JOANNA Baillie (1752-1851) started writing plays in the 1790s. De Montfort was produced in London in 1800 and 1821, a large-scale tragedy in which the title character fights a duel with his old school rival, Rezenvelt, and loses, but when his life is spared, his hatred and resentment fester over time and when he hears a rumour that Rezenfelt and his saintly sister Jane are secret lovers, intense and jealous hatred drives him to murder.
After this came another tragic love story, Count Basil, and then The Tryal, a comedy in which the hero is less important than the heroine. Baillie is trying out the skills of the playwright in various capacities, drawing on different traditions.
De Montfort has plenty of brass and extravagance but many of Baillie’s plays were domestic in setting, to be read or performed in small-scale locations. Not all of them were primarily designed for professional theatrical performance. They are psychologically acute and lyrically poised, intimate in detail and often low-key, undemonstrative, drawing more on nuanced expression and verbal dexterity, rather than brassy performance.
In this respect they have some things in common with The Hubble-Shue, which we looked at last week: a small-scale “playlet” designed for domestic performance in a big house, with children and adults all taking part. Baillie’s plays are more serious, adult and sometimes sombre but they are always curious and attractive. They counterpoint the more spectacular large-scale productions in the big city theatres which were coming into contemporary vogue.
Baillie was a correspondent of Walter Scott, and throughout the 19th century and into the 20th there were numerous stage adaptations of Scott’s novels, primarily associated with the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, as well as a dramatic version by Charles Bass of Burns’s poem Tam o’ Shanter. These proved much more successful than Scott’s own plays and formed part of the 19th-century appetite for “national drama”.
We should also note here Burns’s “cantata” The Jolly Beggars, a series of songs and poems “set” in a rural hostelry, presenting a company of fairly disreputable 18th-century characters gathered for some revelry and self-administered pleasures. Read as a play, this brings brilliant songwriting and improvised theatricality together through flamboyant gesture and verbal and musical precision.
The pleasures of Burns’s cantata are local and intimate but also gestural and expressive, and they depend neither on internalised emotion nor on externalised spectacle. If
The Jolly Beggars is a play, it’s a play you’d like to be in, as well as watch.
The conventions of “staging” and “performance” in this work are intrinsically different from those of Baillie, as they are from the big-theatre adaptations of Scott, and the large-scale spectacles of operas based on Scott’s novels that were popular internationally, such as Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) with a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano (1801-52), based on The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), or Jeanie Deans (premiered by the Carl Rosa Opera Company in Edinburgh in 1894) by the Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916), with a tightly-written, fast-paced libretto by Joseph Bennett (1831-1917) based on The Heart of Midlothian (1818).
This stayed in the popular repertoire till the 1920s, when different styles began to prevail. Scott’s work was staged “operatically” with musical choruses and lavish sets all the way into the 20th century, before the First World War changed all priorities. And public “performance” of Scott extended beyond theatres to advertising for “jams and jellies”.
More thoughtful theatre experience was to be found in the plays of Robert Louis Stevenson. These are arguably best performed in intimate theatres and were certainly written with theatrical production in mind. Deacon Brodie or The Double Life (1882), The Hanging Judge (1887) and Admiral Guinea (first performed 1897) are suspenseful and curious, each with its own intensities, redolent with issues central to Stevenson’s major fiction.
Stevenson’s success was not in the theatre, but unquestionably popular as a playwright as well as a novelist was JM Barrie (1860-1937). His dramatic apprenticeship was completed in 1900 with the Ibsen-like The Wedding Guest (1900), before he negotiated the modes of light comedy with serious intent in such plays as Walker, London (1892), Quality Street (1902), The Admirable Crichton (1902), Peter Pan (1904), What Every Woman Knows (1908), Dear Brutus (1917), Mary Rose (1920) and The Boy David (1936).
By far his most famous work is Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904). The play is perennially rejuvenated, on stage and in film. Later versions have sanitised and sentimentalised it but Barrie’s original has its sinister and fearful aspects, not to be lightly dismissed.
THE paradox of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” is intrinsic to its emotional knot. This is not simply about childish appetite and adventure but rather about the relation between thwarted potential and lively aptitude.
If Stevenson’s fiction for children – pre-eminently Treasure Island and Kidnapped – presents young men who see what adults are capable of, Barrie’s works deal with similar difficulties but with the sense that childhood’s potential can be stopped in its tracks by adult rule.
The results are sometimes much more disturbing than reassuring. His plays were emphatically written for theatrical performance rather than only to be read, yet his career as a novelist is vital for understanding his career as a playwright. The tragic arc of the story told in the novels Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1900) comes to a deeply unsettling resolution.
The up-and-coming young Scotsman from the rural village, kailyard Scotland, goes to London but meets a grim end: accident or suicide? We just don’t know. Conventional and dated as he may seem, Barrie was considered radical in his time: why? The answer once again is partly that since his time he has been too often misread and too easily undervalued.
Dublin’s Abbey Theatre was the model for the Glasgow Repertory Company, established in 1909 and suspended in 1914. Their early productions included work by Bernard Shaw and Ibsen and two Scottish plays of lasting value: Donald Colquhoun’s Jean (1910)
and JA Ferguson’s Campbell of Kilmohr (1915).
The former is a realistic portrayal of the life of a farming family in hard times, with strong Scots dialogue and powerful characters from different generations, a proto-Sunset Song. The latter is set after the Jacobite rising of 1745 and portrays the predicament of a Highlander confronted with the sly duplicity of a Lowlander’s military interests. It would have some resonance after the First World War in its treatment of loyalty and betrayal. In the 21st century, in the context of the international popularity of the TV series Outlander, it warrants reappraisal.
These intensely literary plays and others were written just before the First World War in the national context of commercial theatres, traditions of music hall and pantomime, and a lively tradition of amateur and touring companies, visiting towns and villages throughout the country. We’ll return to these, but the whole trajectory just covered, from Baillie to Barrie, encompasses a vast range of theatrical practices. No dismissal of the theatrical tradition as merely a “minor strand” in Scottish literary history is adequate. There are simply so many Scottish plays neglected and underperformed that we’re in a continual state of trying to find out more. There’s a pleasure in that prospect but there are also reasons for the neglect it demonstrates, and those reasons are neither neutral nor innocent.