old man of eighty who falls in love with Emily, a girl of fourteen, and she doesn’t want him even as a sugar-granddaddy. In the ramifications of the plot, Philotus is married to Emily’s handsome brother who is her lookalike and is dressed in woman’s clothes. The wedding night is a scene of high farce, as you’d expect. In the end there are two pairs of young lovers successfully brought together, with Philotus lamenting his solitary state and warning other old men to keep their eyes off young lassies. The play is both sophisticated and coarse, in a peculiarly Scottish way. The author has added two characters not in the original story, The Plesant (= jester, fool) and the Macrell (= bawd, procuress), and their outspokenness gives a distinctive tang to the play. If a line ends in luck, you may be sure that the next rhyme will be fuck, and if a line ends in blunt it’s not hard to guess what the next line will end in. One 18th-century English theatre historian wrote of the play: ‘This delectabill treatise [as it’s called on the title-page] is by far the most offensive drama ever produced... These words so frequently scribbled in chalk on walls and shutters are here printed at full length; a sufficient proof of the barbarous state in which Scotland remained till civilised by its intercourse with England.’ Well, boo to that! Philotus could not be more unlike Jephthah, but both plays are, like it or not, part of our dramatic inheritance, and so they’re worth noting.

About a century later, we have another of these one-off plays which can’t be put into any continuing Scottish theatre tradition but which don’t deserve to be forgotten. In 1692 a distinguished physician called Archibald Pitcairne wrote The Assembly, sometimes described as the only Scottish Restoration comedy. The title refers to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and the play is a satire on Presbyterianism by an author who was an Episcopalian and a Jacobite. In the list of characters at the beginning, various names connected to the General Assembly are printed as Member of the Ass——, Moderator of the Ass——, Clerk to the Ass—— and so on, a neat way of combining prudence with mockery; the Assembly, like the law, is an ass. The main targets are fanaticism, bigotry, and hypocrisy; there’s a theological main plot which is well dovetailed with a love subplot; and the play is written in racy colloquial prose, a mixture of English and Scots, with much word-play and double-entendre. There’s an interesting verse prologue which makes it clear that the author knew he was doing something quite bold and original:

The Author gently doth bespeak and pray,
The Criticks[’] Favour for his first Essay.
Our Northern Country seldom tastes of Wit,
The too cold Clime is justly blamed for it:
Nothing our Hearts can move, our fancy Bribe,
Except the Gibberish of the canting Tribe.
’Tis a long while since any Play hath been,
(Except Rope Dancing) in our Nation seen:
Yea, but in this our all reforming Age,
We have a Play, the Pulpit turn’d a Stage!
And Jack the Actor, doth appear Devout;
The only Way to catch the senseless Rout ...

You’ll notice how conscious (and ashamed) the writer is of the decline of formal drama in Scotland. He’s aware that there has always been what we would call street theatre, popular entertainment: his reference to ‘Rope Dancing’ is not just a throwaway phrase but is quite specific and not entirely dismissive. We know from many other sources that tightrope dancing and acrobatics, often of a remarkable order of skill, were great crowd-pullers, especially in the streets of Edinburgh. They were part of a motley crew of buskers of all sorts, ballad-singers, storytellers, musicians, and those unfortunate persons with physical disabilities who were paraded as freaks. Pitcairne knew all this, but he wanted something else. I think he might have agreed with John Cage, who once wrote: ‘Theater exists all around us and it is the purpose of formal theater to remind us that this is so.’ The antics and theological acrobatics of the black hoodiecraws in the General Assembly were just as much ‘theatre’ as what you saw in the streets and squares of the city. As Pitcairne said, ‘We have a Play, the Pulpit turn’d a Stage!’

Unfortunately The Assembly was not performed. There was no theatre to put it in, and even if there had been, its subject would have made it virtually impossible of acceptance. So, remarkable though it is, it’s another cul-de-sac, even if, as I think will emerge later, there may be some links between our cul-de-sacs which could be of interest. There is, by the way, a nice irony in the fact that a proposal to stage The Assembly in the Assembly Hall during the Edinburgh Festival of 1965 was turned down by the church authorities, who said such a bawdy and blasphemous play was totally inappropriate for such a holy building. So Pitcairne rests his case, even three centuries on! They haven’t changed, you can hear him say.

When we come to the 18th century, and the establishment of theatres in Edinburgh and Glasgow, we are in more familiar territory, with Allan Ramsay’s pastoral comedy The Gentle Shepherd (1725–1734) and John Home’s tragedy Douglas (1757). The Gentle Shepherd, with its songs and music, is perhaps more ballad opera than play, but it has a certain charm which means that it does get revived from time to time. It has a flimsy, fairy-tale kind of plot, with shepherds that turn out to be aristocrats after all, but within its conventions, and especially in its use of a vigorous Scots (as opposed to passages of stilted English, of which fortunately there are not too many), it gives some vivid impressions of country life, including its negative aspects as well as its attractions. Its popularity in Edinburgh showed that audiences’ ears were delighted to hear a Scots speech they had been deprived of for so long. That being so, why did audiences also flock to Home’s Douglas, written on a Scottish theme but not in Scots, and indeed in a monotonously heavy and unidiomatic, tonally inert English blank verse? A gloomy, almost static historical tragedy, with no comic relief of any kind, with long flashbacks which explain the plot but don’t advance it, and even with a misleading title since the central character is not Douglas but his endlessly grieving mother who at last discovers her long-lost son just before he is killed and then kills herself: what was the attraction? Well, it was a time of revived interest in Scotland’s past, whether real or legendary. It was the time of the Ossian of James MacPherson (whom John Home greatly admired), of a new Scottish patriotism in the poetry of Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns. The much quoted cry of the man in the audience, ‘Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’ bears this out. A play of historical moment like that is hard to keep in the repertory unless it’s outstandingly good, which Douglas is not. Attempts to revive it may in fact be doomed – unless we could find some Mrs Siddons to play Lady Randolph, because it is a fact that she mesmerized her audiences with her portrayal of the part – all stops out, vast gestures, tears at command, ham acting if you like to call it that – so perhaps that is what it needs, turn it almost into an opera, add strong atmospheric music to cover up the fustian of the language. When it was played at the Edinburgh Festival in 1986 it was panned by even the most sympathetic critics, partly because this was a rather genteel production, in the Signet Library, by a company that obviously felt too timorous to risk anything more robust in case that would have had the audience rolling in laughter. Over the top and deil tak the hinmaist may be the only way to deal with this play. It has done its bit, a long time ago, and perhaps we should be satisfied with that.

Before we leave the 18th century, can I infiltrate another of my neglected-but-interesting examples, from c.1786. This is a little play, a playlet, called Hubble-Shue, by Christian Carstaires. I can’t tell you anything about her except that she was a governess in Fife, and judging by her play the fortunate children she looked after must have had a whale of a time. Indeed, since there are children as well as adults in the cast, it’s possible she wrote this piece in the first instance for a family in a big house, though that’s only a guess. The interest of this play is that it’s a bizarre, anarchic comedy, more like Jarry or Ionesco than Douglas or The Gentle Shepherd. The title, Hubble-Shue, is an old Scots word with a variety of meanings from ‘uproar’, ‘commotion’, ‘riot’, to something like ‘a milling crowd gathered together to watch an event’; it can be good or bad. I suspect that Ms Carstaires, being a well-educated governess, had probably come across William Dunbar’s poem (at least it’s attributed to him) ‘The manere of the crying of ane playe’ (crying = public proclamation), which begins ‘Harry, harry, hobbillschowe, Se quha is cummyn nowe...’ Christian Carstaires gives us a play within a play, and sometimes it’s quite hard to tell which play we’re watching, though she gives plenty of stage-directions. Here’s the latter part of Scene 2, there’s been a dinner party and the characters go into the drawing-room:

Fat Minister: Come, Miss, give us your Italian –.
Miss: Yes, Papa.
Si li si ti o to
Ki li qui si o so
Fa la se scud
Qui a vi a vi a
Que a vi a ve a
Qui a vi a bo. &c.&c.
[Enter Mrs Consul and her Grandchild.]
Mrs Consul: Madam, I beg you ten thousand pardons, it was not in my power to wait upon you at dinner; there is no separating my grandchild and the little black girl.
Child: O, Mamma, I’m frightened.
Mrs Consul: Why are you frightened?
Child: The little girl says a great fish (a crocodile) came out of the water (the Ganges) and devoured her father – and a fine gentleman came running with a sword and stab’d the monster – and her father was all bloody, and she would have been killed; but the fine gentleman took her away, and they were carried by a black man with muslin on their head (turbans) – and the fine gentleman gave her to a great lady – All the fine things could not make her forget her poor father ...
Fat Minister: Hold your tongue, my bonny dear, and you and the black girl shall go to the dancing school.
Child: No, Mamma. [Crys] ... Take me home, Mamma...
Mrs Consul: Come my dear – excuse me, Madam – my child is really not well – feel her hand – I am afraid she’s feverish.
Apothecary: Madam, you had better give miss a little Senna and a puke, if it operates six times it will be sufficient.
[...A coach calls to take them all to the playhouse to see the play...the play is delayed for half an hour, the audience is restive – a girl sings a song on stage to fill in:]
When you hear a mournful tale
Laugh and hide your tears.
When you hear a mournful tale
Laugh and hide your tears.
La-a-a-a-laugh, &c.
This is poor entertainment (from one of the boxes.)
An orange from the footmans gallery hits the Irishman such a blow on the nose – He flies upon the stage, drawing his dagger – throws one of the players heels o’er head – wounds Mr Hallion – makes such a hubbub, the gentlemen from the pit are obliged to interfere.
The house is in great confusion – the company crowding to the door with great difficulty get to their coaches – a Nabob’s carriage driving like Jehu – the coachman being drunk overturns one of the hackneys – they shriek frightfully, and the Minister roars like a bull.
The old Ensign, chancing to walk on foot, comes up and helps to lug them out.

All quite mad? – and yet not entirely so – the author mocks the current Scottish craze for importing Italian singers – and she uses the two little girls to make a sympathetic comment on the unhappiness of Indian children snatched from their families to become servants in Britain, even if they’re well looked after as the black girl in the play evidently is... Altogether the playlet with its light touch makes a refreshing contrast to the stiff formalities of Douglas.

The 19th century tends to be linked to the 17th by historians of drama as a period from which there is very little Scottish drama to be rescued. At the beginning of the century the plays of the prolific Joanna Baillie were admired by Scott and Byron, and some were produced with a slight measure of success, but succeeding generations seem to have agreed to let them gather dust. Still, who knows? A director who knew nothing about her might come to her with fresh eyes and find something worth trying out. Her prose tragedy called Witchcraft, set in Renfrewshire, written in a mixture of English and Scots, might be worth a look. Apart from her, there’s a poet William Tennant, best known for his long poem ‘Anster Fair’, who published in 1823 a blank verse tragedy called Cardinal Beaton; although it is over-rhetorical, it has the strong subject of the burning of the early Protestant martyr George Wishart, followed by the revenge killing of Cardinal Beaton; perhaps it should be tried out in St. Andrews, where it is set. And at the end of the century, it may be time to cast a glance over the plays of the poet John Davidson, and in particular Smith, which he described as a ‘tragic farce’, although his proneness to overwriting makes it unlikely that his plays would have wide appeal. And in fact, revivals of all three, Baillie, Tennant and Davidson, would be only marginal to the general absence of serious drama.

There may have been an absence of great drama, but there was no absence of popular theatre, of which the 19th century was the golden age, in Scotland as well as in England. A distinction between drama and theatre is always an unhappy one, but sometimes it has to be made. To the ancient Greeks and the Elizabethans it would have seemed absurd, since they were able to write and perform works of the highest quality which were also enjoyed by large audiences. But in Scotland this marriage has proved extremely difficult. The job which the 20th century set itself was if possible to bring the two together, as they had been in medieval times. It was still difficult: dramatists had to compete for audiences first with cinema and then with television; but they felt, quite rightly I think, that there is always an audience for live theatre, even a big audience, if they could crack the code of tapping into it. What could they learn from the 19th century experience?

The Victorian theatre in Scotland had a popular diet of English classics and dramatizations of novels, especially those by Walter Scott. Local writers were not encouraged to produce individual plays, and the local genius had to find its expression through pantomime, and later music-hall, where a wealth of local references and language could be inserted, but within the limits of those modes of entertainment. It has to be said, in this respect, that the ‘literariness’ of a dramatist like James Bridie, when he appeared in the 1920s/1930s, may have been one of the reasons why his work did not carry forward, and the enthusiasm roused by later companies like 7:84, Wildcat, Communicado and TAG, which employ modern variants of pantomime and music-hall song and gesture and dance, suggests they are mining a lode of drama that does in fact relate them back to Victorian times. The 19th-century Scottish novelists (who they? you might ask, but they do exist!) give us some tantalizing but striking glimpses. In Zachary Fleming (=Henry Johnston)’s novel Martha Spreull (1884, 1887), the eponymous heroine, who is a students’ landlady in Glasgow, talks about an elephant ‘at the wild beast show... at the foot o’ the Sautmarket’, public baptisms of Latter-Day Saints in the East End, and the sudden springing up of new tenements in the High Street ‘just like ane o’ thae transformation picturs ye see i’ the pantymime’. More interestingly, Frederick Arnold’s novel Arthur Leslie (1856) takes its hero along Argyle Street on a Friday night:

The evening was darkening, and the shops were a blaze of light; their lurid glare fell on a sea of faces, marked by ten thousand varying expressions. I felt as if walking down a vast picture gallery, with only a moment’s space to look on a striking figure here and there.

The young man visits a ‘singing saloon’, really a weird mini-theatre up a Saltmarket close:

The concluding passage of Stern’s [sic] Sentimental Journey was being roughly dramatised for the behoof of the audience. The piano strummed loudly, the actors shouted and screamed, the room was crammed, corks and waiters were everywhere flying about. But my mind was outside the building, in the dingy street, among the fearful forms that blocked it up.

Two points that strike me about these rather fascinating passages: (1) they bear out what John Cage said in the quotation I gave earlier, how ‘theater exists all around us’ – perhaps especially in Argyle Street! – and (2) they show that in order to compete with the theatre of the streets you may have to hire a saloon in the Saltmarket, provide music and plenty to drink, allow people to talk during the performances, which are in a hot crowded sweaty space, and yet, and yet, have the actors perform of all things, Laurence Sterne, an English classic, who probably went down well because the last scene of A Sentimental Journey is deliciously erotic in Sterne’s most openly suggestive style [speaker at inn overnight – only bedroom with three beds – has to share with lady travelling with maidservant (fille de chambre) – the decencies are observed until the last sentence – ‘So that when I stretched out my hand, I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s——.’]

It’s all quite deplorable, isn’t it? You can see why, when it came to the early 1920s, when the Scottish National Theatre Society was set up and working out its agenda, people like John Brandane, James Bridie, and Tyrone Guthrie were so determined to give the public a more serious drama than what their parents and grandparents had been used to. Two of the stated objects of the Society, as given out in 1922, were ‘To develop Scottish national drama through the productions by the Scottish National Players of plays of Scottish life and character’ and ‘To encourage in Scotland a public taste for good drama of any type’. They wanted better plays, they wanted better audiences, and they sensed (rightly) that the time was ripe for change. Other groups, rural groups, community groups, miners’ groups, and later Glasgow Unity Theatre, were also working towards a more relevant contemporary dramatic scene, and it’s from this period that the variety of our present theatre scene has developed, a variety that is quite rich, though not without its disappointments and frustrations. For all that, for all these conscious developments and ideals, there’s something in the vivid image (almost itself like a scene from a play) of the Victorian Saltmarket saloon which sticks in your mind and gives you a gut feeling that here is a thing we must never lose, rough, raucous, warm; some ordinary people enjoying a wee refreshment and some music and at the same time taking in their stride the words of a literary classic. The very incongruity of the scene is its importance. Bakhtin rides again. ‘If Only Bunty Was Here’, as Tom Leonard says in the title of his little play.

The Devil to Stage:
five plays by
James Bridie
I have mentioned James Bridie, and when we look back at his work from the 1990s we see someone who is still, for all his faults, the most substantial Scottish dramatist of the century. In a writing career of some twenty years he wrote over forty plays, the majority of which held the stage and were much discussed. We have had plenty of plays since his death in 1951, but no single dramatist has been able to equal the range and continuity of Bridie’s output. The nearest would be John McGrath, but his is a rather special case because of the company teamwork he has always been so closely associated with. Playwrights have tended to produce one or two or three good plays, often with big gaps between them, sometimes vanishing into non-theatre activities and leaving audiences and admirers caught up in the ‘Whatever happened to–?’ syndrome. The brute economics of making a living by writing for the theatre in Scotland is no doubt a large part of cause of all this, but the fact remains that no one seems to be able to build up an oeuvre by which he would establish and retain a recognizable identifiable public impact – like that, for example, of prolific American contemporaries such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet.

To go back to Bridie: despite the limits put on his reputation by middle-class assumptions, his plays remain good theatre. His characters toss ideas about playfully as well as analytically, and often the drama is set in motion through a contrast or opposition between a mocking, reductive, very Scottish spirit and the thrawnness of some one character who is possessed or 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, or the young medical student Charles Cameron in A Sleeping Clergyman who studies the germs of his own disease under the microscope although he is dying of tuberculosis. And the spirit of Bridie does not permit even these two characters, Knox and Cameron, to come through as unsullied heroes: the attitude to Knox, in his involvement with the Burke and Hare murders, is highly ambiguous, and any virtue in the desperate Charlie Cameron has to work itself out three generations later as the play moves in time from the 1860s to the 1930s.

Some of his plays are set locally, in Glasgow, but the majority are not, and it’s a part of his strength that he enjoyed retelling old stories – historical, legendary, biblical – wherever they were set. Like Shaw, he believed the discussion-play should outflank naturalism and he incorporated some symbolic and expressionist elements without becoming a symbolist or an expressionist. His plays appealed to audiences in both Scotland and London, but often for different reasons, and a success in one place might be a dull thud in the other. Daphne Laureola, where the central character is a drunken upper-class woman, delighted London but left Glasgow cold; and the converse was true of Mr. Gillie, a low-keyed serious play about an idealistic Scottish schoolmaster and the fate of one of his protégés. The variety of receptions of his plays in different parts of the two countries helped to keep a buzz of discussion going about them, but of course did not make it easier for people to reach a consensus about his value. Was he a sage disguised as a puck, or a puck pretending to be a sage? The jury is still out on that one.

Serving Twa Maisters:
five classic plays
in Scots translation
For all Bridie’s importance as an individual playwright, Scottish drama did not cultivate the ground he had broken. It’s almost as if the generation after his death wanted to redress a balance, to fill in his omissions, to deal in particular with the realities of everyday experience. So both Bridie and the writers of historical plays in Scots like Robert McLellan (Jamie The Saxt) and Alexander Reid (The Lass Wi The Muckle Mou), began to fall out of favour, though sporadically revived and not forgotten. Language had something to do with this. There was a reaction against the old-fashioned, semi-historical, largely comic Scots used by McLellan and Reid and others. A growing interest in the use of Glasgow speech, rather than English or a backward-looking Scots, also militated against Bridie. To be fair to the McLellan/Reid/Kemp camp, it’s worth quoting what Alexander Reid wrote in the foreword to his Two Scots Plays (1958):

A British Theatre does not exist and never has existed. There is an English Theatre and a French Theatre and a Russian Theatre... If we are to fulfil our hope that Scotland may some day make a contribution to World Drama as individual and valuable as that made by Norway in the 19th and by Ireland in the present century, we can only do so by cherishing, not repressing our national peculiarities (including our language), though whether a Scottish National Drama, if it comes to birth, will be written in Braid Scots or the speech, redeemed for literary purposes, of Argyle Street, Glasgow, or the Kirkgate, Leith, is anyone’s guess. That it will be written in some sort of Scots however is quite certain. A National Drama cannot be created in a language foreign to the people from whom it springs and the spoken language of Scotland, whatever name we give it, is not standard English.

Interesting. But notice that he spoils the effect in that book, because the two Scots plays it contains, The Lass Wi The Muckle Mou and The Warld’s Wonder, have been translated by him into English for the English market; the book is published in London, and he gives the address of his agent, also in London. Notice also that he’s no Tom Leonard as regards Glasgow speech: that speech has to be ‘redeemed for literary purposes’! But still, with its limitations, the passage is worth pondering.

Scottish People’s Theatre:
plays by Glasgow
Unity writers
But both Bridie and McLellan were increasingly felt to belong to a dramatic world that, whatever its virtues, had ceased to be relevant. A new mood was established with plays like Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep, George Munro’s Gold In His Boots, Roddy MacMillan’s All In Good Faith and The Bevellers, Bill Bryden’s Willie Rough, Hector MacMillan’s The Sash, Tom McGrath’s The Hard Man, John Byrne’s trilogy The Slab Boys, Iain Heggie’s A Wholly Healthy Glasgow, and Tony Roper’s The Steamie. These plays and others like them, in the five decades since the late 1940s, appealed to an urban public which rejoiced to see and hear a degree of realism (at times melodramatic, at times nostalgic, but mainly honest and down-to-earth) applied to recognizable situations and settings (a shipyard, a glass-works, a prison, a public wash-house, a massage parlour, a carpet factory) and unfolded with both comedy and pathos. Characters were shown at work, as much as at leisure. Relevant public issues – football commercialism, religious bigotry, decline of heavy industry, treatment of prisoners, women’s place in society – were presented in a human and immediate way. They were received as entertainment, and no doubt quite often as tracts for the times too, but different from the single-minded punch provided by the more expressionist music-and-song shows of the 7:84 and Wildcat companies, which went back to pantomime and music-hall, and indeed to Sir David Lyndsay, for their inspiration.

Realistic contemporary social drama can be seen as both a liberating and a limiting force. It’s worth remembering that Tom McGrath is the author not only of The Hard Man (based on the experience of Jimmy Boyle in the ‘cages’ at Peterhead prison) but of the highly original and thoughtful play Animal, in which grunting, banana-scoffing actors without monkey suits play out a remarkable fable of the higher apes and humanity. Donald Campbell’s excellent play The Jesuit may be naturalistic in form, and may have some contemporary relevance, but basically it is a powerful study of the trial and execution of a Catholic priest, John Ogilvie, in 1614 in Glasgow, and it’s asking its audience not just to feel but to think, about historical, religious, and political matters in a tradition (if it is a tradition) that links back (as I began to suggest earlier) through Pitcairne and Buchanan and Lyndsay, a very Scottish fondness for intellectual critique and debate – something which perhaps we should encourage a bit more of at the present time. In this connection it’s worth mentioning one almost forgotten play, Ewan McColl’s Uranium 235, presented by Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh in 1951 and in Glasgow in 1952. This was certainly ‘people’s theatre’, sponsored by Joan Littlewood, Norman Buchan, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Duncan Macrae, but it was not warm or couthy. It came in the immediate shock-waves people felt after the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, and it was a sort of expressionist scientific documentary with ongoing arguments about power and control. I remember quite vividly seeing the Glasgow production in the old St. Andrew’s Halls (before they were burned down) and thinking to myself, yes, this is one of the things theatre in Scotland ought to be doing – even with its bit of agit-prop and characters called The Puppet Master, 2nd Proton, and 3rd Neutron. It’s not The Steamie! The Steamie is fine, but we need other things too.

Liz Lochhead’s
Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off
And the dramatists have felt that. Stewart Conn will write about two elderly women reminiscing in a Glasgow tenement in I Didn’t Always Live Here, but he also embarked on a sinister anthropological-erotic fantasy, redolent of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, in The King. Greater freedom still is exercised by Liz Lochhead in plays ranging from Blood And Ice (on the Frankenstein story) and Dracula (a reworking of Bram Stoker’s classic) to Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (a play in Scots and English, opening out its historical theme into a vivid across-the-centuries evocation of the Scottish consciousness). Peter Arnott moves from contemporary Glasgow in Losing Alec (where a ghost-story technique is used to examine socialist ideals and practice) to wartime Stalingrad in White Rose (a Brechtian look at war, love and women’s role in society) and then to the seething and ruthless revolutionary world of the 1790s in Thomas Muir’s Voyage To Australia (the ambitious, intermittently powerful beginning of a trilogy dealing with the great reformer). No one is going to complain about the general liveliness of this dramatic scene, and its capability of springing surprises, like David Harrower’s play Knives In Hens, produced by the Traverse in Edinburgh in 1995, an intense, almost inarticulate study of three characters in some pre-industrial village unidentified in time or place. But is there more than variety and surprise?

Peter Arnott has said that in writing Losing Alec he had in mind ‘a State-of-the-Nation-type play’, and some of his other plays, including those with historical settings, could be similarly described. The same concern obviously throbs through the work of 7:84 and Wildcat, and it is quite explicit in John McGrath’s A Satire Of The Four Estaites shown recently at the Edinburgh Festival. The fourth estate is the media, and the chief villain in the story is not too hard to identify, with his Australian accent and his name, Lord Merde. The main theme is whether a potentially independent country like Scotland would find means of surviving in a world of ruthless multinational organizations. The pantomime style includes a procession of statues of Thatcher, Major, and Blair as ‘Mother, Son, and Holy Ghost’, and the strange sight of a riverdance by the extremely well brought up young ladies of Mary Erskine School. It’s all very good fun, and when I was there it certainly had a full house and an appreciative audience. The London critics thought it was dreadful: ‘Full of noise and shallow clichés’ (Sunday Times), ‘crude, predictable and awesomely unfunny’ (Telegraph), ‘a silly, coarse and imaginatively monotonous spin-off [from Sir David Lyndsay]’ (Times). Perhaps we are doing something right if London dislikes us so much? But that’s too simple. The play does raise questions even in Scotland, and some of these were voiced by Joyce McMillan in Scotland on Sunday when she qualified her praise of its energy by saying: ‘Too much of the politics is unargued, as if the assent of the audience to both socialism and nationalism could be taken for granted... and the whole spectacle is far too widely focussed to hit any of its satirical targets very hard.’ This suggests that the play has a soft core, and that this appeals to a soft core in the audience, and I think there is some truth in this.

Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off is also a state-of-the-nation play, but is less didactic and more subtle. As her chorus-like character La Corbie says:

Country: Scotland. Whit like is it?
It’s a peatbog, it’s a daurk forest.
It’s a cauldron o’ lye, a saltpan or a coal mine.
If you’re gey lucky it’s a bricht bere meadow or a park o’ kye.
Or mibbe... It’s a field o’ stanes.
It’s a tenement or a merchant’s ha’.
It’s a hure hoose or a humble cot. Princes Street or Paddy’s Merkit.
It’s a fistfu’ o’ fish or a pickle o’ oatmeal.
It’s a queen’s banquet o’ roast meats and junketts.
It depends. It depends.

In her later play, Jock Tamson’s Bairns, even though she had less say in the final production which was very physical and non-verbal, the theme of Scotland was pervasive from the title onwards. References to Burns and MacDiarmid, a descent into hell and a human haggis eviscerated like a Scottish Pandora’s box, a notable contest for the new age between Cutty Sark and John Barleycorn, symbolically foiled attempts to get either saltire or red flag bravely fixed, a snowbound last supper, with a quaich for a cup, finally stilling the swarming, ragged, unidentifiable, half-demonic bairns – the points not really gathered up, but scattered lavishly throughout by music, song and dance rather than through dialogue – all this had a clear popular appeal and chimed in with the wide dissatisfactions and disaffections and would-be self-determinations of the Scottish 1980s. It was not a well-made play, and reviewers pointed out its shortcomings, but it had poetry and impact, and we are left with a dilemma that is both old and new: are we better off with ambitious imperfect state-of-the-nation plays or with the concentrated narrow focus of a slice of history as in Sue Glover’s excellent Bondagers? In the present state of Scotland, with ongoing recovery of so much of its forgotten history and the rescue of forgotten writers (how many people know that a woman called Catherine Birrell published a play called The Lesbians in Glasgow in 1914?), at the same time as inescapable speculations about the broader issue of the country’s political future, we probably need both. Do we need anything more? When I think back to the marathon storytelling of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata in the cavernous space of the Tramway Theatre in 1990, playing to packed houses and to just about the most attentive audience I have ever been part of, I feel there must be somewhere a hunger for state-of-the-universe plays and not merely state-of-the-nation ones.

[Details of some of the earlier plays mentioned:
Philotus is in Scottish Text Society Miscellany Volume, 1933.
The Assembly is edited by T. Tobin, Purdue University Studies, Lafayette, Indiana, 1972.
Douglas is edited by G. Parker, Oliver and Boyd, 1972.
Hubble-Shue is in T. Tobin, Plays by Scots 1660-1800, University of Iowa Press, 1974.
Since giving this lecture I have learned of the recent production in Oxford of another early Scottish play, John Burel’s Pamphilus Speakand of Lufe, published in Edinburgh c.1594. Dr. Reid Baxter, we are told, is preparing ‘modern acting editions’ of both that play and Philotus ‘in the hope that they will be used in schools’.]


Copyright © Edwin Morgan 1999


Last updated 28 October 2010.