History as Theatrical Metaphor: History, Myth and National Identities in Modern Scottish Drama

Brown, Ian (2018) History as Theatrical Metaphor: History, Myth and National Identities in Modern Scottish Drama. DLitt thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Printed Thesis Information: https://eleanor.lib.gla.ac.uk/record=b3278558


The completion of History as Theatrical Metaphor, now submitted for consideration for the award of the degree of Doctor of Letters, represents an integration and culmination of a number of related strands arising from both my practice as a playwright over the last five decades and my relevant academic research. Susanne Kries has summarised a key approach underlying my writing of history plays as ‘deconstructing the ideological intent behind the very endeavour of writing history and of revealing the ways by which mythologies are formed’. Much of my related academic research shares this interest. A recurring theme of both playwriting and scholarly writing, central to the work submitted, is the significance of the interaction of drama, language – especially Scots and English – and history.

The initial phase in exploring such themes was in my developing professional playwriting practice. In 1967, I wrote the first draft of Mary, eventually produced by the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company in 1977. In this first version I sought to address the theme of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, but in a revisionary way. The play’s first acts, before Mary arrives on stage, involved an unlikely affair between Mary of Guise, Queen Regent in Mary’s absence in France, and her Secretary of State, Maitland of Lethington, conceived as a cross between a Chief Minister and a Mafia consigliere, a relationship in which Mary of Guise achieved some form of Lawrentian ‘authentic’ sexual release and self-fulfilment through her relationship with a powerful Scots leader. This motif was developed when Mary arrived and proceeded to fall under the magnetic spell of the even more Lawrentian Bothwell, a transformation of her sexuality and identity marked by the fact that about half way through her scenes she stopped speaking in French-inflected English and started to speak in Scots. The play’s tendentiousness was further marked by its being written in Scots-language free verse. The decision to write in Scots was consciously, if superficially, ideological. It sought to reflect the vibrant language amongst which I grew up on a council scheme, although in my home the dominant language was Standard Scottish English. I also sought to take a revisionary view of Scottish history, seeking to avoid what I saw as the sentimentalisation of that history in plays by an older generation like that of Robert McLellan. What I was concerned to do was later outlined explicitly by Tom McGrath in a 1984 interview, talking of his own practice:

I suppose at that time we were coming up with a different ideology. We were coming up with a different approach after all that work, work that had been done [by writers like MacDiarmid and McLellan] in Scots language. We were coming up with this street level sound of existentialist man in the street, "black man in the ghetto" type of writing. It just upset the applecart.

(Later I would develop a contextual interpretation of the shift McGrath refers to, and which I sought to be part of, in arguing that the use of Scots on stage was key to supporting and enhancing the cultural prestige of Scots in the 2011 chapter, ‘Drama as a Means for Uphaudin Leid Communities’. This – in a continuing conscious intention to assert the potential and status of Scots – while academic in content, was written entirely in Scots.) In short, from the beginning of my professional playwriting, a key strand was experiment in and exploration of the relationship of drama, Scots language, community identity and history, particularly the interrogation of accepted versions of ‘history’.

The first draft of Mary came by the early 1970s to seem to me to be unsatisfactory in its exploration of the interaction of drama, language and history. By then, it appeared in its sensationalist version of Scottish history to have fallen into a parallel trap to the earlier one of a sentimental and romanticised view of that history. It certainly had moved away from conventional treatments of Scotland’s past, but was rather tending to a simplistic dramatic interpretation pour épater les bourgeois. Indeed, its attempts at sexual directness made it unacceptable at that time, 1968-69, to the management of the Royal Lyceum. While its Literary Manager Alan Brown spoke positively of the play, he still felt the company could not present it. Within very few years my own view came to be that, while it might substitute a certain late-adolescent Scots-language raunchiness for earlier playwrights’ Scots-language sentimentalities, it was itself somewhat naïve and sentimental. Further, the use of Scots in a free verse form, rather than adding anything to the dramatic potential of Scots language, seemed to remove it from the everyday discourse which inspired me to use it in the first place.

This change of critical perspective and creative intention arose from two related developments in my dramaturgy. One was the impact of a variety of late 1960s theatrical experiments which impressed me in dealing with historical and political material in a post-Shavian and post-Brechtian way. These included the 1964 film version of Peter Brook's production of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, which I saw in 1968, John Spurling's MacRune's Guevara (1969) and Peter Nichols's The National Health (1969) in the programme of the National Theatre in London, New York’s Negro Ensemble Company's version of Peter Weiss's The Song of the Lusitanian Bogey, which is concerned with Portuguese colonial exploitation, presented in the 1969 London World Theatre Season, and John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy's version of Horatio Nelson’s life and reputation, The Hero Rises Up, presented by Nottingham Playhouse at the 1969 Edinburgh Festival. I was further impressed by the theatrical techniques of the New York-based LaMama troupe, by its version of Paul Foster's Tom Paine (1967) and the popularised and commercialised exploitation of those techniques in Hair (1967). I had also read Foster's Heimskringla! Or The Stoned Angels (1970), written for LaMama and derived from Norse sagas. All employed varying metatheatrical techniques to deconstruct received versions of history and politics which extended my own understanding of what was creatively possible. The second development was that, as those plays affected my understanding of theatrical possibilities in exploring historically based themes, I was researching and beginning to draft my next play on a historical theme. This explored the life, business ethics and politics of Andrew Carnegie. On top of all of this, at this time, having showed Max Stafford-Clark, Artistic Director of the Traverse Theatre, a first draft of Carnegie, begun during the autumn of 1969, I was invited by him to work, in my first professional theatre role, as a writing assistant on the first Traverse Workshop Theatre Company production, Mother Earth (1970), directed by Stafford-Clark when he ceased to be director of the Traverse itself. With his new company, he was developing the deconstructionist and improvisational rehearsal techniques that would later be more widely thought of as the creative method of his Joint Stock Theatre Company, into which the Traverse Workshop Company morphed in 1974.

The dramaturgical lessons learned from the examples cited above and by working with such a creative and methodologically innovative director as Stafford-Clark were allied to my own quizzical view of Carnegie’s reputation. This was partly derived from the fact that my great-grandfather was a first cousin of Carnegie’s. There were family stories which, if they did not fully undermine his philanthropic reputation, suggested there were other sides to his career. If there was one thing by now I had come to understand as both practitioner and neophyte critic, it was that historical drama involved an unavoidable process by which ideological bias must be embedded not only in the explicit theses of plays, but in their dramatic structures. The first of my plays to exploit this insight was indeed Carnegie. One uncle had told me of a book about Carnegie’s working methods that was so damning that Carnegie had sought to buy up all the copies and have them destroyed. Certainly, when I researched for the play in the National Library I came across a book by one of his disgruntled former executives, James H Bridge. This memoir, The Carnegie Millions and the men who made them, offered an alternative view of Carnegie to that of the good-hearted lad o pairts from Dunfermline who became a multi-millionaire in Pittsburgh and spent the rest of his life supporting libraries, universities and charitable foundations. Bridge, who had been forced out of the company, approaching from a right-wing standpoint, criticised Carnegie, tough capitalist as he undoubtedly was, for, in Bridge’s view, being managerially hypocritical and shilly-shallying. Meanwhile, one had to address the details I had researched about Carnegie’s business methods and his approach to, decisions around and response to the breaking of 1892 Homestead Strike and the resultant deaths, sometimes called the Homestead Massacre. The necessity for the play, as I had begun to see it, was to find a form that would represent multivalent perspectives on Carnegie, reflecting the ways in which Carnegie was, in the words I gave in the play to Hugh O’Donnell, a union leader in Carnegie’s steel works, ‘a three faced bugger’.

The play comprises a series of dramatic scenes, songs, direct addresses by Carnegie to the audience and agit-prop style speeches, in Act One by Uncle Sam who explores the shady business practices of Carnegie and the American capitalist Robber Barons generally and in Act Two as witness statements by his workers and colleagues. Given this, one can see that the shifting perspectives of Carnegie, the play’s sudden juxtapositions of disparate material, including songs and speeches, tended to deconstruct any orthodox structure the play might have. In this, the play deconstructs the more generally accepted image of Carnegie, what I call in the submitted monograph, a ‘fact of history’ constituted in this case by the philanthropic icon constituted by ‘Andrew Carnegie’. The dramaturgy exposes the hidden history behind Carnegie's exploitation of others, corrupt business practices and strike-breaking, and the related processes of selective self-presentation through which Carnegie and his apologists sought to manufacture a new and entirely benevolent ‘Andrew Carnegie’. Carnegie, then, represents a first attempt to develop throughout a dramatic structure which, in exposing the act of playwriting by its metatheatrically, explicit juxtaposition of different, even conflicting, dramatic modes explored varieties of dramatic representation as a means of deconstructing a received view of a key figure in Scottish history, one frequently seen, in Carnegie’s case, as a representative of the benevolent cliché of the successful lad o pairts.

The revised Mary was written following this initial exploration and deconstruction of received perceptions of an iconic historical figure. The process I was now creatively interested in, that of rewriting and rethinking a theatrical approach which would permit the kind of interrogation not only of the central character, but the historiography surrounding her representation meant that there was no possibility in my mind of returning to my earlier version of the play. In fact, in 1974 Bill Bryden, then Associate Director of the Royal Lyceum, offered me a production of the first version of Mary, played by a cast including leading Scottish actors of the calibre of Fulton Mackay, Edith McArthur and Roddy MacMillan and set site-sympathetically in Craigmillar Castle. I turned down the offer, despite its theatrical temptations. By this point, the versions of ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ I wanted to dramatise were no longer reflected in the early draft. The dramaturgical essence of what the play Mary was then becoming – and of its representations of ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ – is a theatrical kaleidoscope of genres. These range from straight scenes involving Mary herself, through blackly and bleakly comic scenes where the nobles bicker and bargain like a cross between Mafia dons, political fixers and cutthroat business-men, to scenes which represent the events of her reign and imprisonment using a variety of dramatic genres including Cowardesque light comedy, pantomime, Shakespearean blank verse, melodrama and kailyard comedy. Such generic instability embodies and reflects the historiographical instability of our views of ‘Mary Queen of Scots’: she becomes repeatedly refracted through a changing kaleidoscope. The play – reflecting, reshaping and recreating what can be asserted to be known of her story and the ways ‘history’ had treated it through time – can never settle to one genre. It must embody, if not all possible versions of ‘Mary’, then as many as it can in one evening’s performance – in an unsettling, yet dramatically coherent manner. The play’s kaleidoscopic presence identifies history itself as a kaleidoscopic theatrical metaphor. Steve Cramer writing in 2002 about Mary (1977) and the later A Great Reckonin (2000), which employed similar deconstruction techniques to Carnegie and Mary with regard to the death of James I, his earlier life and the aftermath of his death, offers an insight applicable equally to all three plays:

Brown as dramatist does not adopt an orthodox postmodernist position on history as something to be either ignored or fabulated into nostalgic pastiche for the sake of a present, ephemeral experience. Instead, he seeks to reappraise our accounts of history through a series of non-naturalistic tropes, intended to expose ideological imperatives in the semiotics of historical iconography.

When the director of the company of actors in A Great Reckonin is told he does not have the talent required to play James I, his response is ‘I can match the script tae suit ma talents’ (Act Two, Scene 5). As Kries observes of this response, ‘The audience thus becomes aware of the swift move from historic moment to historical interpretation and artistic reception’. This strand of my dramaturgical practice is discussed in the wider context of the submitted work at page 135-37 and need not be further addressed at this point. What may be worth observing, however, is that the cumulative experience of working on the early version of Mary and, then, Carnegie led me, in dealing with history, away from what Cramer calls ‘nostalgic pastiche’. These plays directly address problematics of Scottish iconography, mythology and history by exploring and exploiting problematics of play structure.

In 1984 there was a debate at a joint meeting of the Council for National Academic Awards panels for Drama (of which I was then a member), Dance, Music and Creative and Performing Arts on the feasibility of including creative work within the aegis of doctoral degree research. Although it was then possible to submit musical composition on its own for a PhD in Music, there appeared to be no such provision in other creative art form studies within the UK university system. The question was whether and how such creative research could be addressed at higher degree level. There was a division of opinion as to whether the existing PhD regulations could accommodate what is now recognised as practice-as-research or whether a DFA on a US model might be more appropriately developed. The matter was debated in theory over the next two years. At this point, I resolved to offer my own work as a test case to see if indeed the current PhD regulations could accommodate practice-as-research. I developed a proposal for a PhD study programme which comprised the scripts of Carnegie and Mary and two others historical plays, Livingstone and Rowland, which is yet to be professionally produced, and Beatrice, produced by Monstrous Regiment in 1989. The thesis, submitted successfully in 1991, comprised the four playscripts, framed by a discussion of general issues of dramaturgy, historiography, ideology and language and detailed contextualisation of the creation of each play and its themes.

This was possibly the first UK non-Music practice-as-research PhD thesis. It was, after all, primarily intended to test, as it successfully did, the possibility of completing such a thesis under existing PhD regulations, a process senior academics from many higher education institutions had doubted was feasible. Nonetheless, despite the focus on my playscripts as central to the thesis, the reflection on my own practice-as-research required for the production of the thesis inspired in me an interest in a more theoretical study of issues implicit in my historical plays. This is a process which finally led to the writing of History as Theatre Metaphor, now submitted for consideration for the award of the degree of DLitt. That process can be tracked through strands of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and also volumes I have edited or written, over the last two decades.

The first of those strands relevant to this submission was concerned with the nature of the relationship of history and drama, the ways in which playwrights had employed history for identarian and ideological purposes, often as a means to comment or reflect on public affairs current at the time of writing. The first of such writings, 'Plugged into History: The Sense of the Past in Scottish Theatre' (1996), was more descriptive than analytic, although at the prompting of Professor Randall Stevenson, it included a set of categories which I developed until 2000, when it was published in 'A Duty to History: Contemporary Approaches to History and Cultural Identities in Scottish Theatre'. Those categories are returned to in a more developed form and employed in a more complex manner in History as Theatrical Metaphor, while feedback on the 2000 chapter suggested that to take this area of research further it would be important to address the work of New Historicists like Stephen Greenblatt alongside the contribution to historiographical understanding made by the development of work of such historians as E H Carr and R G Collingwood by later historians like Hayden White, Raphael Samuel, Keith Jenkins, Jürgen Pieters and Perez Zagorin. The outcome of such research and consideration of its results form a key part of the underpinning of arguments in Chapter 2, ‘History, Mythology and Re-Presentation of Events’.

This strand of research was complemented by one which produced articles, chapters and collections concerned with issues of performativity, ideology and cultural identity. One of the first of those was in 1998, 'A new spirit abroad in the North: MacDiarmid and cultural identity in contemporary Scottish theatre'. The developing conception that theatre was in several particular ways representing versions of national and cultural identity gave rise to my chapter in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature (2007), ‘Staging the Nation: multiplicity and cultural diversity in contemporary Scottish theatre’. The research that underlay this chapter led ultimately into that which underlies Chapter One, ‘Playwrights and History’, in the DLitt submission. While that recent chapter explores a variety of culturally and politically influential approaches to historical drama in other cultures, including Norway, Croatia and Ireland, by 2007 I was conscious that a deal of work – not least my own – was tending to seem part of an early, more naive, stage of critical study, tending to merely explore, map and categorise Scottish drama which had until then not been widely researched and discussed in theoretical terms. This had led to a tendency for such writing to lean towards overall review and description – and even a form of essentialism – rather than deeper analysis, let alone methodological or ideological evaluation. The desire to develop a more analytical and ideologically aware approach to drama criticism characterised my work in this area from this time on, although, under my editorship, The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Drama (2011) , including my own chapter, ‘Public and private performance: 1650–1800’, given the nature of such a volume, included both descriptive and analytic chapters. My more general interest in issues of cultural representation, performativity, expressions of class, gender and national identities and their underlying ideological significance led among other work of this time to the editing of the 2010 collection From Tartan to Tartanry: Scottish Culture, History and Myth. Meanwhile, articles and chapters exploring such issues with regard to Scottish drama included ‘The interaction of politics, music and dramaturgy in three Scottish musical plays’ (2011), 'New playwriting and Scottish identities since 1945' (2013), two linked articles to which Dr Sìm Innes contributed sections on Gaelic-language issues – ‘The use of some Gaelic songs and poetry in The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ (2012) and ‘Parody, satire and intertextuality in the songs of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ (2015) – and ‘Eighteenth-Century Scottish Drama and the Contestation of National Identities’ (2015).

A third strand relevant to this submission is concerned with Scottish languages, especially the Scots language itself, and ideological implications of their use in drama. This strand has been long-running in my research over the last two decades, from 'Problems of defining 'standard' Scots: some linguistic and theatrical aspects', (1995) and, with Professor Ceri Sherlock, 'Antigone: a Scots/Welsh Experience of Mythical and Theatrical Translation' (1998), a reflexive study of the outcomes of a workshop experiment with my Scots-language version of Antigone, first produced in 1969, to, more recently, ‘Motivation and politico-cultural context in the creation of Scots language versions of Greek tragedies’ (2013), ‘Scots language in Theory and Practice in Graham Moffat’s Playwriting’ (2014) and ‘Freeing the tongue: Scots language on stage in the twentieth century’(2016). Included in this strand of research and publication are several chapters in my 2013 history of Scottish theatre, Scottish Theatre: Diversity, Language, Continuity. Development of ideas and of concepts explored through this strand of work feeds into Chapter 3, ‘Language, Ideology and Identity’

History as Theatrical Metaphor, then, draws on and develops in new ways the three strands identified, but it goes further. In that development, it addresses what previous work of mine has not, a comprehensive overview of the treatment of history on the Scottish stage over the last eighty years, applying to each generation of playwrights the analytical processes developed through the work cited above and related publications over the last two decades. It offers a critical review of the practice of a wide range of twentieth- and twenty-first century playwrights in addressing history – primarily, but not only, Scottish history – in their plays. It addresses underlying ideological issues raised by their practice. Chapter Four revisits, with a respect not always conceded in the recent past, the work of a generation led by Robert McLellan. A particular innovation in this chapter is the suggestion that John Arden’s Armstrong’s Last Goodnight (1964), though the author is usually thought of as contributing solely to the English theatre canon, can be best understood as a successful contribution to the work of this generation, and one showing a high seriousness rarely achieved even in McLellan’s own historical drama set in the Borders. Chapter Five places the work of John McGrath, especially The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil, which has often been written about as if sui generis, in a broader generational context. It revisits, re-appraises and re-contextualises the work of seven members of the generation which came to the fore in the 1970s. Chapter Six addresses history plays by leading women playwrights from 1980 onwards, taking account not only of the gender and feminist issues they raise, but placing them in the context of a broader and long-lasting stream of Scottish playwrights’ writing of history and ‘herstory’. Chapters Seven and Eight consider more recent work, by such dramatists as Jo Clifford, Chris Hannan, Peter Arnott, David Greig and Rona Munro, much of which in the case of the work of Clifford and Arnott is being addressed for the first time. Further, Chapter Eight sets Greig, who, like McGrath in an earlier generation, has found his work treated as somehow exceptionalist, in the context of his predecessors and contemporaries as a key part of a much larger and longer Scottish tradition of writing about and shaping history onstage and, indeed, shaping perceptions of what history is.

History as Theatrical Metaphor pays due attention to the 2007 comment of Adrienne Scullion’s that a past ‘hegemony of the history play’ could be argued to have ‘constrained and deformed both the development and appeal of modern Scottish drama’. While the use here of the word ‘hegemony’ is no exaggeration with regard to Scottish historical drama, this study, as I note in my Conclusion, surely makes the case that this hegemony of history has a history of its own whose roots reach back to 1662: plays on historical topics are a robust and prominent part of a centuries-old Scottish theatre canon. Further, with particular reference the work of Robert McLellan and his successors up to the present day, it shows how – in many creative, interrogative, quizzical and sometimes (but by no means always) incisive ways – Scottish playwrights have returned repeatedly to history plays as a genre of choice. Returning thus has appeared not to constrain them, but rather free them to offer creative understanding of Scottish and other histories, cultures and social interactions, and through those means an understanding of the variety of ‘history’ itself. Steve Cramer, in the conclusion to his article cited earlier, observes of two of my own history plays:

Brown, in exploring non-naturalistic and metanarrational languages, however, demonstrates the possibility, as well as the problematic process, of the recovery of a 'real' history, however tenuously such data should be approached. In doing so, he also, and not incidentally, recovers the possibility of identifying ideological praxis within the process of retelling.

This study, submitted for the degree of DLitt of the University Glasgow, extends and develops the creative insight Cramer identifies in Carnegie and Mary in a wide variety of ways. I have sought to develop, deepen and enrich whatever dramaturgical insight and ‘ideological praxis’ Cramer attributes to my earlier creative works through critical understandings of the work of others as they too sought to recover their versions of ‘real’ history. History as Theatrical Metaphor suggests there is a trajectory of development since the 1930s, not always progressive, in the treatment of history on the Scottish stage. It recognises this not a stadial process, but a dynamic interaction of playwright, theatre, culture and society in a constant – often lively, sometimes turbulent – interchange. This study argues that this interchange at its best has resulted in remarkable contributions to the Scottish theatre canon – and understandings of Scottish history.

Item Type: Thesis (DLitt)
Qualification Level: Postdoctoral
Additional Information: Due to copyright restrictions the full text of this thesis cannot be made available online. Access to the published version is available.
Keywords: Scottish drama, history, historiography, myth, Scots language, national identity, historical drama, theatre and identity.
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General)
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GR Folklore
N Fine Arts > NX Arts in general
P Language and Literature > PE English
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > Scottish Literature
Supervisor's Name: Carruthers, Professor Gerard
Date of Award: 2018
Depositing User: Professor Ian Brown
Unique ID: glathesis:2018-30714
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 06 Aug 2018 08:24
Last Modified: 06 Aug 2018 08:24
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/30714
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