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David Greig and Paul Henderson Scott: The Scottish Play

13/09/2011 in Why care where you're from?

On Friday, October the 28th, the Chairman of the Scottish Society of playwrights, Professor Ian Brown, led a conversation between cultural commentator Paul Henderson Scott and award-winning playwright David Greig about the nature of Scottish playwriting. The event was followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

We asked both Paul and David what they hoped to discuss at the event, their responses are below.

Photos by Eoin Carey

Paul Henderson Scott: “It may seem strange that a man who spent a large part of his life abroad as a diplomat should presume to have views on the Scottish Theatre, but I have always had an enthusiastic interest in all aspects of Scottish literature.  Wherever I went, I took a substantial library of books on Scottish history and literature with me. I came back to Edinburgh on leave whenever I could and I was able to go to all but two or three of the Edinburgh Festivals from the first. I saw all three productions of The Thrie Estaitis. Almost as soon as I retired I became the Chairman of the Advisory Council for the  Arts in Scotland and it was this organisation which launched and conducted the final steps of the long campaign which achieved the establishment of our National Theatre.

At the Staging the Nation event in the Lyceum Theatre on the 28th of October I hope to discuss the languages used in the Scottish theatre.  I also hope to explore the mysterious resistance of the now defunct Scottish Arts Council to the establishment of our National Theatre and even to the production of Scottish plays in our theatres.”

David Greig: “Is there such a thing as a typical ‘Scottish’ play? If so, what are its characteristics? During this discussion, I’ll look at the way questions of Scottish identity have shaped the work of generations of Scottish playwrights.

Some writers have explored Scots language, others have explored the variety tradition, some have used the Scottish novel as a source, still others have responded to location and politics. Some writers have tried to avoid the question of national identity entirely. But whatever their individual response, all Scottish writers have found their work and it’s reception shaped by powerful currents of identity moving through Scottish society.”


We will stream this event in its entirety on this site on Friday, November 4th at 3pm. For more information, click here.


8 responses to David Greig and Paul Henderson Scott: The Scottish Play

  1. I found the discussion interesting in that we had on stage the author of the sequel to ‘THE’ Scottish Play without making reference to a lot of the baggage which has beset and limited Scottish theatre, and given rise to recent criticism of some for being ‘not Scottish enough’.

    And although the debate wasn’t an epiphany moment for me about Scottish plays, I went away thinking, and have been ever since. It’s really helped me get my own ideas together, which I’ll share here. So thanks to all who participated for getting me wound up.

    The questions we never asked (my fault, I could have…) were: Does it actually matter whether there is such a thing as ‘a Scottish play’? – and (if so) why? and then go on to discuss its identifying criteria and its role in the nation and the world.

    When I was growing up in 1960s Edinburgh, ‘theatre’ was – like ‘THE’ Scottish Play – predominantly elitist, expensive and in English English. (An exception being when I was taken by well-meaning parents to see a Scots-language play which I just didn’t ‘get’, probably mostly being too young. It might even have been ‘Ane Satyre…’ – it was around that time…)
    Then a Scottish theatre emerged, (The Cheviot, the Stag etc) addressing the political issues of the time. This HAD to be clearly Scots to engage Scots audiences in a new way, but this of necessity limited the appeal to the domestic setting. Thus, I think, an almost-parochial Scottish theatre emerged. I’m not criticising anyone here: that was what was culturally possible and necessary at the time. And we needed as a nation, like a growing child/teenager, to develop our own identity.

    Latterly however, Scottish plays have had immense success internationally (not just commercially, but artistically), and not because they meet the criteria for international blockbusters, but specifically because their Scots voice has something to say for the whole world. So now even plays locked linguistically and historically to one defined period and issue in Scots history – like Sue Glover’s ‘Bondagers’ – can successfully tell the story of Indian agricultural workers, while plays with international dimensions like Black Watch explicitly engage international issues. And the sequel to THE Scottish play stands as a metaphor for shady aspects of international relations (I’d love to see Dunsinane produced in a middle-eastern state with Arabic dialogue replacing the original Gaelic dialogue…)
    ‘Not Scottish Enough’ probably means that our national theatre traditions have become ‘grown-up’ enough to create plays on any subject, not just our Caledonian kailyard.

    [Oh, and my playscripts wishlist at a certain online store has been enormously extended as I look forward to filling some of the many gaps in my knowledge which the session revealed.]

  2. Went to Staging the Nation last night, but unfortunately we ran out of time while I was still digesting the information, so I couldn’t put forward my toughts on the subject, so here we go:

    First of all, I agree with Rob Kay quoted above – I also perceive a deep racial insecurity in Scotland, which generates a need to sort of fabricate this national identity. I think the most pertinent comments made last night were the last two ones. One of them said that we had been discussing the play only terms of the script and its language and neglecting production, and the other mentioned the example of The Salon Project, entirely conceived by a Scottish director who was accused of not being Scottish enough. It also became clear that the answers sought and offered were majorly about defining the Scottish as being non-English, including discussions about the language, the accent and defining the NTS against the National Theatre. There were brief mentions of translations and productions of Scottish plays abroad, but as an international artist working in Scotland who has observed an increase in cultural diversity here, I felt left out. When cultural diversity was mentioned, it was in the sense of Gaelic and Scots speakers vs English speakers. My question would be: if we were to have a multicultural company (including Scottish members) that entirely conceived and world premiered a show in Scotland, but which didn’t speak only English and its variations and didn’t necessarily fly the Saltire, would people claim it as Scottish? How much acceptance would it have both within the artistic community and from audiences?
    I completely understood David Greig’s red/grey squirrel anecdote as an example of our search for definition, but there is also a dangerous metaphor in that same story – the grey squirrel isn’t native, so we need to exterminate it. I would like to throw that open as a provocation.

    Finally, I think that organising these discussions is great, but I was disappointed with the poor attendance last night. I was expecting there to be a lot more people joining the debate, including more representatives of the small scale companies, but I only saw two of my peers there. After the debate, I met up with a couple of colleagues who run a small company and they said they hadn’t heard about Staging the Nation until the day before when I posted something on my facebook page. I have been in Edinburgh for 5 years now and absolutely adore it, but the general apathy that I see in my fellow theatre peeps is truly disconcerting. In that respect, what I would like to see debated and acted upon is how to stir the theatre industry in Scotland and get people to be more proactive and participative.

    • Anna said on 08/11/2011

      ‘What is a Scottish Play’ was the first Staging the Nation event that I have attended and it won’t be the last. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and appreciated the insight which both speakers gave into the history, present and future of the Scottish play.

      I would, however, agree with the statement above that the discussion felt somewhat limited to the written language of the play and did not touch on production fully enough. After all, without the production process the play would never make it from the page to the stage and would not have that unique opportunity to engage with Scotland’s audiences. I would argue that the exchange which occurs between the audience and theatre maker is what makes theatre worthwhile and is just as much part of what might make a Scottish play as the language in which it has been written.

      The statement which Rob Kay makes is really interesting. Perhaps the question does give a sense of insecurity, however, by asking it NTS created an opportunity for its audience to question what Scottish theatre can be. That can only be a good thing! It was obvious from the outset of the debate that defining a Scottish play was impossible and it was clear that the audience were more concerned with the quality of Scottish theatre as opposed to how Scottish it is. So for me, any sense of insecurity was diffused.

      I think the question raised above regarding a multicultural performance in Scotland is a really important one. If Scotland wants to keep up with the increasingly ‘global’ 21st century then an acceptance of multicultural theatre as part of Scottish culture is vital. As to whether it would be claimed as Scottish, I would say that if it speaks to the audience and they can relate to the story being told, then it will be accepted and enjoyed. Perhaps claiming it as Scottish is not so important. After all, yes we are Scottish, but that is not all we are.

      With regards to David Greig’s red/grey squirrel anecdote, I’d have to say that I interpreted it differently. Maybe I misunderstood, but I thought he was saying the opposite: the grey squirrel may not be native, but at the end of the day it’s still an animal just like the red squirrel.

      I would also agree that it was a shame that not more of my peers were at the discussion. I was surprised that only a few students came along when the topic is so relevant to us. Soon we’ll be the ones making Scottish theatre, so we should be getting involved with such brilliant events like Staging the Nation!

  3. Thom said on 27/10/2011

    Had a quick chat with Graham McLaren last night during the interval of 27 – here’s what he had to say about Friday night. http://thomdibdin.co.uk/?p=2371

  4. Does Scottish theatre have a DNA? Is it still Scottish if it was written by a writer who was born in another country? How does our nationality effect the work we make? I can’t wait to hear what you all think…

    • Graham said on 26/10/2011

      Here is an interesting quote from Robert Mitchell, the director of glasgow unity players in 1946… The year before he staged men should weep for the first time…

      [T]he Scottish public is now demanding Scottish plays and that demand will inevitably be followed by a demand for Scottish plays to be presented by Scottish actors. When that happens, and when managements realise that a Scotsman can become an actor without first spending years of his life getting the Scots quality knocked out of him, hope will dawn for the Scottish theatre.


  5. Some interesting things being said on our Facebook page about this – Rob Kay says “I think the very question reveals a deep racial insecurity. If you have to ask a question like that, then the answer will forever elude you. Kabuki in kilts, The Disney 3D version of the Loch Ness Monster, how low do you need to go to find that all culture, all of it, is universal? What is Scottish is what we, the Scottish public, are willing to pay good money for – and that means entertainment with attitude. Now go boil your heids and come up with some!”

    What do you think?