restricted access 5. Freeing the tongue: Scots language on stage in the twentieth century
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72 5. Freeing the tongue: Scots language on stage in the twentieth century1 IAN BROWN This chapter considers a range of attitudes to the use of Scots language on stage throughout the twentieth century. It draws attention to early attempts to use Scots for significant topics before the First World War, before addressing the experiments of the Scottish National Players and Joe Corrie in the years between the wars. It addresses the development of the repertory theatre system in Scotland in the middle of the century and, in particular, the importance of the foundation of the Glasgow Unity Theatre in 1941, Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre Company in 1943 and Edinburgh Gateway Theatre Company in 1953 for the future development of free use of Scots as a stage language. It reviews the situation of Scots-language theatre writing by the end of the 1960s, when Clive Perry, then Director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, (in)famously intervened, doubting the viability of Scots as a language of the stage for the future. It considers the reaction of to Perry’s intervention and his reaction to that reaction, outlining the ways in which playwrights by the end of the century were using Scots freely as a vibrant part of new Scottish writing for the stage. In 1909, Alfred Wareing, with several prominent Glaswegians, founded the Glasgow Repertory Theatre.2 Its aims, as described in The Glasgow Herald of 19 March 1909, included the encouragement of the initiation and development of purely Scottish drama by providing a stage and acting company which will be peculiarly adapted for the production of plays national in character, written by Scottish men and women of letters. Often this is taken to be the first attempt to establish a theatre company focused on Scottish drama in the twentieth century. Yet, in the previous 73 year, the actor-playwright Graham Moffat whose work is discussed later in this chapter set up a company based around himself and his wife Maggie. This was launched on 26 March 1908 at the Athenaeum Hall in Glasgow. In the short pamphlet produced for this occasion Moffat calls his company the Scottish National Players (not be confused with the later company under the same name founded in 1921, also discussed later in this chapter). Through this company, Moffat asserts […] an effort is being made to follow the example of the Irish National Players at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and to provide something similar for Scotland. […] In ‘Annie Laurie’ and ‘Till the Bells Ring’ [two of his short plays presented on this occasion], the circumstances giving rise to the situations are Scottish, and all the characters speak the Lowland ‘Braid Scots’.3 The next day the Glasgow Herald says of Moffat, ‘On the whole, Mr Graham Moffat’s venture as a writer of plays in “braid Scots” is to be commended’.4 In fact Moffat’s ‘Scottish National Players’ were soon distracted from a specifically Scottish remit by London West End success. Meantime, the Glasgow Repertory Theatre struggled through the five years until the start of the First World War, at which point it folded. Yet in those years, clearly influenced by the example of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, as Moffat also was, it set out a model of Scottish repertory that might later in the century be returned to. David Hutchison summarises its achievements: a third of all the plays presented were entirely new to the stage, a remarkably high proportion. The company scored a few notable coups, in particular with the presentation in 1909 of The Seagull, the first production of a Chekhov play in Britain. Encouragement was given to Scottish authors and, although no masterpieces were produced and there was no upsurge comparable to the Irish one, a start was made to building a native modern dramatic tradition. Crucially, the context in which new Scottish work appeared – an eclectic mix of quality contemporary plays – was the one most suited scots language on stage in the twentieth century 74 to stimulating indigenous writers to be ambitious. Among the Scots who wrote for the Glasgow Repertory Company were Neil Munro, best known as the author of the Para Handy stories; J. J. Bell, the creator of Wee MacGreegor; Anthony Rowley and G. J. Hamlen, who tackled contemporary themes; and Donald Colquhoun and J. S. Ferguson. The two best Scottish plays produced were Colquhoun’s Jean and Ferguson’s Campbell of Kilmohr.5 Both of the latter plays are written in Scots. The first was...