John Home (1722-1808) was famous for one play: Douglas (1756). Alan Riach suggested last week that we shouldn’t judge plays of one era by the conventions of another, so how can we evaluate this one?

LIKE The Gentle Shepherd, Douglas is a play about inheritance rediscovered, and presents a series of set pieces, rhetorical speeches and gestural moments usually unencumbered by what we might call dramatic tension. This was the theatrical expectation of the time.

And as with Allan Ramsay’s Shepherd, the plot seems complex but is carefully structured. Against her father’s wishes, Lady Randolph has married wicked Lord Douglas and a son is born, Young Norval.

The baby and his nurse are presumed drowned while trying to escape oppressive patriarchy. Norval joins the Scottish army and becomes a hero. Later, he returns, attempts to save his mother from the evil schemes of Lord Douglas and his lieutenant, Glenalvon, but dies in the process. In her distress, Lady Randolph kills herself by leaping from a tower of the castle. The fated struggle of the long-lost son and the mother’s mortal anguish are united in the self-possession with which they meet their noble ends.

The play is about what is at stake, what the costs are to families across generations, in a world of civil strife and social division, and ultimately, civil war. It was first performed only 10 years after Culloden.

Questions of property, loyalty, and the outcome of vexed vested interests are pre-eminent. It is a coded text, imbued with reference to the Jacobite rising of 1745 and its consequences. The popularity of the first productions was enhanced by flamboyant performances by the celebrity Irish actress Margaret (Peg) Woffington (1720-60) in the part of the matriarch Lady Randolph.

The National:

Walter Benjamin said ‘there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’

The words on the page may not say these things explicitly, but the full context of theatrical conventions and the politics of the time give the play power and depth. Presumably this power is what was acknowledged by the member of the audience who, famously if perhaps apocryphally, rose to his feet at the end of the first performance and cried out: “Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare nou?”

The play also resembles Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd in that it appeals to a stable sensibility to contemplate in security the re-establishment of order in the universe. Modern literary criticism might argue that both plays emerge from mentalities utterly removed from the destructiveness that characterises tragic drama.

In Enlightenment conventions, passion becomes sentiment, despair becomes elegy. Tragedy, in the Greek or Shakespearian sense, is not permitted. This was not the case with David Lyndsay in the 16th century and would not be the case in the 20th and 21st centuries. And yet it is futile to criticise these plays for their conventions: Home’s Douglas represents a conception of tragedy current in 18th-century theatre.

In its own historical, political and national contexts, “tragedy” in post-Culloden Scotland, especially in “civilised” Edinburgh, has a much deeper and broader social meaning than any single theatre could accommodate.

David Hume praised the play for having more refinement than “the unhappy barbarism” of Shakespeare. Walter Benjamin, in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), wrote: “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” This is not simply “a play”. It’s a cultural document of a society trapped in its own priorities.

And that has specific application to us, today.

We’ve considered the question of performativity in Scottish society, noting the engagement of church and nobility in the Declaration of Arbroath, and the theatricality of the Disruption of the Kirk in 1843. In both cases, politics and religion were, if not the same thing, then deeply imbricated with each other. What I’m suggesting here is that the political world of these 18th-century plays was itself part of the drama we need to understand to read them accurately. The coding and context have to be understood before they can be fully appraised.

DOUGLAS also marked the triumph of professional playhouse theatre over more conservative elements in the Kirk. However, the Edinburgh Presbytery condemned Home, a minister, for writing his play, and other ministers who had attended its performance. An apology sufficed to excuse those who had attended but Home resigned from the ministry and went off to write for the London stage.

The Kirk conflict had been between the more severe evangelical wing and a Moderate party which included Home. By that time of the Disruption nearly 90 years later, professional playhouse theatre was well established at all levels in Scottish society and even by the 1780s, as one report has it, the General Assembly had altered its starting time to allow ministers to attend the theatre to watch the performance of the great star Sarah Siddons.

Quickly following its first performance, Douglas was published in Edinburgh in 1757 and two further editions appeared in Dublin in the same year. Around 75 editions followed these. By any account of publishing in its era, it was a bestseller. According to Andrew Hook, in his essay “Home’s Douglas and Macpherson’s Ossian” in his book From Mount Hooly to Princeton: A Scottish-American Medley (2020), after its first American publication, in Philadelphia in 1790, another ten editions appeared by 1821: “Amedee Pichot would publish a French translation in 1822, and an Italian translation would appear in Genoa in the same year. The play was performed in Philadelphia as early as 1759 and as late as 1825 the New York Literary Gazette was referring to it as ‘one of the best modem tragedies’.”

It became a favourite acting vehicle for most leading British actors: Mrs Siddons, Mrs Crawford, John Philip Kemble, Henry West Betty, John Howard Payne, Charles Kean, Edwin Forrest and the great Scottish actor Henry Erskine Johnston. The play’s publishing and theatrical history both confirm that this sentimental 18th-century drama “enjoyed an enduring success” far beyond anything by Home’s contemporaries, Thomas Otway or Nicholas Rowe. Andrew Hook asks: “Once again the question is why?”

We’ve summarised the plot, but the ethos and atmosphere of the play is worth pausing on. It’s set in a vaguely historical medieval period when Scotland is threatened by Danish military and naval forces, and while the named Scottish locations – Edinburgh, Lorn, the river Teviot, the Grampian mountains, the Bass Rock – give a kind of topographical veracity to the landscape, the characters seem to come from a heroic world where aristocratic virtues are not tied so much to social hierarchy as to moral authority. Power and pathos reside in nobility, more than money. And in this world, we live in the element of melancholy.

Very soon, this would characterise the tales of Ossian which James Macpherson would present as authentic translations from original Gaelic sources. Feelings of loss, loneliness and sorrow are their emotional sustenance. Macpherson’s first “Ossian” collection, Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760) was published only four years after the premiere of Douglas, and in fact it was John Home who had encouraged Macpherson to collect the fragments and present them to the public.

These connections are not accidental. Their appeal dwells within the ethos of their “civilisation” as well as its “barbarism”.