Scottish theatre’s modern renaissance

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Ian McKellan and Giles Havergal at the Citizens Theatre

Mark Brown, author of Modernism and Scottish Theatre Since 1969, gives the run down on how Scotland’s particular kind of Reformation stunted the development of dramatic writing for centuries, not really recovering until the early 1900s.

To talk about Scottish theatre in the late 20th and early 21st centuries we must, paradoxically, start in the 16th century. For it was then, amid the ferocious indignation and granite moral certainties of the Calvinist Reformation, that a new course was set for Scottish society and culture.

In the case of theatre, it meant no course at all. For the virulent Protestant reformer John Knox and his fellow Calvinists, the theatre was a cesspit of godless recreation. Consequently, as the roofs were ripped from the Catholic abbeys, the theatres, too, were closed down.

If one seeks to understand the undeniable social differences between Scotland and England, one need only consider the massive distinctions between the Protestant Reformations in both countries. England’s Reformation was, in effect, short-circuited by Henry VIII’s pursuit, not of a Lutheran or Calvinist theology, but of his desire to divorce serially.

In Reformation England, neo-Catholic Anglicanism, which retained the theatricality and sensuality of its religious rituals, continued to tolerate the theatre. Indeed, English theatre would suffer prohibition (driven by Cromwellian Puritanism) for only the 11 years of the interregnum (1649-1660).

Upon his accession to the throne, Charles II (known as the “Merry Monarch”, partly for his love of theatre, and for his predilection for actresses) famously reopened the playhouses. By contrast, in Scotland, from 1560 forward, the theatre was dealt a hammer blow by an uncompromising and austere Calvinist Reformation.

England had such great dramatists as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Aphra Behn and Thomas Otway. Scotland had silence. Indeed, Scottish theatre cannot be considered to have recovered properly until the 20th century.

Liz Lochhead, one of Scotland’s leading poets and playwrights, puts it well: “[Scotland’s] Reformation, early and thorough, stamped out all drama and dramatic writing for centuries. This means that the indigenous product seems to consist of Lyndsay’s 1540 Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites — and ‘ane satire’ is definitely not enough. We have no Scottish Jacobean tragedies, no Scottish Restoration Comedies. Our greatest dramatist that never was, Burns, confined himself to the dramatic monologue purely in poetic form… [Burns’s religious hypocrite] Holy Willie and [Molière’s] Tartuffe may be brother archetypes, but only one had a full five-act play written about him.”

Following the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 and the creation of the British state as we know it, Scotland began to become integrated into the “provincial” touring circuit of a London-dominated English, now “British”, theatre. However, a homegrown Scottish theatre struggled to emerge from its historic prohibition.

By the early 20th century, with the emergence of socialist playwrights such as Joe Corrie and C P Taylor, and the humanist dramatist Ena Lamont Stewart, a new Scottish theatre was being born. However, while the working class orientation of these writers was politically radical (they might be considered the forebears of John McGrath and his 7:84 Scotland theatre company in the 1970s), artistically their work remained, broadly, in the tradition of English naturalism.

Modernism came late to the Scottish stage. The visits of great European theatremakers following the creation of the Edinburgh International Festival and its ever-growing Festival Fringe in 1947 provided an injection of the avant-garde.

This was taken up by a number of theatre companies within Scotland, not least the Traverse Theatre Club in Edinburgh, the inaugural year (1963) of which included plays by leading modernists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Alfred Jarry and Eugène Ionesco. However, it was not until 1969 and the appointment of a young, Scottish theatre director by the name of Giles Havergal as artistic director of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, that modernist aesthetics were brought into the Scottish theatrical mainstream.

Havergal’s experimental, all-male Hamlet (1970) was panned by the outraged Scottish critics, and his directorship was almost over before it had begun. Thankfully, however, the theatre’s board stuck by him and he, with his great collaborators Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald, went on to complete an extraordinary, and hugely influential, 34-year directorship.

If the Havergal Citizens introduced a thoroughgoing modernist aesthetics to Scottish theatre in the 1970s, the superb touring company Communicado disseminated them in the 1980s. By the 1990s this belated modernist renaissance was finding expression in the work of what one might term “the golden generation” of Scottish playwrights, particularly David Greig (The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union), Zinnie Harris (Further Than the Furthest Thing), David Harrower (Knives in Hens) and Anthony Neilson (The Wonderful World of Dissocia).

Thanks to artists such as these, and to the likes of auteur director/designer Stewart Laing and playwright Pamela Carter, Scottish theatre is now celebrated throughout the world. That it is so is no thanks to John Knox and his joyless Reformation.

Mark Brown’s book Modernism and Scottish Theatre since 1969: A Revolution on Stage is published by Palgrave Macmillan