FEW Scottish play-texts survive from before 1650. Yet among those that do are astonishments awaiting full modern professional production. They include two plays written in Latin by George Buchanan (1506-82) around 1540 while he was working in Bordeaux, Jephthes and Baptistes.

Translations into Scots by Robert Garioch were published in 1959 as Jephthah and The Baptist but have fallen away from the interest of most readers, teachers, even scholars and I imagine from almost everyone concerned with theatre production in Scotland – but I’d love to be proved wrong!

Buchanan’s plays were performed across Europe at least until the end of the 18th century, providing models for the great French playwrights Corneille and Racine. Are they any good?

Dr Jamie Reid-Baxter is one of the few whose meticulous scholarship, understanding of history and sensitivity to languages are brought to bear on the priority of living performance. As scripts, plays are as dead as musical notes in a manuscript: just waiting for production. But imagination is primary: how can we imagine them?

In his essay, Drama Out Of The ‘Closet’: Buchanan On Stage from George Buchanan, Poet and Dramatist, edited by P.I. Ford and R Green (Classical Press of Wales, December 2009) pp.237-252, Reid-Baxter describes an actual performance of Jephthes in Aberdeen University Theatre in 1983, which tells us a great deal about what kind of play it is and what kind of production it demands.

The Biblical story itself is gripping. In, Judges 11: 30–40, Jephtha, judge of Israel, vows that if he wins the next battle, he’ll sacrifice the first thing he sees afterwards. He does. It’s his daughter. What follows is tragedy. What caused that tragedy

is also part of it. The bitter pathos

of mortal consequence is at the story’s core.

The production, without any excess lighting or sound effects, brought out the play’s power, translated from Latin into English. Reid-Baxter’s description of the production explains something of this: “The use of tragic masks, precluding use of facial expression, forced actors and audience to concentrate on the words being spoken. The lack of living faces to look at also heightened the impact of each of the gestures or moves made. These were minimal”. Thus, “the tension between strict form and volcanic emotional content” was given full effect, leading “inexorably to the harrowing, desolate and terribly human ending, with Storge [Iphis’s mother] alone with her grief on the vast stage of the world.”

Although this translation was in English, Robert Garioch’s Scots language version surely warrants production. Here’s a passage from the Second Chorus, full of what Reid-Baxter calls “rolling grandeur”:

Oh, ruler o the gowden licht,

sun, wha swees the lyft [sky] aroun,

swith [swiftly] returning day and nicht,

wha bear your never-bydand flame,

pairting the seasons for the warld,

eftir twenty darksom years

nou we see your blissit licht,

Isaac’s sons at laist set free

frae the dule o slavery.

Jephthah’s strang richt haund has brak [broken]

Ammon’s hairt for aa his pride,

the reiver reivit o his gear. [the thief stripped of his possessions]

But alas, as Reid-Baxter notes, “the Aberdeen University Theatre actors, although all Scots-born and bred, baulked at the idea of acting in Scots”. It’s as if our very language were sacrificed by the strong and foolish priorities of tyrannical rule. Still, the actors’ “passionate lyricism” ensured that “Jephthes on stage was very moving indeed” and remains a profound human tragedy and – potentially – terrific theatre. Indeed, the moral applies now, to climate ruination and the health of a nation’s population. For what gain would you sacrifice your daughter?

Buchanan’s other, equally unfamiliar play is Baptistes. Based on the story of John the Baptist, beheaded by Herod’s command as demanded by Salome, it’s a bitter satire on political corruption and an affirmation of virtue in the face of despicable misuse of power. Reid-Baxter comments: “I have long thought of Baptistes in terms of a lavish, pageant-like production, not least because the more sumptuous the royal and ecclesiastical personages and their surroundings, the starker the contrast both with the unworthiness of their motives, and with the Baptist himself.” Robert Garioch’s Scots version is as tight as the original Latin and gives a flavour of the play’s power:

But we, betrayit by opinions an errors,

while fleeing fate, rin foolishly on fate.

The fire may spare us, we droun in the sea;

if we perish nae be water, the plague will kill us;

the war’s survivor is wastit by slaw disease.

God may defer, but doesna cancel our fate,

and we pey daily interest for daith’s delay

in dule and danger, trauchle and disease.

Nor is a lang life ocht but a lang chain

o evils: even to the term o daith,

linked in a langsome series. We are laith to think

we are in thralldom, thirlit to yon chain;

an the outgait frae whilk we micht win free

skars us mair nor the slavery.

Some critics have suggested that Baptistes could be read as an allegory with political parallels for its own time, so that John the Baptist could be Thomas More, and the villains would be Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Archbishop Cranmer, and the daughter (Salome, or “The Lass” in Garioch’s version) would be Elizabeth Tudor. The correspondences don’t work exactly but the point is eternal: “as a drama, it shows the human difficulties of conforming oneself to the absolute demands of the moral law when a tyrant rules, the priesthood adapts, and the non-evil, prudential elements of society beg for compromise”.

We talked a few weeks ago about the theatrical impact of the Kirk, and its immediacy of reference, so we might suggest that the idea of a priesthood “adapting” to tyrannical rule might be like our own mass media following establishment rules and endorsing the status quo, no matter how corrupt, incompetent and homicidal it becomes. Our priests are celebrities and newsreaders.

As Baxter says, “Costume and staging could be used to telling effect in any production of this timeless text, which denounces tyranny, calumny, self-deceit and moral hypocrisy in the material world, and contrasts them with the unsettling integrity of the Baptist, committed to truth and to a spiritual vision of human existence.

While overly specific – and hence anecdotal – topicalities all too often prove merely distracting and confusing in modern stage productions of older texts, I believe that a fully thought-through application of contemporary allusion to a production of Baptistes could greatly increase the impact of the play on a modern audience, for many of whom John the Baptist, let alone Herod, would not be a familiar figure”.

Of course Buchanan’s play could have powerful contemporary performance. It’s an allegory for our own times. Why doesn’t the National Theatre of Scotland take up the challenge of reviving both these plays?