- New Writing in a Populist ContextA Play, a Pie and a Pint
While in Glasgow during a May 2012 research trip, I took many cabs. Glasgow cab drivers are known, in my experience, for asking two questions: "Where are you from?" and "What brings you to Glasgow?" In the case of every cab driver but one, the driver's immediate response upon learning that I was studying Scottish theatre was to ask whether I'd been to Òran Mór. More often than not, my affirmative reply would be followed by the driver rattling off a list of plays he had seen there, frequently including a personal critique of the best and worst plays. And in the one case in which my cab driver had not yet been to Òran Mór, he told me he was going the next day. The plays that these cab drivers, and throngs of Glaswegians of every other trade, had seen were part of David MacLennan's A Play, a Pie and a Pint (PPP) series, which has been described as having "broken the mould in terms of theatre-making in this country."1 And for this series of productions, breaking the mold has entailed embracing the practice of theatrical populism to propel the production of new plays. This essay will investigate the populist impetus behind and the practice of A Play, a Pie and a Pint, before drawing conclusions concerning the series's ramifications in the arena of new writing.
The notion of populist theatre is ubiquitous in attempts to define contemporary Scottish theatre. Aleks Sierz defines Scottish theatre as "hard-headed realism with a populist vaudevillian flair,"2 while Trish Reid defines it as "politicised populism."3 Playwright David Greig has written, "I believe there is such a thing as 'Scottish theatre.' At its best, it is a unique distillate of meaty poetry, playful intellect and the democratic populism of the variety theatre."4 In Aleks [End Page 266] Sierz's article "'Can Old Forms Be Reinvigorated?': Radical Populism and New Writing in British Theatre Today," the practitioners interviewed concerning radical populist theatre repeatedly reference Scottish companies and Scottish works. Defining populism in general, and theatrical populism specifically, is crucial, then, to appreciating the political and theatrical context for A Play, a Pie and a Pint. While the term "populism" is used today, often pejoratively, to describe a variety of discourses—often those of the Right—the definition perhaps most applicable to the current project is that of Kenneth Roberts, who writes that "populism is a specific type of response to crises of political representation, which can themselves take a number of different forms. It is a natural—though hardly an inevitable or exclusive—political strategy for appealing to mass constituencies where representative institutions are weak or discredited, and where various forms of social exclusion or political marginalization leave citizens alienated from such institutions."5 In theatrical populism, then, one can equate the "representative institutions" against which political populism rallies with the traditional institutions of literary theatre: theatrical populism seeks to dispel the myth, persistent today, that theatre is a medium for the supposedly cultured elite, providing theatrical entertainment for the "mass constituencies" who are perceived to be excluded from that elite.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
In the case of Scottish theatre practitioners, populism might be said to be entrenched in their theatrical DNA, a DNA infused with the traditions of variety theatre, music hall, and pantomime. Femi Folorunso argues that "the music hall [End Page 267] occupied the middle space in a direct line from seventeenth-century popular entertainment to contemporary drama in Scotland."6
Indeed, the two most oft-cited works in the Scottish canon reference the two ends of that direct line and are telling in their populist characteristics: Sir David Lyndsay's sixteenth-century morality play Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites, and 7:84 (Scotland)'s 1973 play The Cheviot, the Stag...