Myths exit stage left

11th December 1998 at 00:00
Edited by Bill Findlay.
Polygon. #163;16.95.

It has long been argued - even by those who should know better - that Scotland lacks a real dramatic or theatrical tradition.

With lip-service duly paid to Lindsay's Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis and the "national drama" of the 19th century, the rest has often been disparaged or ignored, except perhaps for Barrie, Bridie, a patronising nod at music hall and variety, and a bemused but unscholarly wonderment at the late 20th-century resurgence.

This book of essays by Bill Findlay, Adrienne Scullion, Barbara Bell, David Hutcheson and Donald Smith certainly gives the lie to the notion of "nae tradition" by taking us back to medieval folk and religious dramas from as early as the 13th century as well as foregrounding the only surviving text in Britain of a pre-Reformation folk drama, a "plough play" dating from around 1500.

And, incidentally, it also notes that the oldest amateur playbill in Britain advertises a Latin play by Terence performed by students of Kelso Grammar School in 1681.

Perhaps this is not so "surprising" when we remember that George Buchanan's Latin tragedies of the 16th century were themselves part of an international drama of European-wide significance. Geordie, in fact, was one of the leading humanist dramatists of his day.

Post-reformation, the Kirk's censure of theatres and plays is dealt with in detail as is the political control - and censorship - effected by London governments. Yet the 18th century, the period of the "vernacular revival" in Scottish literature, also saw Scottish theatre develop as a dynamic force giving rise to what were contemporary "classics" like Allan Ramsay's The Gentle Shepherd and John Home's Douglas, both hugely successful, as well as a myriad of "popular theatre" entertainments.

Joanna Baillie figures as "the most significant Scottish playwright of the 19th century" in a chapter which deals not only with texts and adaptations (notably of Sir Walter Scott) but also with scene-painting, the often dangerous use of gaslight, theatre managers and legendary actors like Charles Mackay "whose nickname became a universal byword for authenticity - the real Mackay".

The two chapters on this century are the most readable and least academic in style while still giving an informative, balanced account of varying performances from those of the inimitable Duncan Macrae to theatre managers and funders like the Scottish Arts Council.

With drama now an examinable subject at both Standard and Higher grades, this book would seem to be indispensable reading for any drama teacher and could also be put to good use by senior pupils.

Taking us up to 1995, A History of Scottish Theatre complements and advances the ground covered by Stevenson and Wallace's Scottish Theatre Since the Seventies, though inevitably observations on recent developments are already being overtaken at speed.

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