AFTER looking at some of the earliest Scottish plays and performances, Alan Riach approaches the major figure who comes through the centuries with one overwhelmingly great work: David Lyndsay (c.1486-1555) and Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

FOR all that much work has been done retrieving the plays and performance culture of pre-17th-century Scotland, Lyndsay and the Satyre are towering. I’ve written about him in The National before (May 19, 2017: “David Lyndsay – the man who gave ordinary Scots a voice”) but since we’re looking more closely at plays in this series, I’ll give only a brief account of his life before we get to the Satyre itself.

Lyndsay came from a landed family in Fife, was born in the last years of the reign of James III, lived through those of both James IV and James V, and was in service to James V’s second wife and widow, Mary of Guise (mother of Mary Queen of Scots).

He was a younger contemporary of the great Makars, Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas. He lived long after the catastrophic end of James IV’s court at Flodden in 1513, looked after and taught young James V, and in 1529 was appointed Lord Lyon King of Arms, staying close to the King’s affections. In the 1530s, he was sent on diplomatic travels, especially to France. He was given a pension and lived on as the movement towards Reformation intensified. He died in 1555. Lyndsay wrote poems throughout his life but his masterpiece is the play, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, first in a relatively short “Interlude” performed for King James and his court at Linlithgow in 1540, revised in 1552, then expanded in 1554 for production at the Edinburgh playfield, in the open air. This is the epic play we’re thinking of now.

It was no elitist production for an intimate theatrical space, addressed only to a courtly audience, as in 1540. Rather, it was a spectacular public show designed to entertain as well as to enlighten and challenge. The royal household, courtiers and sophisticates, and commoners of all professions would be among the audience, all at the one time, so the satire cut in all directions.

Immediate pleasures were joined to the urgency of the message, in national, religious, economic, moral and social terms. The satire would have shocked, startled, tickled hilarity and stabbed out gasps of recognition. It was a hard slap to the greedy and a crack on the head to gullible fools. All the self-righteous were doomed.

Oh, Scotland! What need we have today!

The Three Estates were the Church (the clergy and churchmen), the Nobility (the knights, aristocrats and courtiers) and the Burgesses (the merchants of the “middle class” who ruled the towns). All three, the play shows, were in need of reform.

Full-scale corruption in government, despicable morality in every representative public media forum, desperate alliances of otherwise competing political priorities, and general catastrophe looming – it’s all so horribly familiar! But by endorsing good sense and the virtues of common humanity the play enacts an affirmation and leaves you with a firm feeling of resolution.

In Ane Satyre, the impersonality of allegorical figures ensures one remove from the risk of identifying individuals but the embodiment of sins in human actors insists on their potential relevance to any member of the audience.

The drama is set by the quasi-allegorical figures of King and Church being led astray by self-indulgence and related temptations. But this isn’t just piety and wishful prayer. Lyndsay insists that the answer is not only to “mend your ways” and correct wrong social priorities but to pay attention to the complaints of the common people.

At the end of Part One, the court is cleansed by the imposing figure of Divine Correction, but in Part Two, when the figure of the Poor Man comes out of the audience and enters the play’s action, and John the Commonweal speaks up for the real world beyond the court, beyond the allegorical functions of the play and beyond the moral structure Lyndsay endorses, a truly revolutionary intervention is taking place.

Where the figures in Part One are allegorical, those in Part Two are drawn from social types. All can be rendered as vividly individuated characters, leavened with topical references to place and moment. Representatives of people push forward into an imposed, foreordained structure and demand its change. This is Lyndsay’s great dramatic strength. What is the rule of law and kingship for, if not the welfare of the people?

LET’S sample some of the text and listen to how Lyndsay orchestrates the voices, setting them against each other and binding together all the political, social and religious arguments. Here are the words of Good Counsel, advising the King:

Sir, if your Highness yearns lang to ring, [long to reign]

First dread your God above all other thing.

For ye are but ane mortal instrument

To that great God and King Omnipotent.

Having reminded the mortal

King that there is the Kingdom of God, in which he is merely

another single living creature,

Good Counsel then advises him

how to exercise his authority in the social world:

The principal point, sir, of ane king’s office

Is for to do to everilk [every] man justice,

And for to mix his justice with mercy,

But [without] rigour, favour, or pairtiality.

In this respect, if he does well, lives and rules wisely, people will recognise the justness of his authority and the record of his rule will be held in memory in high regard.

For every prince after his quality, [according to his nature]

Though he be dead, his deeds shall never die.

Sir, if ye please for to use my counsel,

Your fame and name shall be perpetual.

For Good Counsel, a reformation is required to benefit “the Commonweal”: in other words, to help people to live. When poor folk are exploited by high rents and taxes insisted upon by corrupt landlords, including churchmen, things need to be changed. The Poor Man agrees, and Divine Correction sets out to make this an order.

Then John the Commonweal himself speaks up, advising that if the change is to be meaningful at all, it must begin at the Border.

That is, start the Reformation at home, in Scotland. Scots will never be able to defend themselves against England if the Scottish landowners continue to impoverish the people who live here.

We must first bring an end to “our own Scots common traitor thieves”.

If there seems no end to villainy, take strength: we have the resources to fight it.

The most succinct and information-packed introduction to the Satyre is John Corbett’s Sir David Lyndsay’s A Satire of the Three Estates (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Scotnotes series, 2009), available direct from the ASLS.The ASLS also publishes the definitive edition of the Selected Poems of David Lyndsay edited by Janet Hadley Williams (2000). The most accessible scholarly edition of the play itself is that edited by Roderick Lyall, published by Canongate in 1989 in the Canongate Classics series.