IN these essays on Scottish plays, theatres and dramatic literature, one area we haven’t discussed is playwriting for children. Since at least the late 20th century, there has been a significant rise in theatrical writing specifically for children.

This movement has been led by fine playwrights such as Stuart Paterson who, besides writing for adults, has written scripts for children that bear no trace of patronising or “talking down”. Moreover, specialist companies like Catherine Wheels, led by Gill Robertson, and Wee Stories, led by Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone, have produced and presented plays for all age ranges of children.

This upsurge was encouraged by the development since 1990 of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, retitled Imaginate, under the long-term inspiring leadership of Tony Reekie who stood down from that role to go to work with Catherine Wheels in 2019.

Also noteworthy is Bertha Waddell’s Children’s Theatre, which was influential for generations of children in the mid-20th century, having achieved a tremendous reach by the 1950s. Ian Brown personally recollected primary schools from all over Clackmannanshire coming to see their annual shows in Alloa Town Hall. They toured in Lanarkshire and Central Scotland, were noticed and invited to perform in local schools and before royalty in the 1930s and the next generation of royal children in the 1950s.

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Their shows would begin with a sound effect and Bertha’s head appearing through the curtains, announcing “Item Number One”. As Ian Brown writes in The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2006): “Each performance comprised some dozen or more individually introduced scenes, usually based on folk tales or nursery rhymes. Some used mime or puppets, and music and song were central to the aesthetic. Design was simple, suited to touring constraints.”

As children, Bertha Waddell (1907-63) and Jenny Waddell (1907-80) learned dance, singing and piano, and attended drama and speech classes in Glasgow, later joining local amateur companies and then the Scottish National Players.

They launched the first professional company specifically for children in 1927 in the McLellan Galleries, Glasgow, as the Scottish Children’s Theatre (later called variously The Children’s Theatre and Bertha Waddell’s Children’s Theatre). The company and their productions might not be described as “primarily literary” but they were important in developing through the mid-20th century lively and memorable theatre performances designed for children that amounted to much more than an annual Christmas pantomime.

Not that one should ever disdain the pleasures of panto. Aspects of children’s theatre, pantomime and popular theatre conventions in music hall and comedy were drawn upon in the most revolutionary moment in modern Scottish theatre.

It was in 1973. The 7:84 (Scotland) Theatre Company and John McGrath (1935-2002) took The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil on tour, performing in town and village halls, to audiences most of whom had possibly never previously been to a city theatre, telling a story about Scotland’s history and natural resources – land, sheep, deer, oil, and above all, people – being exploited by commercial interests utterly at odds with the health and priorities of most of the folk who lived in this nation.

It was a “ceilidh-play”, a performance punctuated and driven by songs, recitations, re-enacted historical episodes and comic routines that had no pretension to literary elitism and every intention to communicate without condescension, directly, both seriously and through satire and comedy, with local audiences made up of all kinds of people.

The play took its audiences from the Jacobite rising of the 1740s and the period of the Clearances, through the 19th century, when vast tracts of depopulated land were used for stag-hunting by absentee landlords, high fee-paying guests and royalty (as they still are), to the period when the discovery of oil in the North Sea meant a new wave of exploitation of Scotland’s natural resources and people (a tide that’s even higher now).

Famously, the company’s name, and that of its separate English counterpart, founded by McGrath in 1971, was taken from a statistic: 7% of the population own 84% of the country’s wealth. The gulf is even greater today.

The play was a watershed in modern theatre, expressly socialist and deeply traditional in its carefully structured polemic and use of folksong and cèilidh techniques and yet drawing daringly on agitprop, music hall and stand-up comedy methods to revitalise its theatrical impact. It also had – and continues to have – international resonance.

When I was teaching in New Zealand, after screening the play, Maori students would come to me to point out in recognition: “But that’s our story! That’s our story too!” It has been revived to considerable acclaim more than once in the early 21st century.

McGrath and the 7:84 company were keenly aware that in performance, conventions from the commercial theatre might be used in non-commercial plays, sometimes to overturn the ideology they arose from. Theatrical techniques used to present jokes that relied on stereotypes, racism, sexism and pantomimes of violence, might be put to use in plays deliberately intended to oppose such things. Populist techniques can carry a progressive message. Pleasure can serve more than one political purpose.

7:84 carried on with a series of engaged political plays, including The Game’s a Bogey (1974) about the Glasgow Communist teacher John Maclean, Bolshevik representative for Scotland appointed by Lenin. McGrath’s writings on theatre are collected in A Good Night Out: Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form (1981), The Bone Won’t Break: On Theatre and Hope in Hard Times (1990) and Naked Thoughts that Roam About (2002).

The offshoot from 7:84 was Wildcat, a company which also addressed political issues of the day directly and combined original songs commenting on, or evocative of, the action. Their plays were events that rose to specific occasions, most fiercely and poignantly in Dead Liberty (1984), centred on the miners’ strike of the time, in which traditional trade union-organised working-class miners found themselves opposed by the Conservative Thatcher government and the police authorities of the day.

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In 1982, 7:84 revived a number of plays from the repertoire of Unity, including Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep. In the 1980s, after the torpedoed referendum on Scottish devolution and the triumph of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party through the preponderance of voters in England, the appetite for the Clydebuilt season of plays in Scotland was keen.

Both working-class cultural conviction and the priorities of feminism were joined in opposition to Thatcher’s ascendancy, and there was a deeply held national self-awareness that people in Scotland had not voted for the same things as people in England.

All these things came together. Internationally, Men Should Weep was recognised as a classic of both Scottish and feminist literature, and the production directed by Giles Havergal demonstrated its theatrical effectiveness.

In short, the 1970s and early 1980s saw a radical revitalisation of and broadening access to Scottish drama. The impact was immense. Who could predict what followed?