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Drama in Scots Since the Twentieth-Century Renaissance.

Characterising theatre in Scotland from 1950-1995, Donald Smith identifies three strands in dramatic production (Smith 1998: 255):
   First, theatre in Scotland was viewed as a legitimate expression of
   international cultural citizenship. In this approach, plays, actors
   and production styles with little or no tradition in Scotland were
   espoused as an antidote to the perceived narrowness of native
   culture. Inevitably these styles were often associated with English
   theatre. Second, there was theatre for Scotland, which involved a
   conscious translation of texts and styles to suit specifically
   Scottish contexts. In the 1950s many original plays by Robert Kemp,
   R.J.B. Sellar and Moray MacLaren were effectively such acts of
   translation, seeking to make the repertory ethos relevant to
   Scotland. Third, there was the quest by playwrights such as Robert
   McLellan, Alexander Reid and Alexander Scott, who wrote mainly or
   exclusively in Scots, for a theatre distinctively Scottish in
   language and form.

Smith adds that all three approaches can be seen in the repertoire of individual theatres, "though usually a combination of two has worked to secure a viable audience' (ibid). The categorisation is a seductive one in that it has considerable explanatory power: there are clear distinctions between 'non-native' forms that speak to a 'British' identity, translations and versions that domesticate non-native drama for local audiences, and original work in Scots that speak to a particular aspect of the complex national identity. While seductive, the categorisation can be at least partially challenged, or at least nuanced, in that drama in Scots is excluded, in Smith's description, from any claim to represent 'international cultural citizenship' except insofar as it mediates between the local and the cosmopolitan through translation. There is also the implication that 'distinctively Scottish' drama can be understood with reference largely to plays with historical settings such as Jamie the Saxt, The Lass wi'the Muckle Mou and Rieht Royal. This paper revisits these assumptions from the perspectives of the Scottish Renaissance's aims to affiliate national culture with transnational movements. In doing so, I seek to account for drama in Scots since the Renaissance by portraying it as a negotiation with--and in some respects a resistance to--the Modernist legacy of the Renaissance.

As Robert Crawford has argued, high Modernism was very much a project driven by 'provincials' from America, Ireland and Scotland, observing that although a 'cursory account of Modernism stresses its cosmopolitanism and internationalism, presenting it as a facet of 'high metropolitan culture [...] there is another, equally important, side of Modernism that is demotic and crucially 'provincial" (Crawford 1992: 218-19). Thus defined, the Scottish twentieth-century Renaissance takes its place as part of a broader European and American Modernist cultural project, which is made manifest in Scotland in interesting and peculiar ways. In high Modernism, as represented by American expatriates, Pound and Eliot, we find the paradoxical belief that to deal with the present malaise --to go forward and to become truly 'modern'--the writer must go back to a mythical past, or to another culture, where there was an integrated, holistic sensibility that has over the centuries, become fragmented. Pound sought inspiration in part the Anglo-Saxon past (as in his translation of 'The Seafarer') and Chinese culture (as in his translations of Cathay and his use of Chinese amongst other cultural appropriations in his Cantos). Eliot drew upon the entire tradition of western literature--his poetry is also a tissue of canonical allusions, and his post-war plays superimpose drawing-room drama on a basic structure of Greek tragedy. Crawford (1992) is alert to the anthropological impulses of this scavenging from the past: the high Modernist tendency towards archaic pastiche, quotation and collage invites the reader-or audience-to engage in a critical comparison of the ancient and exotic cultures represented as 'other' with the contemporary, alienated 'mind of Europe' (Crawford, 1992: 229, 238).

It has, then, been amply demonstrated that the concerns of international Modernism can be seen in poetry in Scots before the Second World War. First, there is the nostalgia for a remote past and the impulse to compare contemporary European society poorly with reference to a distant, idealised culture. We find this nostalgia in Pound, in Eliot and in several of the Scots writers. MacDiarmid follows this pattern: if the variety of expressions found in contemporary Scottish dialects can be regarded as 'fragments shored against the ruins' then Jamieson's Dictionary becomes a means of invoking a Scottish past of mythic wholeness; MacDiarmid's poetry draws on its vocabulary--and even citations from Jamieson--to rework everything from the Russian symbolist, Alexander Blok, to the Scots ballads. If MacDiarmid famously rekindled archaic terms in his poetry, his example was followed, two decades later, by the 'second generation' of Scots Renaissance writers, like Robert Garioch, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Alexander Scott, Tom Scott, and Douglas Young, the last of whom was a professor of Classics, as well as a poet, translator and dramatist. When turning from poetry to drama Young--and others--ran up against problems with a reintegrated Scots vocabulary. One problem is that drama generally presents a world onstage where people interact in a recognisable verbal medium --and nobody today speaks like a poem in aureate Scots by a mediaeval makar; indeed, it is highly improbable that anyone ever did. The dilemma of finding an acceptable medium of dramatic Scots that is acceptable to audiences is alluded to by Sydney Goodsir Smith in his 'Epistle to John Guthrie', which ends:
   'There's no-one speaks like that', they fleer
   But wha the deil spoke like King Lear?

The issue faced by Renaissance and post-Renaissance dramatists in Scots was not just one of finding the right point on a continuum between naturalism and artificiality; it was a question of finding a dramatic frame in which the chosen point in that continuum would seem acceptable. A number of Renaissance dramatists--Robert McLennan, Alexander Scott and Sydney Goodsir Smith among them--resolved this problem by situating their plays in the past (Jamie the Saxt, Right Royal, The Wallace) where a broad range of Scots usages--contemporary or not--could be expected without disrupting the audience's willing suspension of disbelief. While this strand of drama can easily be seen, as Smith noted in the quotation cited above, as part of a 'distinctively Scottish' strand in Scottish theatre, in topic and spoken medium, the historical distance between twentieth-century audience and pre-union settings again invite the kind of anthropological comparison that Crawford invokes. Although the charisma of a leading actor like Duncan Macrae or Ron Bain might turn a play like Jamie the Saxt (1937) into a character study of an apparent fool who outwits his seemingly more sophisticated rivals, the crucial setting at the time of the Union of the Crowns prompts the audience to consider political relations, then and now, and especially today--these relations may encompass broader issues of the nature of the bonds between nations. The strategy of excavating the period of the Stuart dynasty to invite comparison with contemporary Scottish politics and cultural mores has been revived more recently in Rona Munro's The James Plays (2014), which, in Mark Fisher's (2016) review of the Edinburgh Festival revival, are described, again anthropologically, as a 'day-long study of how we look at each other and how we learn to behave'. In other words, while the choice of Scottish setting and medium obviously indicates a national, and even a nationalist concern, they need not necessarily exclude the plays from appealing also to 'international cultural citizenship' insofar as the historical setting and specific language varieties adopted can be regarded as offering anthropological case studies of attitudes, values and behaviours that are relevant to, and find analogies among, those European and other nations situated beyond Scotland's borders.

Drama translated into Scots has a strong claim not just to making the repertory ethos relevant to Scotland but also to asserting international citizenship. Translations are, after all, acts of cultural appropriation and affiliation: the translator of Moliere, Goldoni, Dario Fo or Michel Tremblay is asserting some kind of resonance between the source and host cultures. More broadly, quotation and translation played a major role in twentieth-century Modernist literature. Eliot embeds quotations from Dante, Baudelaire and others in his poetry. Pound in Cathay 'invented Chinese literature in English,' according to Eliot, and extended his collage technique into his Cantos, and MacDiarmid also wove translated passages into 'A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle'. Translation into Scots affords the possibility of writers associating themselves with qualities or attributes they are personally drawn to, and that they imagine the source culture exemplifies. MacDiarmid and Goodsir Smith translated Russian for example, while Garioch translated urban Italian. There was a post-war surge of translated drama in Scots in the twentieth century--it is always worth asking who is being translated, how, and why.

Plays translated into Scots have the advantage of being situated, potentially, 'abroad' and so, as in a historical drama, a dramatist can get away with a reintegrated Scots vocabulary. There is less pressure to impose a naturalist idiom. But willing suspension of disbelief is not the only problem that the Renaissance dramatist encountered. It is possible for a willing and interested reader to take the time necessary to work on extracting meaning from a lexically dense passage of self-consciously 'difficult' Modernist poetry. It is a greater challenge to be in a packed theatre, listening to a lexically dense passage of quick-fire dialogue and trying to comprehend it in real time. Douglas Young's instructions to any producers and actors who take on the challenge of his versions of Aristophanes' The Puddocks and The Burdies allow them flexibility in altering the reading text to fit the capabilities of the live audience (Corbett and Findlay 2005: xv-xvi). While a Modernist poem can target 'fit audience though few', the self-styled elitism of high Modernism would not sit well with theatre producers and financiers--Modernist poetry might be able to afford to please a minority, but theatre is a popular artform, and successful Modernist drama had to to survive in a commercial marketplace. Though Ian Brown (2013: 245-49) has affirmed that Scots language drama in Scottish theatres was indeed financially attractive to producers, the Scots used in successful plays has tended to be accessible to live audiences. Even a writer who could be identified with the Renaissance--Robert Kemp, the adapter in the late 1940s of the famous Edinburgh Festival revival of A Satire of the Three Estates--can be found, in 1950, writing a satirical spoof of Lallans poetry in a BBC radio programme, The GuidScots Tongue ' (Corbett 2008:25-26). The point of Kemp's sketch is that the Modernist poet who chooses Scots can afford to be unreadable as long as he or she does not expect to be read--the squib exposes the tension between the elite project of literary Modernism versus the popular requirements of radio and the theatre. Douglas Young's concessions to the live audience suggest that the Modernist desire to reintegrate cultural sensibility via translations of canonical texts into a dense, synthetic Scots falters in theatrical performance. Some Scots plays may be better read than heard--or at least their success in performance may be predicated on the audience's familiarity with the source text, or earlier translated versions of it.

In brief, the unarguable energy of the twentieth-century Scots Renaissance nevertheless set Scots-language dramatists a number of intriguing problems. The general Modernist ambition was to use literary Scots to bring a new Scotland into being--a Scotland where a fragmented culture (represented by the contemporary dialects of Scotland) was reconstituted as a whole (represented by a synthesised Scots, or Lallans). To do this, the lexical resources of Scots were extended by bringing together vocabulary items from different parts of the country and different periods of time. The resulting texts were challenging to read and could be even more challenging to encounter on stage. Among the strategies used to mitigate this dramatic challenge were: to invoke the classical or mediaeval past when, the audience may suppose, cultural sensibilities were not fragmented; to tone down the lexical density of reintegrated Scots; or to turn to translated texts (the stories of which might be familiar to the audience, and which might position the play in an exotic or fantasy setting where the strangeness of the language could in part be attributed to the strangeness of the source culture).

By the 1960s the energy of the Renaissance project was wearing thin: fashions were changing and the old guard tended to treat the new upstart counter-culture with patrician scorn, if at times mixed with fascination (cf. Bartie and Bell, 2012). When drama in Scots re-emerged in the 1970s and beyond it might indeed be reconfigured into three main strands (cf. Smith, ibid, quoted above), but strands that treat the Modernist legacy of the Renaissance legacy in different ways. This perspective reconfigures Smith's categorisations. The first strand resists the Modernist legacy, or, at best, ignores it. In plays like Willie Rough, The Bevellers, The Slab Boys, The Ship right through The Steamie and up to Black Watch the playwrights draw on demotic Scots--usually urban, usually quite precisely located in time and place, and often situated in a workplace (such as a carpet factory, a shipyard, an army barracks or even a steamie on Hogmanay). These plays have their origins not in high Modernism but in the political activism of Joe Corrie and Ena Lamont Stewart and they continue a strong 'distinctively Scottish' tradition of social realism in twentieth-century Scots drama. Their highly specific, localised use of Scots is exactly what the twentieth-century Scots Renaissance did not want--in presenting local speech varieties in naturalistic ways, the fragments shored against the ruins remained fragmented. Not all of these plays are similar in style: there is a big difference between the Glasgow working-class Scots of Bill Bryden's Willie Rough or The Ship and the mannered, even baroque, linguistic play of The Slab Boys, a play set in Paisley, which shares their West Central Scots idiom up to a point. This local, naturalist, strand in Scots drama continues through to the triumph of Black Watch in which the fantastic staging and tremendous performances turned demotic Fife dialogue into a kind of poetic ethnography. In these plays, the members of the audience, most importantly, can recognise themselves, or people they know, on the stage, and they are invited to share the experiences dramatised there. From the tragedy of Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep to the comedy of Tony Roper's The Steamie, these plays use a recognisably local variety of Scots and they draw upon its specificities to forge a bond with the community that is watching. The assumption is that even if we do not speak that medium any more ourselves, we have relatives who do, or did.

It is clear, then, that some of our most successful post-Renaissance plays in Scots do a swerve around the Modernist legacy of the Renaissance, and they unashamedly base their Scots on contemporary local varieties. But I would maintain that the Scottish Renaissance does leave its mark on drama in Scots. One aspect of its legacy, which informs the second and third strands, embraces the sheer ambition of literary Modernism--that is, the idea that you can extend beyond a fragment of the mosaic of speech varieties that make up contemporary Scots and approach something like a lost wholeness, a reintegrated Scots. There are two ways of doing this. The first is to interweave the fragments while keeping them distinct--you find this, in plays like The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Admittedly this can now be read as a history play of sorts--but it has the contemporary resonance and the political bite of other 1970s plays. As the action travels around Scotland the dialogue samples from different varieties of Scots, Gaelic and southern and transatlantic English. A panoramic picture of the Scotland of the time--different classes, periods, genders, ethnicities --is built up through the shifting language varieties.

Perhaps the most startling example of the interweaving different registers of Scots to build up a complex 'whole' portrayal of Scotland is Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman's translation of Quebecois playwright, Michel Tremblay's The House Among the Stars. Findlay and Bowman translated a number of Tremblay's plays and in general they drew on recognisably localised Scots: indeed, their version of The Guid-Sisters was performed and published in two versions, a Fife original, and a Glaswegian revival. But The House Among the Stars ingeniously interweaves different varieties of Scots. The play tells of three generations of a family, all of whom are associated with a country farmhouse. The couple who turn out to be the grandparents, a brother and sister, live in the country house until the sister's pregnancy, and the scandal of their incestuous relationship, drives them to the city. The next generation, a rowdy working-class, urban family, returns to the house on holiday, to work out their own demons. A generation later, so too does one of their offspring, a gay or bisexual academic, who comes back with his own son and his male partner. The theatrical conceit is that these stories are told in a chronologically nonlinear fashion--the three generations spend much of the time on stage together. The grandparents speak in a lyrical, poetic Scots, more a light Lallans than a recognisable rural variety; the second generation speaks an urban variety; while the third generation speaks standard Scottish English --just a few distinctive idioms marking it out from its southern cousin. The stated setting remains Francophone Canada (and so we need not be compelled to judge the speech used in this play as naturalistically true to Scotland) but the linguistic distinction between three varieties of Scots marks out distinctions such as rural/urban; past/present; and peasant/ working-class/middle-class. The conceit of collapsing time--of seeing the three generations act out their drama simultaneously on stage--reintegrates the geographical and social and temporal fragments of Scottish culture. It can be argued that the play epitomises a wonderfully theatrical way of achieving the Modernist project of portraying cultural wholeness.

However, this kind of non-linear blending of speech varieties is probably not really what the pioneers of the Scottish Renaissance had in mind when they assumed the Modernist project. They probably did not want to interweave the fragments of a culture into a reconstructed tapestry; they wanted to synthesise the available elements into something new. The legacy of this kind of synthesising mission is most obviously found in plays by Liz Lochhead, arguably in Mary Queen of Scots Got her Head Chopped Off (which reinvents the Renaissance staple of the history play) and certainly in her version of Moliere's Tartuffe. It is Lochhead's success with the latter play that almost certainly inspired Edwin Morgan to write his versions of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac and Racine's Phaedra. It is worth remarking that Morgan's two plays are translations, as is Lochhead's Tartuffe. Again, as Smith suggests, the importance to Scottish drama of translations into Scots can hardly be overstated. However, it is limiting to think of these plays as purely domesticating in their ambition and intent. Lochhead is a popular and instinctive and marvellously creative writer in Scots. She solves the accessibility dilemma of using broad Scots for a modern audience by writing from an urban Scots base--rather than a minority rural or archaic literary variety--and by extending it to places that no Renaissance writer would go. In her introduction to Tartuffe, the central character of which is a French Holy Willie, she talks quite explicitly of plundering Bums, but also admits to drawing on Americanisms and the patter of once-popular English comedians, like George Formby. Her Scots is thus a populist synthesis, bursting with irreverent energy. Her rhymes, in particular, are ridiculously ingenious. Morgan's Cyrano again takes demotic Glasgow as the basis for its Scots, but it is more studied, more learned perhaps in its lexical choices, but equally energetic, and just as likely to draw on broader popular cultural references, to Rambo, Gucci and Rupert Murdoch. The Scots of these plays is--like the Lallans of the Renaissance--both familiar and strange. Nobody in Glasgow speaks the way Morgan's Cyrano speaks --but the characters still have that familiarity.

As I have argued elsewhere (Corbett, 2012), the accessibility of Morgan's play is also helped by the familiarity of its story. The play arrived on the Scottish stage in 1992, at a strange moment in western culture when versions of the original were highly visible--notably, Steve Martin's film, Roxanne, had updated the story to contemporary America in 1987; Anthony Burgess's translation was used for the subtitles in the more faithful 1990 film starring Gerard Depardieu; and there were other stage versions in English that paved the way for Morgan's translation into a synthetic urban Scots. Again, this is no mere domesticating version; the defamiliarising Scots appropriation of the French original makes a claim that our national culture can stand alongside not only the French original, but also American and English versions. Compared to Lochhead's Scots, as used in Tartuffe, Morgan's is denser and more allusive, and probably reads even better than it plays on stage. This is certainly true of his Scots translation of Phaedra which was a bold but ultimately compromised attempt to synthesise the Classicism beloved of Renaissance poets and playwrights such as Douglas Young with the argot of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. It did not replicate the popular and critical success of the earlier play. The story wasn't as well known to a popular audience as Cyrano was--Morgan had clearly decided to take on a tragedy and see if that could be delivered in Scots (Lochhead succeeds better with Medea, but she uses a much more anglicised register).

So, let the flytings begin. One of the dangers, and, it must be admitted, pleasures, of setting up categories is, of course, to reconfigure them, as I have attempted to tweak those suggested by Donald Smith. To recap, my argument is that the Scottish Renaissance--in line with Modernism as a whole--viewed contemporary culture as fragmented, decadent, and in need of reintegration. Part of the Modernist project was to reintegrate the language: as Eliot and Pound used collage, so MacDiarmid, Goodsir Smith, Douglas Young and others fused the elements of past and present Scots into a newly forged medium for poetry--and drama. The Scottish Renaissance dramatists were faced with the challenge of using a self-consciously difficult linguistic medium, designed for intellectually elite literary consumption, in a popular art-form. It worked in certain contexts --Douglas Young's Aristophanic satire. The Puddocks fared better in the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, when performed, in 1958, by an enthusiastic amateur student company than its companion piece. The Burdies. did when it was exposed to a broader audience--even a highbrow audience--at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966. The Scottish Renaissance legacy to drama in Scots is therefore mixed. Amongst the most successful dramas in Scots are those that resist the totalising tendency of Modernism, the impulse to an idealised universal homogeneity. Rather, they remain firmly rooted in a specific region, period and social class, thus celebrating a culture that is stubbornly fragmented and diverse. But the Renaissance also opened up a space for experimentation, an experimentation that has given us plays of interweaving registers or, more daringly, a different kind of synthesis--one that is urban, mischievous, open to Americanisms where Douglas Young (1947:23) would rather have what he calls a 'Hottentotism'. These 'synthetic urban Scots' plays are more accessible, but still challenging to audiences. Sometimes the plays succeed brilliantly. Sometimes they fail honourably. But they share that credo, voiced by Ezra Pound and echoed by Alexander Scott--to take something old and 'mak it new'.

University of Sao Paulo


Bartie, A., and E. Bell. 2012. International Writers' Conference Revisited: Edinburgh, 1962. Glasgow: Cargo Publishing.

Brown, I., 2013. Scottish Theatre: Diversity, Language, Continuity. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Corbett, J., 2008. 'Scots, English and community languages in the Scottish media.' In N. Blain, ed. Media in Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 20-34.

Corbett, J., 2012. 'The summer of Cyrano.' Scottish Literary Review, 4 (2), pp. 145-61.

Corbett, J. and B. Findlay, eds. 2005. Serving twa maisters: five classic plays in Scots translation Association for Scottish Literary Studies, University of Glasgow.

Crawford, R. 1992. Devolving English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fisher, M. 2016. 'The James Plays review--triumphant trilogy holds a mirror to Scottish history.' The Guardian, Tuesday 16 February. Online

Smith, D. 1998. '1950 to 1995.' In B. Findlay, ed. A History of Scottish Theatre. Edinburgh: Polygon, pp. 253-308.

Young, D. 1948. 'Plastic Scots and the Scottish literary tradition: an authoritative introduction to a controversy. Glasgow: W. Maclellan.
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Author:Corbett, John
Publication:Scottish Language
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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