Allan Ramsay’s play The Gentle Shepherd was immensely popular throughout the UK and America for nearly half a century, from the Age of Enlightenment well into the Romantic era. Alan Riach asks: “Why?”

THE popularity of The Gentle Shepherd (1725) was a consequence of its historical occasion, arising from the Augustan era that prized order, security and social hierarchy. And yet this era led towards the crucible of Romanticism in its endorsement of vernacular language and common humanity.

The play endorses both hierarchies of class and the worth of individuals. That’s a contradiction. If you want those hierarchies held secure, there’s a liability in approving value in the individual. The play became most popular in the 40 years from 1780 to 1820, with about 160 productions throughout the United Kingdom and in America, and around 120 editions published.

Just as it exemplified formal neo-classical virtues, its vogue coincided with the Romantic movement. Rather than fall between them, it managed to balance and combine two kinds of vision.

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And there’s another ambiguity. At first, with its plot concerning the restoration of an older and “better” order, it carried hints of support for the Stuart cause and Jacobitism. Andrew Hook, in his essay “Scottish Literary Romanticism and Its American Reception” in his book, From Mount Hooly to Princeton: A Scottish-American Medley (2020), says this: “The plot of the play hinges on the return from exile of a nobleman, a supporter of Charles II, at the time of the Restoration in 1660. The Scottish peasantry rejoice at the restoration of their old master; good times are returned, old buildings restored, the land re-cultivated. The good life is seen to lie in a recreated past, not a revolutionary future.

“The politics of the play are Tory, aristocratic, and Jacobite. A similar conservatism pervades the ideas of the piece: the values of reason and common sense take precedence over those of feelings and passion.”

The pressing question Hook identifies is: “How could such a work continue to grow in popularity long after neo-classical values were no longer dominant?”

His answer emphasises the “potentially Romantic strain in the play which a changing sensibility could register and bring to the fore”. Just as the play presents a rural Scotland “increasingly remote from modern, sophisticated society” it also seems “to take seriously the feelings of simple people” and its language has “the natural spontaneity of an unpolished vernacular”.

Moreover, it incorporates “versions of about twenty traditional Scots songs”. This was immediately appealing to a growing appetite for a theatre of staged spectacle. Every performance took place within a securely identifiable frame of reference, a refined medium, a theatre to be looked at from a position of detachment, as opposed to a theatre inviting participatory enactment.

Both these aspects of theatre are complementary. The further each strays from the other, the more identifiable its appeal becomes, and the more closely its audience can be targeted. As the economic structures of live (and later, screened) entertainment changed, both realigned themselves in what came to be accepted as “popular culture”.

The National: Painter Mark RothkoPainter Mark Rothko

The Gentle Shepherd appeared at precisely the right moment to maintain its popularity through a period when those priorities of definition were only beginning to firm up.

Ramsay opened The New Theatre in Edinburgh in Carrubber’s Close in 1736. In 1737, the Licensing Act, intended to prohibit political satires in London and not directly relevant to Ramsay at all, came into effect, and offered more conservative members of the Kirk and council a means to close his enterprise.

The theatre was shut the year after it opened. Nonetheless, Edinburgh folk enjoyed theatre and soon a new device was being used: plays were performed accompanied by brief musical concerts where the ticket price was paid for admission to the concert and the play was presented “gratis”. Ramsay himself, however, retired to his house at the top of the Royal Mile on Castlehill, where Ramsay Gardens can be visited today.

Like Tobias Smollett in The Regicide of 1749 and The Reprisal of 1757 and Archibald Maclaren in Kenneth, King of Scots in 1807, Ramsay was a playwright of more than historical significance. So were David Mallet and James Thomson, authors of Alfred: A Masque, first performed to music by Thomas Arne in 1740, and now lastingly famous for the song, “Rule, Britannia”.

IN performance, this is sung as a duet by Alfred the Great and his wife Eltruda, anachronistically celebrating their victory over the threatening Danes. Given the date of first performance and with hindsight now of the Jacobite rising that was to happen five years later, the production’s full historical context gives it considerably more dramatic power than we might allow were it read merely as “text”.

Alfred and his wife advocate the supremacy of “Britons” in the play, by their ruling the waves. This was part of an argument within government and court circles as to whether post-Union Britain should be focused primarily on Hanoverian interests in Europe or instead more on trade and empire. Like The Gentle Shepherd, Alfred might be read as a perceptive, prophetic and affirmative metaphor. It would be exhilarating to see a new production, appropriately edited, perhaps with a newly-written “Prelude” and “Postlude” presenting the play’s historical contexts, 1707-40 and 1740-46.

READ MORE: Alan Riach: Neglect this historically key Scottish play at your own peril

Meanwhile, in Gaelic Scotland, folk drama was flourishing. Oral stories, poems and songs in Gaelic often employ voices and dialogues; animals speak and sing, personae are mutable, drama and dance are reciprocally enabling, there is a profound relation between life, death, the cycle of seasons and tidal returning. All these are embedded in Gaelic culture. This also reminds us that there’s a different way of reading literature than the “words on the page” tradition of critical appraisal

To those of us familiar with Shakespeare and the ancient Greek plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the matter of tragedy is crucial. In The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art (posthumously published in 2004), the painter Mark Rothko says that “the introduction of humanity into the picture, an attempt to relate the representation of the individual emotionality in the terms of universal emotions” is crucial: “It is significant that such emotionality in relationship to the individual is found only in a tragic emotionality. In comic situations this quality is achieved only in an ironical presentation whose end again is the enhancement of the tragic element through the medium of the tragic doom.”

Rothko’s perception is that the art that speaks to the humanity in each one of us most deeply, universally, and unanswerably, is tragic. All great art recognises that tragedy is inalienably human. And this knowledge informs even the most defiant, affirming, celebratory works of art, whether in painting, music or literature.

Perhaps the one key characteristic of 18th-century Anglophone theatrical literature was its inherent fear of tragedy. Throughout the century, Nahum Tate’s revised King Lear was supplied with a happy ending. There are some things the culture of a particular time and place will not allow. These cultural, political contexts demand consideration. They will be crucial when we come to John Home’s play Douglas, a tragedy in more than one sense.