TRISH Reid, in his little book, Theater & Scotland (2013), notes that Anthony Neilson, in his play Relocated (2008), makes it “difficult for audiences to distinguish between fantasy and reality or even to develop a clear sense of the basis on which his characters are drawn ”. This connects the play to an essential characteristic of modern Scottish literature more generally: the transcendence of realism. This is most clearly seen in three works from three literary genres of the 1980s: the novel Lanark by Alasdair Gray (1981), the Edwin Morgan Poem Sequence, Sonnets from Scotland (1984) and the play by Liz Lochhead Mary. Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987), which we reviewed last week.
Each of these works radically destabilizes what we would normally call “realism”. In Lanark, a dark fantasy of socially upset people counterbalances the realistic narrative of an artist who grew up in Glasgow; in Sonnets from Scotland the nation is evoked before prehistoric times, through real and imagined events – from historical visitors to Scotland like Edgar Allan Poe and Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nuclear explosion, a newly established Republic of Scotland which itself dies in time – to an as yet unrealized future (for example, a wide canal stretching along the border with England). Lochhead’s play weaves historical figures into their descendants, children in a schoolyard, imagining what horrific belief systems are held across generations and taken to murderous extremes. The work of the imagination in these literary texts is as vital as an accurate understanding of history and of human character. And this is the irreplaceable value of the arts in the prospect and construction of an independent Scotland.
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In her book, Trish Reid is brought to a crucial conclusion: “by engaging with other discourses on identity such as class, gender, ethnicity, globalization and multiculturalism”, the Scottish plays of the beginning of the 21st century “insist that if we are to take seriously the notion of post-devolutionary Scotland developing a ‘new non-threatening nationalism’, which can accommodate both the internal plurality of the nation and to its ambition for international engagement, we must carefully consider how these positive ambitions are culturally animated and not just take them for granted. ”
This is the central argument that has run throughout my narrative of the history of Scottish plays and performances and it extends to all the arts. How can an independent Scotland embrace our own cultural plurality and enliven the character and quality of our arts internationally, confidently, without pretensions of superiority but with full awareness of our heritage inherited from cultural achievements?
Learning what our writers, artists and composers have done is the only sure foundation for independence. Without them, we are just what Ezra Pound once called “just a heap of barbaric dung.”
The work of revalorizing and revising this inherited file continues within education, insofar as my colleagues and I can contribute to its realization, but it is also the origin of the writers and the artists themselves. For example, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (2011) by David Greig (above) immediately makes use of the traditions of music hall and variety as well as older literary forms, in particular taking inspiration from the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802) by Walter Scott. The world of medieval border ballads, with their rhyming, metric and supernatural themes, and their questions about the authority and vulnerability of women in society are at the heart of Prudencia Hart. The piece is designed to be performed by a small group of actor-musicians in pubs or common halls rather than in traditional theaters.
All of Greig’s pieces demonstrate the liveliness of an engaged and curious imagination, exploring ideas in a healthy manner and ready to risk failure in its attempt. His previous work, Europe (1994), taking place in a station waiting room with refugees about to move between different countries, breathes both existential questions and an immediately effective political point, all the more so relevant in the 2020s. Dunsinane (2011) focuses on the historical figure of Gruach (aka Lady Macbeth), picking up where Shakespeare’s play ends, but with the Queen still alive and tasked with passing on the next generation and to eliminate the occupying army. Issues of female and national empowerment, self-determination and military intervention are all here and applicable to more than one circumstance. Their relevance to contemporary Scotland is undeniable.
The key here is that sense of “vivacity” and risk that we have already noted. The fixed and unchanging definitions of ‘Scottishism’, to quote Trish Reid once again, ‘work to freeze culture rather than allow room for variation and development’. While this is true in theatrical practice, and should be avoided, it is also true in the real, everyday political world.
Neither plays nor governments can afford to be set in stone, shaped, and steadfast. The result of this is stasis, stagnation and sterility: a world of prejudice and obstacles, of fear and frustration.
MANY playwrights working in the late 20th and early 21st centuries took up the challenge of ‘variation and development’: eg John, later Jo, Clifford (above), in Losing Venice (1985) , a tense parable on the military occupation that toured internationally following the Falklands War; John McKay in Dead Dad Dog (1988), where the ghost of a father follows the fashionable future son; Stephen Greenhorn, in Passing Places (1997), in which two young men from a small post-industrial town in Lanarkshire flee on a road trip through Scotland, crossing the Highlands to John o ‘ Groats, confronting urban and rural identities, threats of violence and promised civility, delivering comedic effect and serious questions as Scotland is presented to its different “selves”.
The company Suspect Culture, actor / director Graham Eatough, playwright David Greig, composer / musician Nick Powell and designer Ian Scott, who in a series of works crossing conventional boundaries in various forms, has collaborated with artists in Scotland and across Europe, establishing themselves as one of Scotland’s premier companies.
New Scottish plays, the revival of older plays and the renewal of theatrical culture through encounters with new or neglected national contexts and changing international contexts are all of core value.
An essential element for the reassessment which could lead to a revival is the fluent understanding of the Scottish languages - Gaelic and Scots, as well as English – in which Scottish literature has been primarily produced. Another is the collaboration between theater professionals and professional academics and literary historians, to identify and help select works of both literary and theatrical vitality. This vitality becomes thin and unimportant as it moves away from literary substance. Literary drama becomes heavy and dull as it moves away from theatrical performance, presence and movement. Plays, performances and theaters of all kinds have proven this through the centuries. If anything valid has come out of the blockages, it is surely the value of the living presence.
I have focused on plays and the history of theater in recent essays, but the argument applies to all of the arts in Scotland. The arts are the genius of your country. Without them you have nothing. And education is the key. This is the only way to open the door to independence.