MOVING into the 18th century, Alan Riach introduces a new kind of play, the pleasantly posturing pastoral comedy of Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd, loaded with implications about property, propriety, the prim, the primping and the preposterous

AFTER the closing of the playhouses in 1642, the priorities of religious and political dogma began to stifle public performance. Nevertheless, productions of one sort or another persisted. Even under the puritanical Cromwellian Commonwealth in Scotland from 1650, folk drama of various kinds still took place, while in 1659 Aberdeen Town Council authorised public play performance.

Meantime, drama remained a key part of humanist education, often under the supervision and with the support of the local Kirk, introducing pupils to the pains and pleasures of drama.

From 1650 to 1800, drama was a controversial medium. While churches would endorse performances in schools and universities, they might also assert a right to condemn specific texts. Their concern was primarily not with drama as necessarily sinful in itself, but rather with the content being promoted.

In 1688, for example, in Lundie, a small village in the Carse of Gowrie, the Dunkeld Presbytery suspended the master, William Bouok, for “acting a comoedie wherein he mad a mock of religious duties and ordinances”. In the Palace of Holyroodhouse, after the 1660 Restoration, at least by 1662, the Tennis Court Theatre was established. Such a playhouse theatre was very much for an elite but nevertheless it’s a sign of theatre in Scotland beginning its recovery from Cromwellian oppression.

In 1663, William Clark’s Marciano, or The Discovery, was acted to “great applause”. Ostensibly set in Italy, the political and romantic intrigues that determine the plot suggest self-conscious deflection of potential censorship: the play is clearly a coded exploration of Cromwell’s overthrow of the Stuart monarchy and its restitution.

The Tennis Court Theatre survived until 1689, when the arrival of William and Mary in London enforced a stricter, more radical Presbyterian control of Scottish public life for the rest of the Stuart reign. This was despite the fact that Mary herself, before becoming Queen, had acted in masques at Holyrood before her father James VII, when, as Duke of York, he was resident there in the early 1680s.

Since civic unrest formed the social context of Scotland well into the 1700s, more controversial plays might be written and performed privately, in the form sometimes of closet drama. These might be no less vibrant than public performances, and certainly could be more subversive than plays permitted on the public stage. Archibald Pitcairne’s The Assembly (1692, but not published until 1722), for example, satirises pedantic “obscurantism” in sectarian politics.

This brings us to Allan Ramsay (1684-1758), wigmaker, bookseller, librarian. While visiting friends, the Forbes family of Newhall, he found that the protected setting of Newhall House, at Carlops, Penicuik, Midlothian, near Edinburgh, prompted him to write The Gentle Shepherd (1725), a small-scale pastoral comedy.

It was premiered in 1729 by Haddington Grammar School boys at Skinner’s Hall, at that time Edinburgh’s leading professional theatre venue, so there’s no reason to assume anything but a high standard of production.

The Gentle Shepherd is self-consciously a work of representational artifice. The actors speak or sing their lines in the full knowledge shared among the audience that’s what’s going on is a fantasy, a fabrication elaborating upon the conventions of the idyllic pastoral scene.

A polite rustic homeliness pervades the ethos and the conflicts dramatised are as deliberately designed as any baroque architecture or musical sonata for clavichord. It gives all the appearance of a light, breezy, miniature classical sinfonietta.

That artifice gives it an edge and an ambiguity. It may appeal to unquestioning fantasists but it may also be read against its “natural” grain, as a work exhibiting its own techniques and prejudices.

IT opens by setting the scene: under a crag where “crystal springs” pour forth, two shepherds, Patie (the Gentle Shepherd himself) and Roger (his richer companion), tend their flocks on a May morning. Patie begins the play with a song:

My Peggy is a young thing,

Just enter’d in her teens,

Fair as the day, and sweet as May,

Fair as the day, and always gay.

My Peggy is a young thing,

And I’m not very auld;

Yet well I like to meet her, at

The wawking of the fauld.

The play is structured by the conventional story of a rich inheritance being lost, and then discovered, to bring about a happy ending. The title gives us the clue: the rustic shepherd will be revealed as the inheritor of wealth and a claimant to gentility. Although the gentle birth of the shepherd is revealed at the beginning of the play, there is an obstacle to his happy marriage. This is what generates the drama.

Patie, the shepherd, is in love with Peggy. A richer shepherd, Roger, is in love with Jenny. Sir William Worthy is the absent laird; Symon and Glaud are two of his tenants and an old woman, Mause, seems to be a witch but is in fact simply an educated and independently-minded woman; Symon’s wife Elspa, Glaud’s sister Madge, and Bauldy, a farmworker, stand on the side of the action as it unfolds.

When Patie declares his love for Peggy, Sir William, now returned, tells him he is in fact his father and forbids the marriage as Peggy is of a lower class. Sir William commands Patie to take a long journey away. But Mause reveals that Peggy is in fact the daughter of Sir William’s sister, and therefore not only Patie’s cousin, but more importantly, his social equal. Sir William gives his blessing to the marriage.

The plot is not too complicated and the structure is clear enough, but what makes the play perennially fascinating, what gives it both sharpness and charm, is its constant play with social expectations, limitations and parameters, and this is conveyed through a subtle linguistic layering of English and Scots speech, from broad Scots, through genteel Scots, to upper-class English. Mause, speaking of the rustic, Bauldy, suggests the strata of identity Ramsay is layering here:

This fool imagines, as do mony sic,

That I’m a wretch in compact with Auld Nick;

Because by education I was taught

To speak and act aboon their common thought.

Their gross mistake shall quickly now appear;

Soon shall they ken what brought, what keeps me here;

Nane kens but me, – and if the morn were come,

I’ll tell them tales will gar them a’ sing dumb.

As the play approaches its happy conclusion, Sir William has the last spoken word, but then, good behaviour assured, characters finally secure in their allotted stations, virtue rewarded and all at rights, Peggy brings the play to an end with a love song.

Playful, acutely observant of language and social class, Ramsay draws out social distinctions to emphasise their relations to each other and to assemble them into a coherent balance: a hopeful, and indeed, gentle, shepherding. But it is neither naive nor innocent in its presentation of social and linguistic strata and power. There’s more complexity and depth in the pastoral scene than first appears.