Commitment, Identity and Dreams of Independence in Contemporary Scottish Playwriting
In the pre-referendum period, the Scottish theatrical world expressed what makes the Scottish Nation different as well as the pride, affection and commitment of her people. The country’s quest for emancipation and independence is part of a historical continuum in which the English Other has been omnipresent. In this paper, a few examples of how the Scottish theatrical world showed interest and commitment during the pre-referendum period will be given and analysed.
Index termsTop of page
OutlineTop of page
- 1 Siobhan Keenan, Renaissance Literature, Edinburgh Critical Guides, Edinburgh University Press ltd., (...)
1Debating and arguing are at the origin of the theatrical process; the Renaissance Inns of Court included this type of training in their courses. Siobhan Keenan specified that ‘In keeping with the sharp witted culture of the Inns, lawyers appear to have had a particular taste for dramatic satire, parody and topical commentary’.1 Centuries later, in Scotland, the same genres are still very much appreciated and used, and the September 18th 2014 referendum on independence was particularly heralded by a very important and animated debating period in which playwrights, performers, directors, and other figures of the artistic world participated actively. All felt committed, dedicated to the cause of the national and international future of Scotland, bound by duty, by their sense of responsibility and loyalty to their country. To them, their votes meant more than the sole expression of their own cultural and political opinions; to them, the freedom of Scotland was at stake, and so was their engagement for the future generations. In The Scotsman, Brian Ferguson wrote :
- 2 Brian Ferguson, ‘Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum’, in The Scotsman, Tuesday 15 April (...)
Greig, whose play The Events, partly inspired by the Breivik massacre in Norway was one of the big hits of last year’s Fringe, told The Scotsman:
For me, the energy of Yes demands a show to try to capture the moment the amazing amount of ideas and thinking the referendum is producing on every area of Scottish life.
[…] It’s politically and intellectually the fizziest time I’ve experience in my working life. On top of that so many artists and musicians are involved in campaigning. This means that a great deal of Yes activity seems to end up with sessions, or poems being read, or books talked about and so on. For me it just makes sense to try and use the festival as a chance to bottle that energy. (B. Ferguson)2
2Whatever the side they opted for, in their minds, the poll was a crucial time of decision-making, a forceful historical event, a memorable-to-be hinge laden with the weight of the past in which England had always played a key role in the partnership, whether regarded as fair or as colonial. The pre-referendum period was paradoxically full of fear, pressure, elation and hope, and remaining neutral was hardly possible in such circumstances. Looking back did not necessarily entail a nostalgic quest for things past to be back, or some longing for revenge. All sorts of feelings were shared by Scotland’s citizens, whether natives or not.
- 3 Joseph Donohue, The Cambridge History of British Theatre, CUP, Cambridge 2004, volume 2, p. 333-4
3Acknowledging one’s roots has always helped to build one’s Self and to build what’s ahead. The stage reflecting the world around, their contemporaneousness was food for thought on such an occasion, as Joseph Donohue reckoned when writing about the mid-nineteenth century, ‘the theatre’s commitment to historical representation was the very sign of its modernity.’3 More than ever, Scottish theatre proved the relevance of this remark throughout the pre-referendum period.
- 4 Patrice Pavis, Le Dictionnaire du théâtre, Armand Colin, Paris, 2006.
4The dialogical link between playtexts and their contexts (including socio-political real frames) has always existed. It is not only a form of the mimesis supposed to be at the very basis of artistic representation (whether it is true is another story and subject to debate itself)4. Aristotelian mythos (the chain and structure of events) and praxis (which refers to human action or activity in the realm of the contingent) partake in the process. It often (if not always) is also a sort of response to some philosophical and political questioning as if the stage could enter a discussion with the world outside and around, with and through the spectators about what universally concerns human beings, and/or about their domestic lives (meaning their personal, local or national realities).
- 5 Peter Barry, Literature in Context, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2007.
5Following the categories Peter Barry uses to analyse the relationship between texts and contexts in his Literature in Context5, we can speak of context-sensitive and context-saturated contemporary Scottish dramatic texts in their relations with our time and, more specifically with the referendum and the debate about Scottish identity and independence that it initiated.
- 6 Zinnie Harris, Further than the Furthest Thing, Faber and faber Ltd, 2000.
- 7 Brian Ferguson, ‘Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum’ in The Scotsman, Tuesday 15 April (...)
6Over a year before the poll, plays about the Self and the Other, about identity, identity/identification and difference, about roots and personal evolution, about colonialism and emancipation made a large corpus and were a hit. Even non Scottish works performed at the Traverse theatre during the 2013 festival, such as Mark Thomas’s Bravo Figaro, revisited family biographies and autobiographies in the same way as Matthew Zajac’s The Tailor of Inverness told the peregrinations of an Eastern European, who settled in Scotland at the end of WWII. Despite the fact that, among many other authors, Zinnie Harris had already used the device of what she called ‘family saga’ in her Further than the Furthest Thing6, the multiplicity of plays focussed on topics debated upon for the referendum was impressive. Six months before the poll, the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe festival showcased many of them. In ‘Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum’, Brian Ferguson wrote: ‘Comedians, musicians, actors, authors and playwrights have revealed they will be taking part in Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows inspired by the debate over Scotland’s future.’7 (The Scotsman). Reviewer Steven McElroy of the New York Times explained that,
the referendum was a frequent theme. “The Frederendum,” featuring the popular Scottish comedian Fred MacAulay, provided a likable hour of local references and lighthearted musings about the impending vote, as did “Aye Right? How No?,” with the local comedians Vladimir McTavish and Keir McAllister. Even politically minded English comics, including Andy Zaltzman and Matt Forde, delved — delicately — into the debate, hosting referendum-theme performances in addition to their main shows.
- 8 Steven McElroy, ‘Performances Ponder Future of Scotland. Independence Question Dominates Edinburgh (...)
It’s in the nature of a festival like this one that it should reflect the times we live in,” said Tommy Sheppard, who runs the Assembly Rooms, one of several Fringe venues. But Mr. Sheppard, wearing a “Yes” pin and outspoken about his views, said that, over all, fewer than 10 percent of the shows he has programmed this year are referendum related. Other current political issues certainly have a place at the festival as well […] War seems an always timely topic.8
- 9 Brian Ferguson, ‘Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum’ in The Scotsman, Tuesday 15 April (...)
7Brian Ferguson makes it clear that, ‘The majority of the shows inspired by the debate have been programmed by promoter Tommy Sheppard —a high-profile supporter of independence from the cultural sector— at the Assembly Rooms, the new Fringe arena in St Andrew Square and at the Stand Comedy Club venues.’9
8 Playwrights both used historical and non historical frames to discuss the pros and cons of the independence of Scotland, using the stage as a tribune to express their opinions, largely —but not exclusively— for the yes vote. As Brian Ferguson puts it, ‘And although some shows appear to be taking a relatively neutral stance, just one of the shows confirmed so far - The British Referendum - will be arguing in favour of the Union. It is being staged by an American comedian, with Scottish roots, Erich McElroy, who has lived in England for the last 14 years.’ (Brian Ferguson, The Scotsman, Tuesday 15 April 2014).
- 10 Johanna Luyssen, “L’Écosse répète son indépendance sur les planches” in Le Monde, 21 août 2014, p. (...)
- 11 See the Jane Barlow’s picture: Scotsman, 11/08/2014. Rachel Clerke’s ‘How to achieve redemption as (...)
9A full page of French Le Monde was dedicated to the importance of this political event to the artistic (theatrical) world. Johanna Luyssen’s10 descriptive lines were text and para-text to a large size photo of actress Rachel Clerke11 in front of Edinburgh castle performing her satirical Freedom Speech, dressed in the Braveheart style. In ‘Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum’ (The Scotsman), Brian Ferguson detailed,
- 12 Brian Ferguson, ‘Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum’ in op. cit..
Hardman actor David Hayman, Rab C Nesbitt star Elaine C Smith, singer-song writer Karine Polwart, playwright David Greig and comics Fred MacAulay and Vladimir McTavish will be among those involved in referendum-themed shows.
The line-up includes shows entitled A Split Decision, Now’s The Hour, MacBraveheart, Aye Right? How No? and All Back To Bowie’s.12
- 13 Ibid..
- 14 Ibid..
10The reviewer also mentions the fact that the topic is both tackled directly and anamorphically in various shows: ‘Many people, including Scots, are probably still scratching their heads about it, and will want to absorb the debate obliquely, in a way that’s not pre-programmed by parties or news formats. Obviously people will want to see shows about other things as well, but I’d imagine the referendum will be at the front of people’s minds by August and they’ll be hungry for satire and theatre on that theme.’13 (B. Ferguson, The Scotsman). The Scots and the English, as a united British people, are absorbed and thrilled by the poll but, so is the world (Europe first, and more particularly Spain and Belgium) outside their borders: Ferguson mentions the political and ideological impact it has on other nations, ‘I think there will be a huge appetite from audiences, both home and international, to learn about the debate.’14 (B. Ferguson). The educative and edifying dimension of theatre has never been lost.
- 15 http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13170615.Salmond__referendum_play_is_the_authentic_voice_of_youn (...)
11This aspect was stressed and praised by Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond on his visit to the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow. Given a special preview of the politically-neutral play entitled Now’s the Hour, which he called the referendum-play, he described it as a ‘funny, fast-moving, emotional roller-coaster of a show that uses sketches, monologues and music to explore young people’s attitudes to the referendum’.15 Emphasizing the teenage actors would vote for the first time on the referendum (not to forget that he had decided 16-year-olds would be able to vote), he said :
- 16 Ibid..
With a cast comprised entirely of teenagers who will be voting for the first time in the referendum, this play represents the authentic voice of a cross-section of young Scots who are actively engaging with politics. […] Rightly, they are exploring all of the different ideas, arguments and thoughts surrounding the debate before they make their decision on September 18. […] The show features letters young voters have written to their future selves in 20 years’ time, expressing their hopes and fears for the country whether there is a Yes or No vote. The play […] examines issues as wide-ranging as Trident, tuition fees and the economy, (Herald Scotland).16
- 17 Ibid..
12Cast members acknowledged their play Now’s The Hour to be ‘an amazing way to learn about the debate and inspire other people to get engaged’ (Herald Scotland) with it. According to them, it is ‘important to the young people of Scotland because it gets across the many different arguments from both sides of the debate in a way that is balanced, relatable, humorous and easy to understand’ (Herald Scotland). It is ‘a fun performance that informs and entertains’ (Herald Scotland) and provides them with a way into the debate without being intimidated by the masses of information that can be off-putting. Chief executive and artistic director of the Scottish Youth Theatre Mary McCluskey, concluded, ‘Uniquely, it does this without taking a political position or telling the audience how to vote.’ (Herald Scotland)17
13The 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival certainly offered the referendum a tribune and skilled orators. Still things had started before…
- 18 For details see Fiona Allen, http://textualities.net/tag/haggis-hunting-conference>; http://edinbur (...)
14Over a year earlier, academics and theatre people had tackled all the key themes in encounters they organised. In April 2013, Edinburgh University set up a conference ironically entitled ‘Haggis Hunting’, for the jubilee of the Society of Scottish Playwrights —chaired by Ian Brown— and the Traverse Theatre. It was included in a fortnight of celebrations on the topic of ‘Fifty years of new playwriting in Scotland’18. The ‘Haggis Hunting’ title was to respond to some critics thinking that Scottish theatre was supposedly desperately self-centred, and sticking to its roots and clichés. The discussions including a full day on the relationship between Scottish drama, theatre and the referendum proved, if necessary, it was not: the questions of self-sufficiency, self-determination, self-reliance, freedom, of political and cultural ‘scottishness’— were in every mind, conversation and argument.
15As far as the pre-referendum playtexts are concerned, they can be categorised into two groups: the context-saturated dramatic writings, mainly based on historical data and the context-sensitive ones that more or less indirectly and subtly dealt with the question. They also included plays the surface of which definitely appeared as context-free to offer their authors more freedom to deal with the very topic of cultural and political independence. This device has always been used in drama, more particularly in hard times of repression!
- 19 Rona Munro, The James Plays, Nick Hern Books, Modern Plays, London, 2014.
16in 2014, The James Plays19 —the historical cycle written by Rona Munro and directed by Laurie Sansom— were very successful both in Edinburgh and in London. Premièred at Traverse theatre on August 10th, this co-production associated the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain. On September 10th 2014, there was a London performance in the National Theatre Olivier auditorium. The super production was considered as a national (meaning British) theatrical event.
- 20 ‘The vividly imagined trilogy brings to life three generations of Stewart Kings who ruled Scotland (...)
- 21 Through bold and irreverent storytelling, James I explores the complex character of the colourful S (...)
- 22 A violent royal playground is depicted in James II: a terrifying arena of sharp teeth and long kniv (...)
- 23 ‘Like the king himself, James III is colourful and unpredictable, turning its attention to the wom (...)
17It is a trilogy20 including They Will Keep the Lock21 on James I, Day of the Innocents22 on James II and The True Mirror23 on James III. It encompasses three generations of Stuart kings who reigned over Scotland in the XVth century. Each of these plays shows the Scottish nation building and thinking herself, taking into account her past and future. The three texts and their several contexts (incl. our contemporary time and the referendum) form some transtextual frames and networks, ideal food for thought.
The first part explores the complex character of James I or Seumas I, nicknamed the ‘captive’, who was born on July 25th 1394 in Dunfermline. The younger son of Robert III of Scotland and Annabella Drummond, he was king of Scotland from 1406 to 1437 although he spent 18 years in an English jail from 1406 to 1424. He was captured by pirates and given to the English in 1406. Jailed when a child, he was crowned in prison and yet, given some education. In 1424, he and his wife were allowed to leave England. When he was freed, his country was ruined, torn between ceaseless clannish wars. He was unpopular in Scotland, and was murdered by his uncle in Perth on February 21st 1437. He had married Joan Beaufort and had had several children.
18In the play, he is shown as a poet, a lover but also as a legislator, respectful of the Law, in a harsh political system, in a ruthless Scottish land. James I was the author of a narrative poem (a love-dream allegory written in Early Scots) entitled The Kingis Quair in which he mentions his ordeal as a prisoner :
For quhich, thogh I in purpose at my boke
To borowe a slepe at thilke tyme began,
Or ever I stent, my best was more to loke
Upon the writing of this noble man,1
That in himself the full recover wan
Of his infortune, povert, and distresse,
And in tham set his verray sekernesse. (stanza 5)
- 24 Linne R. Mooney , Mary-Jo Arn (Editors), ‘James I of Scotland, The Kingis Quair’ in The Kingis Quai (...)
And so the vertew of his youth before
Was in his age the ground of his delytis.
Fortune the bak him turnyt, and therefore
He makith joye and confort that he quit is
Of their unsekir warldis appetitis;
And so aworth he takith his penance,
And of his vertew maid it suffisance ((stanza 6)24
- 25 http://www.royal.gov.uk/HistoryoftheMonarchy/Scottish%20Monarchs(400ad-1603)/TheStewarts/JamesII.as (...)
- 26 Ibid..
19The second part shows James II or Seamus II (said Fiery face James because of a birthmark), his son25. Born at Holyrood on October 16th 1430, he reigned over Scotland from February 21st 1437 to his death on August 3rd 1460. James II was crowned in Edinburgh Holyrood Abbey in 1437, the first king not to be enthroned at Scone since Kenneth MacAlpin (843-58). James’s minority was dominated by the struggles of rival families for power in the realm and control of the king. He was manipulated by the richest and strongest families and, as he grew older, he saw the world around him becoming more terrifying: ‘Throughout most of his reign, the powerful Douglas family posed a threat to his throne. When he was ten, his advisers had the young 6th Earl of Douglas and his brother murdered at ‘The Black Dinner’ in 1440 at Edinburgh Castle. In 1452 James himself stabbed the 8th Earl to death during a violent quarrel in Stirling Castle, and later defeated the Douglases at Arkinholm. Three years later, the 9th Earl and his relatives were forfeited for treason and in 1458 his Parliament congratulated James on suppressing dangerous law-breakers.’26
- 27 Ibid..
20When relieved at home, he could show his might to the English: ‘The threat from his overmighty subjects finally removed, in August 1460 James felt secure enough to take advantage of English divisions caused by the Wars of Roses and besiege Roxburgh Castle (held by the English for more than a century).’27 Unfortunately, while he was inspecting a cannon there, it exploded killing him instantly at the age of 29.
- 28 <http://www.rampantscotland.com/famous/blfamjames3.htm>.
- 29 Robert WEDDERBURN, The Complaynt of Scotlande wythe ane exortation to the thre estaits to be vigila (...)
21The third part shows charismatic and cultured James III (Seumas III), full of great projects which made him both loved and hated. His life was not a bed of roses either. Born in St Andrews in 1451, he reigned as King of Scotland from 1460 to 1488, after the hundred years’ war but he, unfortunately, knew the civil war for twenty-five years (1455-1485). He was nine years old when he was crowned at Kelso Abbey on August 10th 1460. The country was then on the verge of civil war and the future of the nation was still threatened by clanic dissention. The people was suffering and the monarchy weakened. Yet, there was hope things may brighten up. ‘A governing council, led by the King’s mother, Mary of Gueldres, took control and, during a civil war in England, managed to regain control of Berwick on Tweed. However, England’s King Edward IV was not pleased and signed the Treaty of Westminster-Ardtornish with John, Lord of the Isles in 1462. However, James later secured the submission of the Lord of the Isles.’28 These episodes showing either England or Scotland weakened by internal unrest and dissention recall the warnings delivered by Dame Scotia speaking in favour of Scotland’s domestic unity in Robert Wedderburn’s complaynt29.
- 30 Rampant Scotland Directory, Op. cit..
- 31 Op. cit..
- 32 Op. cit..
22A nation is strong and prosperous when united. James III’s life shows his brothers too jeopardized his reign: ‘In the power vacuum following the Queen’s death in 1463, James was kidnapped by his brothers, Robert Lord Boyd and Alexander Boyd and imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle (where he was taught chivalric pursuits). The Boyds arranged the marriage of James to Margaret, the daughter of the King Christian I of Denmark in 1469. As a result of this union, Orkney and Shetland became part of Scotland in 1469.’30 James III resorted to violence too and his political and military plans, both domestic and outside Scotland’s borders didn’t gain him all his people’s support: ‘ James began to assert his own power at this time - executing one of the Boyds and exiling the other.’31 Besides, ‘His demands for taxes and debasement of the currency did not go down well. He also tried to keep peace with England and this was not popular either. At one stage he was planning an invasion of the Low Countries and Parliament had to remind him that he should be looking after domestic affairs instead. Despite all this, he did reign for over 20 years, no mean feat in those days.’32 The country was given to violence and the king had to fight both the English and the Scots, including his own son incited by some nobles to rebel against him :
- 33 Op. cit..
Relations with England deteriorated towards the end of the 1470s. Blackness Castle was torched by an English fleet in 1480. In 1482 an English army invaded Scotland in support of the cause of James’ brother, Alexander, Duke of Albany, as king. At this point, a group of Scottish nobles murdered some of the King’s favourites (a number of whom were low born) and imprisoned the King in Edinburgh castle as the English army advanced to Edinburgh. James survived by skilful negotiation and by giving up Berwick to the English. But following further conflicts with some of the Border families such as the Homes and Hepburns, whom James was trying to bring to heel, the nobles encouraged his 15-year-old son to lead a rebellion in 1488. The king’s forces were recruited mainly in the north while his son had the support of the Border lairds. The opposing armies, both flying the lion rampant, met at the Battle of Sauchieburn, near Bannockburn on 11 June 1488. King James III was wounded in the battle and left the battlefield. He was subsequently killed by a man pretending to be a priest. His son, James IV, was crowned at Scone on 26 June 1488, full of remorse for the death of his father.33
- 34 Liz Lochhead, Mary Got Her Head Chopped off, in Liz Lochhead, Five Plays, NHB, London, 2009.
23Why produce such a cycle of histories in 2013-4? In interviews, Rona Munro regretted the absence of a historical cycle that would encompass several generations of a Scottish dynasty (the Stuart dynasty); it motivated her to compensate for the lack. She felt it was a pity Scotland was deprived of such a cycle when England had Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies. What was missing was a dramatic reckoning forming some historical continuum. Scottish leading figures such as Mary Stuart are title parts or key personae in plays like Mary by Ian Brown or Mary Got Her Head Chopped off By Liz Lochhead34 (among many others) but, even surrounded by characters drawn from real people, they do not depict and scroll down more than punctual facts or time limited episodes.
24What is striking in this trilogy, is the focus on Scotland’s kings determined to build a strong unified nation, on sound grounds, whatever the means; it is their wish to fight against overwhelming omnipotent feuding clans and to free the country (always on the verge of civil war or fully involved in it), from their weakening influence and to soothe the people’s sufferings. The rebellions of the chiefs of the Scottish clans are highlighted as ceaselessly to the advantage of very few and of England. Reverberating the main concerns of the Scots in the pre-referendum period, these plays recall the country’s past harms, and their cures. They offer reflections on similar situations and on the opportunities —lost or gained— to free the nation from external bounds and internal feuds. Histories have always presented and commented upon edifying matters shown as examples to retain or discard.
25Still based on Scottish history, but two centuries later, Caledonia by Alistair Beaton35 refers to the 1698 Darien expedition to Panama known as the catastrophic or tragic attempt at founding Scottish colonialism. It turned into a State scandal, an economic failure weakening Scotland, and for many, what made the union treaty a necessity, a compulsory political decision leading to Scotland’s submission to London/ England. The play is a musical satire (Beaton is a well-known satirist). Trade, commerce and finance are lampooned. To the spectators, allusions to the current contextual situation are obvious: the playwright is denouncing behaviours that, according to causality laws, show that the same causes produce the same effects.
- 36 Henry Adam, Stand Up Haggis, The Return of the Ginger Step-Kid, The Last of the McSporrans, April 2 (...)
26Biting satire is also used by Henry Adam in his 2013 stand-up show entitled Stand Up Haggis, The Return of the Ginger Step-Kid, The Last of the McSporrans36 to criticize those who favour a long-lasting form of dependence that seems profitable to some Scots but proves somehow more to the benefit of the English. In an embedded tale, he recalls the enclosures and the clearances and other moments of the national construction or destruction, according to diverging viewpoints. The device of the embedded fable has frequently been used to satirize a political system indirectly (see satirists such as Æsop or Lafontaine…). On a bitter-sweet mode, H. Adam shows how the Scots had a hand in their own alienation and dependence and how some profit by the London welfare system without thinking any further. Debunking clichés by using them in an amplified way, he advocates and calls for a national burst of dignity and awareness. An appeal for the yes vote could not have been clearer.
27On the whole, what is plainly said in many of these plays is that debates (that are the expression of democracy) shouldn’t be the manifestation of feuding ideologies —similar to some ideological civil war and to feuding clans wishing to ascertain their power— leading to the everlasting submission of disunited Scotland. Some productions exposed a neutral content for audiences to be free to make up their minds on the day of the vote.
28Some context-sensitive or even context-free dramatic writings show an emphasis laid on identity and identification, which was telling at the time.
- 37 Morna Pearson, The Artist Man and Mother Woman, Methuen Drama, London, 2012.
29The question of self-determination and emancipation was also tackled anamorphically: in playtexts and on the stage, appearances are deceptive. Morna Pearson’s play entitled The Artist Man and Mother Woman37 can illustrate this idea and show how the (political) emancipation (of Scotland) theme was dealt with and rendered under cover.
30On the surface, this work can be taken as some sort of social drama highlighting the difficulty 40-year-old art teacher Geoffrey, experiences to cut the umbilical cord. The metaphor is striking. The man’s quest for independence, for emancipation, derives from his omnipotent and quasi-incestuous mother keeping him in an unsound and unsafe innocence. The atmosphere is tense, almost unbearable, and the play is treated in a wickedly funny tone. The poor Keatonian man is suffering from unbearable tensions. He and his mother form a Beckettian duo, an exclusive, pathological and lethal (even homicidal) couple living in liberticidal confinement. Submission to a parent and its correlated quest for freedom of the children metaphorise what some youth companies advocated during the 2014 festival to support the yes vote. In The Artist Man and Mother Woman, Morna Pearson dramatises mother-to-son and predator-to-prey relations through strange duets. The characters express themselves in Doric, which contextualises the fable and diegesis. The linguistic choice amplifies the feeling of propinquity, of proximity and the impression to belong to a specific community.
31In a lot of contemporary plays, dialects, idiolects, sociolects and geolects combine with standard Scot —and even with standard English— to defend and promote the Scottish linguistic vehicle as a form of expression and identification, through similarity (‘self same others’) and difference (‘the Other’).
32Contemporary plays dwell on cultural specificity at full length and choose to showcase Scottishness through language/s and genre/s by, for example revisiting ‘ceilidh plays’.
- 38 David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart, faber and faber, London, 2011.
33Scottish theatre has its own identity. The latest works can be identified through the various linguistic and semiotic items they’ve used. Yet, the interest in universal values and topics as well as in the ‘Other’ prevents any identitarian closure. What matters is to advocate and claim one’s scottishness without castigating the Other and without showing any sectarian attitude. Its identity can be read and heard in its two standard languages as well as in its dialects (whether sociolects and/or geolects such as Doric for example). Its easily identified and identifiable generic specialities or idiosyncrasies are linked to its own traditions and roots. Some of the successful latest plays showcase the ballad inspiration (whether in their structures or in their contents such as David Greig’s The Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart38; others put to the front the strong everlasting influence of John McGrath and the travelling theatre).
- 39 Alain Robbe-Grillet, Richard Howard, ‘Commitment’ in ‘On Several Obsolete Notions’ in For a New Nov (...)
34The choices made in the new forms of Scottish playwriting recall what Alain Robbe-Grillet used to say about the author’s commitment: ‘Let us, then, restore to the notion of commitment the only meaning it can have for us. Instead of being of a political nature, commitment is, for the writer, the full awareness of the present problems of his own language, the conviction of their extreme importance, the desire to solve them from within. Here, for him, is the only chance of remaining an artist and, doubtless too, by means of an obscure and remote consequence, of some day serving something–perhaps even the Revolution.’39
- 40 On John McGrath, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4T2wh-YjQw>.
35Often cited as source, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil40 produced by the 7:84 (Scotland) Theatre Company was first read during a conference entitled 'What kind of Scotland?' held in Edinburgh on March 31st 1973. The question is still essential. The play premiered in Aberdeen Art Centre on April the same year.
- 41 David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, op. cit..
- 42 Kieran Hurley, Rantin, in Trish Reid, Contemporary Scottish Plays, Bloomsbury, London, 2015.
36Ceilidh plays, as John McGrath used to call them, are back nowadays. They are popular (in the various meanings of the word), musical and poetical. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart by David Greig41 and Rantin by Kieran Hurley42 (2013) are good examples of that tendency. To explain what kind of play The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (2011) is like, David Greig declared that during the summer of 2006, he thought about creating a theatrical ballad to be told in a pub.
37The Border Ballads, traditional songs, the fantastical and the expertise of Scottish researchers working on folk studies helped for the composition of this ‘play’ which is to be performed in a place dedicated to festivities as the first stage direction indicates. The show is planned to be interactive; the audience can feel free to join in, to perform with the actors, the musicians and the singers, to come and go as they please :
- 43 David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, op. cit..
We’re in a pub or a bar, a ceilidh place, a community hall, anywhere that people are gathered and warm and have enough drink. A session is in progress. A small band play a folk tune. The playing is rough and ready. There’s room for players to join and leave the playing. When the audience are settled the story begins. (The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, D. Greig)43
38Kieran Hurley’s Rantin premiered at the Cottiers Theatre in Glasgow (on April 17th 2013). The play combines tales (stories) and songs. The show is meant to be ceaselessly adapted to the staging space and to the various audiences. Improvisation is a key notion and directors are really free in their work and decisions :
- 44 Kieran Hurley’s Rantin, in Trish Reid, op. cit..
As the audience enter we are playing some tunes from the hi-fi. Chatting, getting a drink. We’re setting up the space. Towards the end of this we’ll encourage the audience to fill up their drinks and go for a pee and stuff. When it is time to start we open with a song. (Rantin Introduction)44
- 45 Anthony Neilson, Narrative, in Trish Reid, op. cit..
39Although it is based on traditional influences and although it revisits former frames and contents, these theatrical forms are definitely modern; this recalls J. Donohue’s remark on modernity (see footnote 2). Their authors are keen on using new technologies as in Anthony Neilson’s Narrative45 which premiered in 2013. Neilson experiments a new way of playwriting, associating and combining past and contemporary elements and devices. This theatrical polyphony offers a direct reflection on writing and staging. It is really far from what David Greig ironically calls “the ‘glens and lochs’ plays”. In Anthony Neilson’s Narrative, a lot of characters people the stage; it becomes a meeting place where, in numerous small groups, men and women get involved in everyday banal conversation. Neilson expands the limits of playwriting and directing. Dialogues intertwine and the audience are given a mass of simultaneous information through screened film, video, through precise references to internet and Youtube the spectators and readers are provided with. Through the frame and its linguistic and semiotic content, the audience are offered several theatrical meta-discourses identifying the Scottish specificity and its evolution (modernity).
40To conclude, we can say that in contemporary Scottish drama, texts and contexts mirror one another. They also redefine and reidentify the Scottish specificities, mingling History (in all the meanings of the word) derision, self-derision, humour, satire, tragedy and comedy. Either directly or indirectly (anamorphically), these plays showcase a nation that reflects upon herself, questions her past and present choices to face and build her future. They also contemplate the ‘Other’ that is sometimes shown invasive, omnipotent and spiteful (of course depending on cases and viewpoints).
41In the pre-referendum period, the Scottish theatrical world voiced what makes it different. It showed it was not only ego-centred as some would have it, but ready to question itself and the nation that houses it. Plays on euthanasia, blood contamination, pædophilia, Alzheimer, globalisation, nuclear power and danger etc. etc., were on with great success but historical drama offered a wonderful opportunity to observe and criticize the present through mirrored and refracted images seen with the aid of a particular lens, as in satirist Alistair Beaton’s Caledonia: debating about colonialism and imperialism, as well as on rough economy —including financial state affairs and scandals— voiced arguments often discussed between the yes and no voters.
- 46 Joyce McMillan, ‘Now’s The Hour: The First Minister’s Visit To The Scottish Youth Theatre, And The (...)
42Scottish theatre also expressed Youth’s hopes for the future (active, green and peaceful…). In Glasgow, Scotland’s First Minister was invited by the Scottish Youth Theatre to see an extract of Edinburgh Fringe show, Now’s The Hour, in which young people voting for the first time face up to Scotland’s big day of decision. As theatre critic and columnist Joyce McMillan wrote, ‘[it] reduced him and almost everyone else to tears, not because the show takes any particular view on the referendum debate – it is strictly neutral – but because of the bright, achingly hopeful faces of the twelve young people in the cast, as they posted humblingly wise letters to their future selves into a giant ballot box.’46
- 47 C. W. E. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, CUP, Cambridge, 1985, (...)
43In the pre-referendum period, the Scottish theatrical world expressed what makes the Nation different as well as the pride, affection and commitment of her people. The country’s quest for emancipation and independence is part of a historical continuum in which the English Other has been omnipresent. Simply stated as that, it incites the notions of colonialism and imperialism to insinuate into arguments and disputes. Dreamt of or rejected with apprehensive moods, cutting the cord has always been stressful decision-making. But isn’t the metaphor reducing Scotland to some immature teenage condition? If so, some of the future projects exposed during the campaign and their correlated hopes are understandable too. Paradoxically, the debate was both passionate and reasonable. Down-to-earth economic figures were examined and ideological matters constantly stepped in. On the stage, (self-) derision helped analyse and investigate every nook and cranny of the situation as satire can so well do. Some committed artists considered it was their duty to denounce what they regard as a form of national exclusion and oppression as it was done in other places and times. Dealing with the American theatre of the 1960s, C. W. E. Bigsby wrote that ‘the committed writer and the politically engaged group wished to claim the right to speak for and to those excluded as effectively on a linguistic as on the political and cultural level, to reinvent a self that existed outside social and lexical definition’. He reckons that ‘it is on this level […] that political commitment repeatedly led to aesthetic experiment’.47 Searching and innovating the theatrical genre, from roots to fruits Ian Brown would say, Scottish artists show it is the case.
44Their engagement for or against the referendum led Joyce McMillan to ponder on the relationship between the arts —or culture— and politics. She reckons that they
- 48 Op. cit., Joyce McMillan, <https://joycemcmillan.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/>.
often make uneasy bedfellows; […] there’s no point in pretending that the coming referendum doesn’t raise serious questions about how arts and politics should interact, in a 21st century democracy. On the “yes” side, there’s plenty of creative excitement around the idea of possible future Scotlands; but also a sense that this is more of a time for cabaret, debate, and brilliant fragments, rather than sustained long-form work “about” the referendum. And on the “no”side, there is much concern about the future of the dense network of UK connections in areas like classical music and literary publishing; along with a genuine if as yet unjustified apprehension that in or out of the UK, Scotland’s SNP-dominated government is bound, in the end, to start favouring artists who share its political perspective.48
45The reviewer advocates vigilance and moderation to save artistic freedom. She warns that the heat should be taken out of the referendum debate, and the arts be more independent from politics :
- 49 Ibid..
Scotland’s current situation, in other words, throws a sharp light on the fact that in any political situation, the price of artistic freedom is eternal vigilance. If there are relatively few “big plays” about the independence debate on this year’s Fringe, that only serves to remind us that art necessarily moves to a very different rhythm from politics, often decades in advance when it comes to imagining new cultural identities and possibilities, many years behind in responding fully and deeply to sudden change.49
- 50 Steven McElroy, op. cit..
46One may yet question the possibility to preserve the stage from the world around. Thinking of Shakespeare’s assertion on their links and of the text-and-context binary pattern, it seems hard to conceive. Considering the edifying role the theatre has always had and its long-lasting function as tribune—that is both a raised platform from which a speaker addresses an assembly, and a spokesman as well as a defender of rights—it would seem difficult to deprive its members of their deep professional roots and meaning. In ancient Rome, wasn’t a tribune an officer elected by the plebeians to protect their rights from any arbitrary acts of the patrician magistrates, a protector or champion of the people? Although one can understand the point made by Joyce McMillan on the influence of political activism and lobbying on the arts, one can also admit that the freedom of their expression and commitment in democracies is precious. One can also question the notion of ‘“big plays” about the independence debate’ if its anamorphic treatment is taken into account. In ‘Independence question dominates Edinburgh Festival Fringe’ in The New York Times (August 24th, 2014), Steven McElroy’s positive reviews on Alan Bissett’s comedy The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, The Pitiless Storm by Chris Dolan, Now’s The Hour by the Scottish Youth Theatre, All Back to Bowie’s created by a group of local artists including the playwright David Greig, John McCann’s Spoiling show the various angles the topic was tackled from50.
47Theatrical trends including the agit-prop (from the Russian agitatsiya-propaganda) and thesis drama (just to mention those two) have always endeavoured to sensitise audiences to particular religious, political and social situations. Long before, medieval miracles, classical and Renaissance plays (all genres included) did so too. The idea that artists, under the ideological influence of political lobbies would only be their spokespersons on a stage —and on any other support as well— seems to redefine, and maybe subvert, what the theatre has been like since its beginning. Yet, Joyce McMillan’s rather pessimistic lines sound like a warning against what is threatening or endangering it in our contemporary society :
- 51 Joyce McMillan, op. cit..
And when it comes to protecting artists from politicians and their demands, that remains a vital task for arts funding bodies, for the media, and for artists’ themselves; all of whom need to be aware not only of explicit pressures to take political sides, but also of the more subtle pressures that pervade our PR-driven world – to join in the business of hype and image-making rather than asking tough questions, to celebrate rather than interrogate, and to be co-opted to an ethos of global marketing that presents itself as apolitical, but which can nonetheless, like any ideology, become an enemy of truth, and of real creative freedom.51
48Though one can undoubtedly support the opinion that the freedom of artistic creation needs protecting, one can also defend the artists’ commitment as a sign of liberty.
1 Siobhan Keenan, Renaissance Literature, Edinburgh Critical Guides, Edinburgh University Press ltd., Edinburgh, 2008, p. 76.
2 Brian Ferguson, ‘Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum’, in The Scotsman, Tuesday 15 April 2014. http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/arts/news/edinburgh-fringe-gets-down-with-the-referendum
3 Joseph Donohue, The Cambridge History of British Theatre, CUP, Cambridge 2004, volume 2, p. 333-4
4 Patrice Pavis, Le Dictionnaire du théâtre, Armand Colin, Paris, 2006.
5 Peter Barry, Literature in Context, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2007.
6 Zinnie Harris, Further than the Furthest Thing, Faber and faber Ltd, 2000.
7 Brian Ferguson, ‘Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum’ in The Scotsman, Tuesday 15 April 2014.
8 Steven McElroy, ‘Performances Ponder Future of Scotland. Independence Question Dominates Edinburgh Festival Fringe’, The New York Times, 24/08/2014.
9 Brian Ferguson, ‘Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum’ in The Scotsman, Tuesday 15 April 2014.
10 Johanna Luyssen, “L’Écosse répète son indépendance sur les planches” in Le Monde, 21 août 2014, p. 12.
11 See the Jane Barlow’s picture: Scotsman, 11/08/2014. Rachel Clerke’s ‘How to achieve redemption as a Scot through the medium of Braveheart’ (2014), is a biting satire. Camden People’s Theatre announced her performance thus : ‘Rachael feels uneasy about Scotland. She feels uneasy about Alex Salmond and Donald Trump. About golf, tartan and the forthcoming independence referendum. She feels particularly uneasy about the fact that she once performed the Braveheart freedom speech to Rangers fans outside Ibrox. Exploring identity, belonging and machismo, How to... Braveheart delves into the personal-political debate of a country on the edge of a decision. Expect rousing speeches, bicycles dressed as horses, a woman dressed as Mel Gibson and your very own Scottish enlightenment.’ (http://www.cptheatre.co.uk/show/how_to_achieve_redemption.php#.VgZxQmDayWc).
12 Brian Ferguson, ‘Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum’ in op. cit..
18 For details see Fiona Allen, http://textualities.net/tag/haggis-hunting-conference>; http://edinburgh-review.com/back-issues/137-haggis-hunting/; http://sfee.univ-tours.fr/Scotland/conferences.htm.
19 Rona Munro, The James Plays, Nick Hern Books, Modern Plays, London, 2014.
20 ‘The vividly imagined trilogy brings to life three generations of Stewart Kings who ruled Scotland in the tumultuous 15th century. Each play stands alone as a unique vision of a country tussling with its past and future; viewed together they create a complex and compelling narrative on Scottish culture and nationhood full of playful wit and boisterous theatricality.’, http://www.eif.co.uk/jamesplays#.Vg1COGDayWd.
21 Through bold and irreverent storytelling, James I explores the complex character of the colourful Stewart king – poet, lover and law-maker.
Captured at the age of 13 and crowned King of Scots in an English prison, James I of Scotland is delivered home 18 years later with a ransom on his head and a new English bride.
The nation he returns to is poor: the royal coffers empty and his nobles ready to tear him apart at the first sign of weakness. Determined to bring the rule of law to a land riven by warring factions, James faces terrible choices if he is to save himself, his Queen and the crown.
The ensemble includes James McArdle as King James, Stephanie Hyam as Queen Joan, and Blythe Duff as Isabella Stewart.’ <http://www.eif.co.uk/jamesplays#.Vg1COGDayWd>.
22 A violent royal playground is depicted in James II: a terrifying arena of sharp teeth and long knives.
James II becomes the prize in a vicious game between Scotland’s most powerful families. Crowned when only six, abandoned by his mother and separated from his sisters, the child king is little more than a puppet. There is only one friend he can trust: William, the future Earl of Douglas.
As James approaches adulthood in an ever more threatening world, he must fight to keep his tenuous grip on the crown while the nightmares of his childhood rise up once more.
The ensemble includes Andrew Rothney as King James II, Stephanie Hyam as Queen Mary, and Mark Rowley as William Douglas.’ <http://www.eif.co.uk/jamesplays#.Vg1COGDayWd>.
23 ‘Like the king himself, James III is colourful and unpredictable, turning its attention to the women at the heart of the royal court. Charismatic, cultured, and obsessed with grandiose schemes that his nation can ill afford, James III is by turns loved and loathed. Scotland thunders dangerously close to civil war, but its future may be decided by James’ resourceful and resilient wife, Queen Margaret of Denmark. Her love and clear vision can save a fragile monarchy and rescue a struggling people. The ensemble includes Jamie Sives as King James III, and Sofie Gråbøl as Margaret of Denmark.’
24 Linne R. Mooney , Mary-Jo Arn (Editors), ‘James I of Scotland, The Kingis Quair’ in The Kingis Quair and Other Prison Poems, 2005, <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/mooney-and-arn-kingis-quair-and-other-prison-poems-james-i-scotland-kingis-quair>.
29 Robert WEDDERBURN, The Complaynt of Scotlande wythe ane exortation to the thre estaits to be vigilante in the deffens of their public veil. 1549. Ed. A. M. Stewart. Edinburgh : The Scottish Text Society, 1979.
30 Rampant Scotland Directory, Op. cit..
31 Op. cit..
32 Op. cit..
33 Op. cit..
34 Liz Lochhead, Mary Got Her Head Chopped off, in Liz Lochhead, Five Plays, NHB, London, 2009.
36 Henry Adam, Stand Up Haggis, The Return of the Ginger Step-Kid, The Last of the McSporrans, April 2013, unpublished (with the author’s courtesy).
37 Morna Pearson, The Artist Man and Mother Woman, Methuen Drama, London, 2012.
38 David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart, faber and faber, London, 2011.
39 Alain Robbe-Grillet, Richard Howard, ‘Commitment’ in ‘On Several Obsolete Notions’ in For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, Northwestern University Press Paperbacks, Evanston, Illinois, 1989, p. 34.
40 On John McGrath, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4T2wh-YjQw>.
41 David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, op. cit..
42 Kieran Hurley, Rantin, in Trish Reid, Contemporary Scottish Plays, Bloomsbury, London, 2015.
43 David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, op. cit..
44 Kieran Hurley’s Rantin, in Trish Reid, op. cit..
45 Anthony Neilson, Narrative, in Trish Reid, op. cit..
46 Joyce McMillan, ‘Now’s The Hour: The First Minister’s Visit To The Scottish Youth Theatre, And The Relationship Between Politics And Art’, for the Scotsman Magazine, July 7th, 2014. https://joycemcmillan.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/
47 C. W. E. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, CUP, Cambridge, 1985, Volume 3, p. 294.
48 Op. cit., Joyce McMillan, <https://joycemcmillan.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/>.
50 Steven McElroy, op. cit..
51 Joyce McMillan, op. cit..Top of page
Danièle Berton-Charrière, « Commitment, Identity and Dreams of Independence in Contemporary Scottish Playwriting », Observatoire de la société britannique, 18 | 2016, 147-167.
Danièle Berton-Charrière, « Commitment, Identity and Dreams of Independence in Contemporary Scottish Playwriting », Observatoire de la société britannique [Online], 18 | 2016, Online since 01 October 2016, connection on 26 March 2017. URL : http://osb.revues.org/1853 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1853Top of page
Observatoire de la société britanniqueTop of page