- Scottish Theatre: Diversity, Language, Continuity by Ian Brown
The crux of Ian Brown’s challenging work is his scrutiny of the way histories of Scottish drama have been written. What emerges from his questioning of traditional historiography — its accommodation of received ideas concerning the influences of religion and politics, together with conventional ideas of what constitutes theatre, what is regarded as a stage, and what language legitimises performance — fills what has been regarded as a three-hundred-year-long period of darkness (c.1500–1800), with a vibrant and unbroken theatre practice of light, learning and substantial wealth which leads directly to the heart of present-day theatre culture in Scotland.
The transformational chapters of the nine which comprise this study are numbers four and five, on historiography (particularly relating to the early modern period), and the nature of public performance in eighteenth-century Scotland. The volume opens with a rejection of a ‘great tradition’ in which Standard English is the chief marker of what identifies Scottish drama, balanced by a careful assessment of the difficulties encountered in recent decades by theatre historians, literary critics, writers and playwrights, in identifying and deploying the voices of Scotland, where, unlike in England, there is no agreed standard form of the language or indeed, languages. This plurality of opportunity enriches practice as well as scholarship, but must first be acknowledged. Brown draws on recent work by Michael Newton on Gaelic folk drama and by Bill Findlay and David Bradby on the Latin plays and translations of George Buchanan (1506–1582) to adumbrate the diversity of what may be considered ‘Scottish theatre’. The embracing of Gaelic and Latin traditions leads to the revelation of some extraordinary gems in this revisionary study.
The traditional view that the Scottish Reformation of 1560 annihilated theatre emerges as a falsifying simplification when, for example, the Kirk’s promotion of education is shown not just to include but to encourage both Latin and English performance of plays in school and university; the vitality of a Gaelic tradition, and the fun to be had by polyglot playwright and audience at the expense of monoglots, is richly described in the account of Archibald Maclaren’s The Highland Drover (1790): ‘Domhnul [the Gaelic-speaking drover] speaks only Gaelic to Ramble [Anglophone lover] … Until the [End Page 169] drover helps the lover succeed, many jokes depend on mutual misunderstanding. When Domnhul concludes a speech “a maddadh glas Sas’nach” [“the grey English dog”], Ramble responds, “What do you say? You want a glass of arsenic?” ’ (p. 111). This play is set in the border town of Carlisle, but as Brown argues throughout the volume, the fault lines of language and place run through the Scottish psyche in every location, and whatever the chosen language of performance, it is never a politically neutral choice.
Alongside a larger understanding of the languages of performance in Scotland, Brown also reviews the places in which theatre is traditionally legitimised and draws out a strong tradition of the performative. Perhaps his most astonishing yet persuasive example of the power invested in the community of spectators to turn an event into theatre is that of the gallows performance in 1528 by Sandie Furrour in which he saved himself from burning by drawing local clergy into impromptu dialogue to implicate themselves (pp. 84–85). Here Brown builds on scholarship by John McGavin to develop his argument that theatre was alive and well in Scotland both before and after the Reformation, complicating its relationship with the Church throughout and at the same time testing the boundaries of performance and the nature of audience. Recognising that the idea of theatre without walls has enjoyed a vigorous and diverse history in Scotland, towards the end of this study Brown issues a serious challenge to the National Theatre of Scotland, a self-proclaimed Theatre Without Walls. While Brown admires its enterprise to date, yet, he implies, it is complicit in the suppression of an understanding of early modern theatre in Scotland: ‘it has never presented a Scottish play written earlier than the...