By Mark Brown
254 pp. Palgrave Macmillan
Reviewed by Mark Fisher*
Scottish theatre gives the historian a dilemma. How do you shape a coherent narrative out of a disrupted story? In many theatre cultures, a line connects past and present. Writing about the London stage, for example, you can get from medieval mystery plays to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child via Shakespeare, Sheridan and Shaw, in an apparently seamless chain of events.
Likewise, a modern-day U.S. playwright will be aware of a lineage stretching back to O’Neill, Williams and Miller, while a twenty-first-century Irish dramatist cannot ignore the legacy of Synge, O’Casey and Beckett.
In Scotland, thanks largely to the heavy hand of the Calvinist church after the Reformation, any such line is broken. Yes, there is the shining example of Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (A Satire of the Three Estates), first performed in its entirety in 1552, but, unless you count adaptations of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the emergence of a “national drama” in the 1800s, it was not until the twentieth century that anything like a notable body of work began to appear.
Even then, the influence on successive generations is uncertain. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is the most successful play by a Scottish writer, but its 1904 debut was in London and, for all its popularity, it has had no more influence on the tradition of playwriting in Scotland than anywhere else.
This is the reason why the late Donald Campbell, despite being a playwright himself, chose to tell the story of Scottish theatre through its actors. In Playing for Scotland: A History of the Scottish Stage 1715–1965 (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1996), he asserted that the “history of Scottish Theatre, unlike that of its English counterpart, cannot be told in terms of institutions, dramatists or even plays.” There is some dispute about how much this is true (the academic Ian Brown has claimed Scotland has a “hidden tradition”), but, either way, it would be hard to claim the Scottish playwrights who have flourished in the last 50 years had been overburdened by history.
The historian’s dilemma can be put another way. What if we’ve only just got to the meat of the story? What if everything that has gone before was but a preamble to the main event? What if the golden era is now? This, or something like it, is the contention of Mark Brown in Modernism and Scottish Theatre Since 1969.
A former member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics, he chooses 1969 as his starting point not only because it gives him a neat half century to focus on, but also because it was the year the triumvirate of artistic directors, Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald began a lengthy reign at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. After gaining notoriety for an iconoclastic all-male production of Hamlet, shocking enough in 1970 to make front-page news, the theatre went on to stage writers such as Genet, Brecht and Büchner, in a style that ignored the prevailing realism of theatre south of the border in England in favour of something more flamboyant, irreverent and non-naturalistic.
That, contends Brown, introduced Scottish audiences to European modernism. Along with other influences, notably Gerry Mulgrew’s outward-looking Communicado theatre company and the cosmopolitan programmes of the Edinburgh International Festival, it helped pave the way for what he calls a “Scottish theatrical renaissance.” In particular, he looks to the generation who came to the fore in the 1990s, and his book includes extended interviews with those he regards as key players: playwrights David Greig, Zinnie Harris, David Harrower and Anthony Neilson, and director Stewart Laing. Whether they are conscious of it or not, these theatremakers, he argues, are inheritors of a modernist tradition that has not only given the country a distinct theatrical identity but has also created, since the 1970s, “the best period for theatre in Scotland.”
As a way of making narrative sense of an unwieldy history, Brown’s thesis is pretty robust. Inevitably, it frays around the edges, but in an intelligent and readable survey, he is bold enough to interrogate his own assumptions and to question the limits of his theory. Where it works is in the broad observation that many of the best productions of recent times, and most of the work of these particular playwrights, has had a modernist sensibility. Theatremakers have succumbed neither to the literalness of naturalism nor the cool irony of postmodernism, but found a mode that is playful, ahistorical and, for want of a better word, theatrical. The international success of this generation, be it Greig’s Europe, Harrower’s Knives in Hens or Harris’s Further than the Furthest Thing, emboldens Brown in his contention that they are the “finest Scottish playwrights, not only of their generation, but of any generation.”
Look at the list of shows that have triumphed in the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (of which Brown and I are judges) and you’ll see further evidence in support of his argument. One director alone, Dominic Hill, has been associated with winning productions of Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution, Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Chris Hannan’s adaptation of Crime and Punishment and Harris’s This Restless House, all of which were heightened, expansive and firmly in the European modernist tradition.
As a rule of thumb, then, Brown’s thesis is illuminating and coherent. He does, though, have to bend the evidence in his favour. He is up-front, for example, about neglecting Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, founded in 1963, which, many would argue, is an equally valid date to start such a survey. He admits the decision is “one of the most contentious stances taken by this book,” excusing himself by pointing to the intimate connection between the Traverse and the playwrights he interviews, and arguing that the theatre is better known for new plays than a directorial aesthetic.
There’s a lot of truth in that, but the effect is to lessen the importance of the Traverse’s international programming, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s. Brown could have bolstered his own argument by looking to work presented in the era of directors Steve Unwin and Jenny Killick, such as Losing Venice by Jo Clifford in 1985 and Manfred Karge’s Man to Man, starring Tilda Swinton, in 1987.
None of that contradicts his position, however. It’s more a question of historical storytelling. The scope of his survey does mean, though, that, at the same time as he overstates the influence of the English playwright Howard Barker (whom he has written about extensively elsewhere), he understates the significance of an earlier generation of playwrights and, notably, of Scotland’s popular theatre tradition.
He skirts round the working-class theatre of John McGrath’s 7:84 (Scotland) and pays lip service to the variety tradition, but makes no mention of pantomime, a form that influences the direct actor-audience relationship of Scottish theatre just as certainly as European modernism does. He seems thrown when former National Theatre of Scotland artistic director Vicky Featherstone suggests “plays became more middle class” in the 1990s, and manages only to field selective evidence to contest her claim. You could, however, make a case that the exportability of those plays was for this very reason; less anchored in a specific working-class experience, they became mutable, ambiguous and open to interpretation.
Brown is, of course, well versed in the other traditions, but in asserting that European modernism has “exerted a greater influence upon the aesthetics of Scottish contemporary theatre than any other artistic tendency or movement,” he paints a picture that is as valuable as it is partial.
*Mark Fisher is the Scottish theatre critic for the Guardian, a former editor of the List magazine and a freelance contributor to Variety, The Scotsman and many other publications. He is the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide and How to Write about Theatre, both published by Bloomsbury.