Hermes, Pandora or Prometheus?
In Search of a Future for Scottish playwrighting
by George Gunn
It was lunchtime on Monday 8th of April 2013 and I had just emerged from the subterranean complex of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh when my wife sent me a text. It read “Thatcher deid. Hi Arts killed. Geese flyin North. In gairden wae fork.” It was one of the most important messages I have ever received in my life. At once the symbol of a painful political era was finally gone and now, perhaps, we could move forward into a new reality. The demise of an arts development agency, although no cause for celebration in itself, meant that for the Highlands we could, at last, find unfettered ways of directly funding the creative imagination, free from such management jargon as “quality”, “additionality” and “legacy”. The wild geese flying North meant that the longest Winter in recent times was finally over and peedie Christine in the garden signified, as always for me, the beginning of Spring. She is the true Pandora, the “all giver”, her sturdy graip in the soil is the real meaning of “the gift of hope”; for it was “hope” I was after in the underworld of the Traverse.
I had been attending a conference to mark fifty years of the Traverse and to “celebrate” forty years of the Scottish Society of Playwrights. My first play was performed at the Traverse, in the Grassmarket, in 1984 and I had been a member of the SSP for longer than that. I was with the poet Colin Donati and the playwright Peter Arnott and as all three of us were “children of Thatcher’s Britain” we eschewed the welcome and beautiful sunlight for a moment and headed to the nearest bar for a celebratory drink and immediately I was back in 1979.
Then it was another significant event, the Devolution referendum and the No Vote rigged by the Labour Party and the Westminster government. It was Edinburgh again and this time Sandy Bells was the howff and I was only 24 and I was with Ray Ross, Sheila Hearn and others who decided almost there and then, I seem to remember, to found the magazine Cencrastus. Hamish Henderson, ever the optimist, told us all not to worry, that the “carrying stream” applied to political will as well as to culture and that the Scottish people would find their voice eventually. He looked at me and said “You are a poet. You come from an ancient people. You know.”
I left Edinburgh a few days later to go back to work, off shore in the North Sea. I had, in 1979, only published a few poems. I had written not a single play. I was to work in the oil field for seven years in total and if you add on three years deep sea fishing then let me tell you that you get less of a sentence for murder.
If I didn’t know what Hamish was telling me then I certainly do now. Later that year Thatcher stormed to power and she was to “reign over us” for eleven years and it took until 1997 to get the Tories out of government only for the Scots to see them replaced with a different, even more venal, set of British conservatives. Between 1979 to then we had the Falklands War, the hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in the North of Ireland, inner city riots throughout England, the miners strike, the Poll Tax, the privatisation of every utility, the Skye Bridge scam, the destruction of Scotland’s industrial and manufacturing base, the council house sell off, massive unemployment and the alienation of a generation.
All these were hard messages. Other than my wife’s illuminating text I heard nothing about any of this at the Traverse. Most of the people attending the conference were not born in 1979 or if they were the universities they were taught in deemed it not necessary to inform them of the political and historical significance of these events, these “messages”. Or they were Americans who didn’t care or know or both.
I had gone to the Traverse conference because I had been thinking for a long time about playwrighting in Scotland, what it actually is in both form and substance and what it means to the audiences who go, or do not go, to see them in the theatre and who, generally, get something else instead because in reality truly Scottish plays are rarely performed.
Before me that portentous Monday morning had sat Donald Campbell, Stewart Conn, Hector MacMillan, Bill Bryden and David MacLennan: five forms of Hermes; five instances of those who had drawn their dramas from the rich earth of lived Scottish cultural experience. In the Greek pantheon Hermes is the god of transition and boundaries and moved freely between the worlds of the mortal and the divine, an emissary and messenger of the gods. What else are playwrights? As they talked about their work, their times, their struggles to get their plays performed in the 1970’s I remembered that Hermes is also the god of orators and wit, of poetry and literature. These five writers encompassed all of that. Hermes is also the protector and patron of invention, trade, travellers, herdsmen and thieves. I have always thought that to be a playwright you have to be able to write like a poet and to think like a criminal: the language you use must be able to sing and entertain, and your story has to be worked out to the last fine detail so that you can get away with it. I had seen many plays by all these five playwrights since I first started going to the theatre in the late 1970’s so I knew that Hermes was their god as well as my own.
For Carl Jung Hermes was the guide to the underworld, the mediator between the conscious and the unconscious mind, a marker for the inner journey. Spread throughout the Traverse conference – and as I’ve said, the Traverse is a kind of architectural underworld – were play readings of recent vintage and of the near future. Most of these, in my opinion, were bad and displayed all the dramatic failings of writers obsessed by the “inner journey” at the expense of the outer world. None of the playwrights whose work was on display seemed to me to grasp the greater reality of human struggle as witnessed and spoken about by the five playwrights whose work was first seen in the 1970’s or had come to dramatic terms with the tensions and conflicts being acted out in contemporary Scotland. It was theatre for the Facebook age: all monologues, emotion and what I did today.
Except for Sue Glover who rose like a quiet Phoenix and read a short speech from “Bondagers” which reminded anyone who needed reminding just what powerful Scottish playwrighting actually is. Again I was transported back to another time – May 1991 at the Tramway in Glasgow – with the performances of Annie Lacey and Myra McFadyin, amongst others, still burning a hole in my mind and the Border Scots tongue resonating through the air with its music.
As I write this Thatcher’s coffin is being paraded through the streets of London, all mock-pomp and fascirama. Stone faced squaddies will carry it down the endless aisle of St Paul’s, the serried ranks of black-clad grievers, each out doing the other in their solemnity, singing their turgid English hymns to the history of a failed magic so cruel in its execution, so unlamentable in every aspect, other than that it still prevails, punishing the poor and rewarding the rich.
In my memory I see Sue Glover, so tiny behind the microphone stand, telling us of Tottie “seeing” the ghost of the ploughman, hearing him calling to his horse on a long dormant rig. Here, I thought, is another Scottish manifestation of Pandora, the “all-giver”, in this box of a theatre. In Greek myth Pandora has a jar, not a box which is a mistranslation of the Greek pithos (jar) for Latin pyxis (box). She is also made out of earth, not as according to Hesiod by Hephaestus on the instruction of Zeus, but as the first woman as depicted on certain ancient Greek pottery, rising from the ground, her arms outstretched in epiphany. I see her in a Caithness garden with a graip.
In 1984 I went to the then artistic director of the Traverse with a UB40 card and suggested to him that in light of the terrible unemployment those who displayed such a card at the box office could get into see my play “Roughneck” for nothing. At first he thought I was talking about a certain rock-come-reggae band but his faint air of interest fell away when he actually understood what I was suggesting. This turned to abject horror when I further informed him that I had been talking to the National Union Of Mineworkers (Scotland) and that because Edinburgh was surrounded by coal mines and that because the miners were on strike it would also be a good idea, because the play was about fellow “energy workers”, that NUM members could also get in for nothing. “You mean m-miners?!” he stuttered. “Yes,” I replied, “I think we could even put on matinee performances for those coming off picket duty at Bilston Glen.”
I realise now that for him, in 1984, it would be like me asking the current artistic director of the Traverse to mount benefit performances for al Qaeda. Or “Alki Eedah” as Gordon Brown, the ex-Prime Minister, used to pronounce it. In 1984 all the artistic director of the Traverse knew of Scottish coal miners was what he saw on the TV news which was always filmed from behind police lines so that the pickets were seen as the adversary, the enemy without as opposed to “within”. I don’t think he said another word to me for the entire run of the play. But it was an example of how someone in a position of cultural power actually sees the world as it is experienced by ordinary people. The reality is that they do not really see it at all, or if they do it is from a certain perspective, from behind a protective wall – be it of police, Oxbridge or money.
The same set of perspectives apply throughout Scottish theatre where the class background of the majority of artistic directors reflects the similar disconnect we see in the political classes who both manage and govern over us. The recent exit as a wealthy man to a well paid US job of David Miliband as an ex-MP for South Shields, one of the poorest places in north England, is a prominent case in point. The ruling elite in politics gets smaller and more self contained as does the correspondent managing cohort in Scottish theatre. How can they then recognise the cultural and political constituency of plays which, theoretically, come onto their desks? What of the playwrights? As they increasingly come from a university creative writing background what real connection do they have to the “carrying stream” of Scottish cultural tradition or of life lived outside the campus? What kinds of plays are they writing now and are they particularly Scottish in that they draw on a specific Scottish cultural form or subject?
To try and answer these questions it is informative to note that one of the writers not represented at the dual Traverse “celebrations”, except when he was mentioned in a reminiscence by the venerable Dolina MacLennan, but who was present in spirit was George Byatt. Although he died in 1996 aged 73 I felt his presence very acutely in his absence simply because throughout his career he was constantly Scotland’s most innovative and radical theatre poet and through his company Theatre pkf (the Peace Keeping Force) in the late 1970’s and early 80’s created a body of work which combined both content and form to a theatre style which pointed the way, for those with eyes to see, in which Scottish theatre and specifically playwrighting could have gone.
With such ground-breaking plays as The Silver Land, The Clyde Is Red and The Brus Byatt combined an unswerving commitment to guerrilla socialist-poetic theatre making – all directed to the audience with choral speaking and minimal staging – with a deep understanding of Scotland’s literary past. It was this fresh re-imagining of folk forms and literary culture which gave Byatt’s storytelling such vigour and set it apart from most of his contemporaries who still based their dramaturgy on a basic English model. This would never do for Theatre pkf and Byatt: their theatrical touchstone was essentially Scottish but also cosmopolitan and European, refreshingly international in that he melded the subjects, rhythms and concerns of the Scottish Medieval Makars with the leftist avant-gardism of Garcia Lorca and Dario Fo.
George Byatt was the kind of Hermes whose desire was to show the Scottish people themselves as they really were and what they could be and to take Scottish theatre in a direction which would have led it out of the underworld of formal and political negativity, to dance in the conscious light of its own imagination. Byatt believed that the theatre was “the people singing freely in the open air” and as a living playwright – and not a shade – he would have delivered a different message to his audience at the Traverse rather than the self obsessed inward looking psycho-dramas which so blight and dull most contemporary playwrighting. The tragedy for us is that George Byatt died before his “time”. Yet even in his lifetime the usual cultural powers ensured that, for example, such a seminal play as The Brus was safely mired in the margins of Scottish theatrical history rather than blazing out eloquently from the centre, from the stages of our main theatres as it should have done and, I believe, can still do.
Byatt’s criminal neglect is another vital message for our present time: it says that Scottish people are not getting the plays they need at this crucial period in their country’s constitutional history. His 1981 play The Brus was based on John Barbour’s epic poem of the same name which chronicles the Scottish Wars of Independence of the 13th and 14th century: this was Byatt’s starting point but the real influence was the terrible civil war in Lebanon which erupted in 1975 and was to last until 1990. His other concern was the brutal and ongoing persecution of the Palestinians by the Israeli’s. The Brus was also a considered reaction to the anti-democratic 1979 Devolution referendum and the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher and her neo-conservative regime. No other playwright was so present by his absence the day Margaret Thatcher died. No other playwright has produced such a radical testament of their time as Byatt’s The Brus. The play and its one and only production engaged with the audience who saw it directly and it asked them to consider if they were satisfied with their present reality? Through magnificent action packed verse, having Robert the Bruce and Edward the First both played by women, by post performance discussion, Theatre pkf’s The Brus was a cultural light in a dark time. There is nothing remotely like it on any Scottish stage at the moment. Its time must come again because its time is now.
George Byatt like all Scottish playwrights who write directly and passionately about their own country and people end up as Prometheus – the creator of man and the stealer of fire from the gods – chained to the rock of official indifference, their dramatic livers pecked out each day by the eagle of ignorance only to be restored each night by the people’s desire for freedom. Donald Campbell, Hector MacMillan and many another are, presently, similarly chained.
In the preface to his poem/play of 1818, Prometheus Unbound, Shelley writes how his version of the myth differs from that of Aeschylus where Prometheus is freed, eventually, by Hercules but only once he has compromised himself with Zeus, his imprisoner.
“In truth” he tells us “I was averse from such a catastrophe as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind. The moral interest of the fable, which is so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.”
Far from compromising his integrity Prometheus, when he is liberated in Shelley’s version, discusses with the spirits of nature how humanity can remain free. Towards the end of Act Three are the following lines
“The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
The loftiest star of unascended heaven,
Pinnacled dim in the intense inane.”
According to Greek myth Prometheus created man out of clay. According to Hesiod Zeus set Pandora to live with man as punishment. According to George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer the Scots cannot retain the pound after we achieve independence nor create our own currency. Neither does he think it a good idea if we join the Euro. Scottish dramatic writing is in a similar position. Pandora’s purpose is not to punish “man” but to complete him and Hesiod is guilty of corrupting a much older story. Pandora represents the end of a masculine “golden age” and the beginning of a new “silver age” of agriculture and society. One of the speakers at the Traverse conference erroneously exclaimed that Scotland was experiencing a “golden age” of playwrighting. This, sadly, is not so. But with the death of Thatcher Scotland could be, I believe, be entering into a new political age.
When I walked out of the Traverse on that fateful Monday I was leaving “the most exciting fringe theatre in Britain”. So Joyce MacMillan described the place in her Radio 3 programme. In this description is the core, I think, of our problem. For a start Scottish theatre is too small to have a “fringe”. If you mount one production you are part of the rag tag and bob tail community that is Scottish theatre; if you mount two you are part of the establishment or at least can join the Federation of Scottish Theatre, which is the same thing. The other consideration here is that the relationship the Traverse has had with Scotland, never mind Edinburgh, is at best tangential. Up to the appointment of Chris Parr in the late 1970’s the Traverse did its best to ignore Scottish theatre and Scottish playwrights. Not one of its artistic directors has ever been a Scot.
Because the Edinburgh Festival has a fringe and because that fringe, theatrically speaking, is centred, or used to be, at the Traverse the management of the Traverse think that they are at the centre. Well, arguably, they are, but only for three weeks. After that the centre shifts back to London. Every Traverse artistic director I have ever known, and there have been a few by now, have all been desperate to “crack” London. None have. The problem for them is that when the Traverse take a production to London they are seen as being Scottish and therefore bad – at best – and provincial – at worst. The irony here is that almost everyone, artistically speaking, who is in a position of power at the Traverse, has been English – the only blip being a French Canadian. I have yet to find a better example of irony. So the conclusion I have to draw from all of this is that the Traverse is not a Scottish theatre. It is however touted as the “home of new writing”. For a Scottish playwright and for playwrighting in Scotland this is what Joy Hendry has described as “as double knot in the peeny”.
Yet there have been, since the late 1970’s, many Scottish playwrights who have had their work produced at the Traverse and I am one of them. The question I ask is this: what were we actually writing? The answer I have supplied to myself is that we were all writing imitations of English plays. How could it be any other way? For as yet, I would argue, Scottish playwriting does not exist. There are many reasons for this, of which, actually, the Traverse is the least relevant. The roots of this go back at least to the Reformation and other writers, in other places, have riddled the tough soil of that history. My concern here is not with the past, it is with the future, with Prometheus liberated. What kinds of plays are we going to write in the future? What forms will we adopt, what other cultures and dramatic histories can we learn from? Scottish playwrighting has certainly “pinnacled dim in the intense inane”. To be “uncircumcscribed” dramatists, if they are to meet the cultural needs of the nation, the people, will have to unlearn almost everything they have learned, been taught, or told is the “right way” to write a play.
In Scotland our stages are the spaces where the people dream. In our dreams we aspire to embrace the future. What else is the theatre for? What other purpose does it have? George Byatt and others have dared to inhabit our dreams with their versions of our collective myth. Thatcher is dead. George Osborne is a liar. Prometheus is free at last. Pandora, like the new Scottish plays as yet unwritten, is coming out of the ground. What the aspired for new “silver age” of independence will yield for the Scots will be revealed eventually. Whatever it is it will be our “gift” to ourselves. End of message.
© George Gunn 2013
‘A NORTHERLY LAND’ – a new collection of poetry by George Gunn will be launched at Ullapool Book Festival on Fri 10th May.