AT moments of revolutionary upheaval, writers are quick to grasp how important live dramatic performance can be. Their work frequently precedes and imagines what might follow. In Ireland, during the Easter Rising of 1916, Irish patriots occupied the Dublin Post Office, the most significant symbolic site for the exchange of information. This had been preceded by the foundation of the Abbey Theatre in 1903, itself a development of the Irish Literary Theatre, founded by WB Yeats, Lady Gregory and others in 1899.

The theatre wasn’t built with the idea of prefiguring bloody revolution opposing the British Empire but in retrospect, questions arise. Much later, reflectively, Yeats asked himself rhetorically in his 1938 poem “The Man and the Echo” whether the sentiments he expressed in his play Cathleen ni Houlihan (first performed in Dublin in 1902) inspired revolutionary action: “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” And that’s the difference. What happened in the Post Office was not theatre. Its performers were not actors, playing their parts. Cathleen ni Houlihan was a staged production and its performers were indeed playing.

Yeats’s perhaps guilt-burdened recognition of the possibility of fatal influence marks the distinction. The consequence of a play might be action. Its possible influence should certainly be considered in a contemplative period of time. The results of action risk the destruction of that space of contemplation which all art opens out. This is not to deny that sometimes action must be taken. Rather, it is to acknowledge a distance between theatricality and theatres.

Over the last two weeks we’ve looked at theatricality in Scottish church and political history. The Disruption of the Kirk in 1843 and the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 were dramatic events, but they were not plays. And had there been plays written and performed about those events since their occurrence, we might understand them better. And perhaps have a better idea about where we’re going next.

When I was last in a court of law it was to take a group of language students to the public gallery to witness the proceedings. Everyone in front of us was very evidently acting – except the people who came to stand in the dock. For them, there was nothing at play. Their reputations, savings and even liberty were seriously at stake.

Theatricality is found in social life in all sorts of ways but the traditions of theatre as a genre of writing and live performance overlap with but are different from these social instances. That’s partly why a trial usually makes great drama in the theatre. Twelve Angry Men (1954) by Reginald Rose (1920-2002) can be utterly compelling on the stage and directed by Sidney Lumet with Henry Fonda and a cast of serious actors it made a powerful film in 1957: not a courtroom drama but a post-trial deliberation on the verdict to be delivered.

The greatness of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944-54) by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is partly due to its enactment of a trial in front of the actors and at the same time the audience in its concluding scene, where a child’s life is at stake. The future is held in the balance. The neglected Scottish playwright CP Taylor (1929-81), in his play Good (1981), made into a powerful film (2008), charts the drift into fascism of a schoolteacher at the time of the rise of Nazism in Germany. As the story unfolds it might be described as evidence in the case of a quiet man becoming inescapably trapped in a despicable political regime, compromising himself into an ultimate position of complicity with murderous, genocidal results. The audience is his judge.

Both the historical political moment, the literary depth and vitality, and the stage-performativity of the plays of Yeats, JM Synge and Sean O’Casey have kept them in the repertoire of theatres and the libraries of readers of literature, ever since their earliest productions. Similarly those of Rose, Brecht and Taylor.

The National:

WB Yeats

EACH playwright was committed to the art of writing as well as to professional theatre performance. Their work was produced in the context of developing conventions in both state-subsidised and commercial theatres, including experimental drama on the one hand, music hall and pantomime, on the other. Their plays have lasted and earned international esteem.

In Scotland, there is a broad sense that while there is plenty theatrical “heritage”, there seems to be a comparative shortage of lastingly valuable Scottish plays. Scholarship and research since the 1990s has begun to alter this assumption.

Historical questions remain, of suppression and censorship associated with the Reformation, the removal of the court to London in 1603 and the Licensing Act of 1737. Broad judgement has been that despite figures such as Allan Ramsay, John Home, Joanna Baillie, and the vitality of folk, music-hall and variety theatre, nothing much happens between Sir David Lyndsay in the 16th century and the “return” of Scottish drama in the 20th century, with JM Barrie, James Bridie and John McGrath. As an appraisal of the whole complex story, this is too simple. So much more has been discovered and made public through the last decades of the 20th, and first decades of the 21st centuries, that a fresh overview is required.

The Kirk often supported theatrical activity, to some degree shaping it to its own ends, but often encouraging the development of drama in schools. Folk plays flourished and ceremonial dramas had their place in religious contexts.

As Ian Brown notes in The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Drama (2011), the “performative theatrical culture of Scotland has seemed to lack playwriting stars to match Shakespeare, Congreve or Sheridan” and yet George Buchanan’s plays were models for Corneille and Racine, and other Scots playwrights, minor as they may be, indicate a neglected theatrical culture in Scotland.

Scottish playwriting had different roots and kinds of social prominence from that of England, and there was a lot of it. As Brown notes, for centuries, “whether we think of folk drama, Kirk drama, street drama, rural drama, or the theatrical drama of the urban middle and upper classes, whether in Gaelic, Scots, English and even Latin, a wide range of theatrical forms was available.”

It is still being retrieved and reinterpreted.