- Andrew P. Wilson and the Early Irish and Scottish National Theatres, 1911–1950
From the perspective of one who researches within a narrow field of theatre history (rural American tent shows), as I begin various projects with a review of available literature, not only is the misinformation I encounter distressing, but more critical is the extent of missing information. Such is also the case with information pertaining to director, writer, actor, critic, producer, and teacher Andrew P. Wilson. In his book Andrew P. Wilson and the Early Irish and Scottish National Theatres, 1911–1950, author Steven Burch claims from the outset that Wilson "was at the forefront of several major movements in Ireland, England, and Scotland" (1), and laments that the absence of information about Wilson and his work distorts the recorded histories of several eminent Scottish and Irish theatres. Burch seeks to "correct [the] lapse in the historical record" (4) by filling in the gaps.
The book's first eleven chapters are divided according to major periods in Wilson's life and work; in a final chapter, Burch summarizes his conclusions from the study. Burch posits two theses: first, the somewhat implicit argument that Wilson's career was colored and shaped by his political ideals, and second, that Wilson's decline into invisibility and obscurity stems from his troubled relationships with Sean O'Casey and W. B. Yeats. Following the introduction, chapter 2 examines Wilson's time at The Irish Worker, published by the socialist trade-union leader Jim Larkin, where he wrote under the pen name Euchan. More interesting, however, is the author's thorough examination of Wilson's first attempts at writing plays (Profit! Victims, Poached, and The Slough), which demonstrates the evolution of Wilson's politics and dramaturgy.
Chapters 3 through 5 explore the years surrounding Wilson's tenure with the Abbey Theatre as manager, actor, and playwright, and it is here that Burch reinforces his argument for Wilson's importance in Irish and Scottish theatre history studies. The author maintains that Wilson's play The Slough was the "Abbey's first attempt to bring the highly politicized world of the urban underclass to its predominately middle-class audience" (37). Chapter 4 specifically addresses the O'Casey and Yeats feuds. The argument with O'Casey stemmed from political statements in Wilson's weekly column in The Irish Worker. While the nature of the row between Wilson and Yeats is unclear—Burch finds conflicting reports of the incident—what is clear is that previous historians have nevertheless chosen to take sides with Yeats. Burch argues that these disagreements with two key figures in Irish theatre "created the initial event of [Wilson's] historical invisibility" (7); the author's goal here is to defend Wilson's reputation and accomplishments.
Chapter 6 is the most substantial chapter in the book because of the amount of available source material; it concerns Wilson's founding of the Scottish National Theatre Society (usually referred to as the Scottish National Players) using his experiences at the Abbey as a model. Wilson adamantly insisted on "Scotland finding, nurturing, and producing their native-born dramatists" (8). Burch cites playwright and theatre historian Donald Campbell's Playing for Scotland: History of the Scottish Stage, which asserts that the Scottish National Players can "be seen as constituting the true beginnings of the Scottish theatre movement" (quoted in Burch, 103); from this group emerged a large number of actors who would go on to influence Scottish theatre as well as BBC Scotland. Burch notes that Wilson directed, produced, wrote, and ran the theatre almost independently and argues that Campbell, whose history he calls "valuable though idiosyncratic" (104), subjectively and fallaciously excluded information about Wilson in favor of Tyrone Guthrie, thus further contributing to Wilson's invisibility.
The remaining chapters focus on Wilson's life after leaving the Scottish National Players, when he worked as a film director, an actor in his own new plays, a writer of radio dramas for BBC Scotland, and finally, though suffering...