CHAPTER NINE Edwin Morgan’s Theatre
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145 CHAPTER NINE Edwin Morgan’s Theatre Anne Varty Months after Edwin Morgan’s death on 19 August 2010 his memory was honoured by two completely different theatre pieces. In November 2010 students at RSAMD performed a version of his hitherto professionally unproduced The Play of Gilgamesh (2005), together with his superbly knowing verse collection ‘Ten Theatre Poems’; the following November, Liz Lochhead’s Edwin Morgan’s Dreams – and Other Nightmares was produced at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre for the annual Glasgay! festival, weaving together a recollection of his life with his final collection of poetry. These two productions offer twin vectors which carry us to the heart of Morgan’s enterprise as a dramatist. The first concerns his practice of intimacy between poetry and drama, and the often noticed theatricality of his verse: He has [an …] elastic relationship to the languages in which he chooses to write, keenly aware of what works best in one poem or another – and this includes his translations. Morgan […] chooses to write in Scots or Glaswegian only for dramatic purposes, i.e. giving someone or something a particular voice.1 The second points to the epic scale and fearlessness of his theatre writing which led to the overwhelming by controversy of A.D.: A Trilogy of Plays on the Life of Jesus (2000), and seem to have rendered Gilgamesh professionally untouchable. Morgan’s engagement with the stage was long-standing and it took many forms. As a critic he took part in urgent debate about revitalisation of the British stage in 1956, and a decade later he was reviewing Max Stafford-Clark’s early work as artistic director at the Traverse.2 He attended events hosted by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in London, publishing in their house journal, Encore Magazine, in which 146 he called for cool heads to assess the gap between style and substance in the expressions of Angry Young Men. His own excitement was more palpably fuelled by the Berliner Ensemble’s 1956 visit to London with Mother Courage at the Palace Theatre. Arguing with his friend Ian Dallas he writes: Now that I’ve seen the Berliner Ensemble I am more than ever persuaded that technique and presentation are of the utmost importance. You deny the importance of the revolving stage in your letter; but it is precisely this that stamps the play and its meaning on your memory. The opening scene with the cart going round and the song being sung shakes you right out of the Eliot–Fry–Whiting continuum; it has an astonishing effect, as also have the bare stage and the clear unmelodramatized lighting. Certainly the ideas are important in Brecht, and having the ‘world-view’ might solve the question of technique, but the point you miss is that without something fairly spectacularly new in technique no world-view whether religious or political is going to revitalize British theatre.3 This letter, recently published by Morgan’s biographer James McGonigal in PN Review, is an important statement of his ambitions for the stage which at the time he was eager for others to carry forward. In it he dismisses much of contemporary practice, not simply poetic drama which could be taken to challenge the ‘well-made play’ of the era, but also any whiff of the drawing room: The Berliners and the Peking Opera can come and go, and people will still be unhappy unless they get their three square walls and half a ceiling – and you, dear friend, what do you do but encourage them? I despair of you.4 Morgan’s sympathies are expressly with the high artifice of epic theatre and Chinese opera as he firmly rejects collaboration with ‘people’s’ established taste. A decade later, in his first theatre review for The Times, he noted that playwrights had yet to learn to trust their audiences: the zany cleverness of the dialogue conceals a fear that serious issues cannot be made interesting to a theatre audience in terms of normal, unhysterical experience.5 anne varty 147 edwin morgan’s theatre Much later – thirty and forty years later – Morgan’s own plays neither patronise the audience nor compromise substance for style. A.D. and Gilgamesh find ‘normal, unhysterical’ modes to convey the most serious of issues. Morgan does this in part by eschewing theatrical realism altogether, embracing the overt artistry of the theatres he welcomed to Britain so wholeheartedly in 1956. This choice is made, however, not simply in light...