ALITTLE while after James Bridie was establishing the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, in 1953, in Edinburgh, the Gateway Theatre – a property which had been gifted to the Church of Scotland in 1946 and become home to a range of professional and community theatre groups – was let by the Kirk to a professional independent theatre company.

It was led by the actor and writer Tom Fleming, the playwright and novelist Robert Kemp, and Lennox Milne, one of Scotland’s leading women actors of the time. Times had changed from the opposition of some in the Kirk to Home’s Douglas, nearly two centuries earlier.

The Gateway Company produced plays by contemporary Scottish dramatists as well as international classics, performed by some of Scotland’s finest actors. When the Edinburgh Corporation acquired the Royal Lyceum and established a civic theatre in 1965, the company unselfishly resolved to wind itself up so that available Arts Council support for professional theatre in Edinburgh would not be spread too thin. In effect, the Gateway Company morphed into the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company.

Tom Fleming became the first artistic director of the new Lyceum company. The Kirk retained the theatre for around two more years before selling it to Scottish Television to be its Edinburgh studios and used the proceeds to establish the Netherbow Theatre on the High Street, virtually next door to where Allan Ramsay’s Carrubbers Close Theatre had been before it was suppressed in 1737.

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In the 1950s, Orcadian Robert Kemp (1909-67), chair of the Gateway, wrote a number of plays with Scottish historical settings (three are focused on John Knox, Robert the Bruce and Robert Burns) as well as a wonderful version of Molière in Scots: Let Wives Tak Tent (1948). This free translation of L’école des femmes (1662)

(The School for Wives) was performed by the Compagnie Jouvet of Paris at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. Kemp followed this with The Laird o’ Grippy (1955), based on L’Avare (1668) (The Miser).

Meanwhile Douglas Young (1913-73) produced Scots-language versions of Aristophanes in

The Puddocks (1958) and The Burdies (1959). Alexander Reid (1914-82) based The Lass wi’ the Muckle Mou on the story of Thomas the Rhymer and The Warld’s Wonder on the wizard Michael Scott, both plays set in the Borders.

Sydney Goodsir Smith

(1915-75) produced an immensely popular, unambiguous, unsubtle and unashamedly partisan historical pageant in The Wallace (1960). Alexander Scott (1920-89), distinguished poet and first head of the Department of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, produced in Right Royal (1954) a flamboyant work centred on the rascally King Dod of Fife.

Stanley Eveling (1925-2008), based in Edinburgh, flourished in the 1960s with sometimes absurd,

quasi-surrealist or politically speculative plays such as The Balachites (1963), The Strange Case of Martin Richter (1967), The Lunatic (1968), Vibrations (1969), Better Days, Better Knights (1971) and Union Jack (and Bonzo) (1971).

To a greater or lesser degree, all these playwrights were engaged by Scottish history, translating from other cultures, languages and historical eras, employing naturalist conventions or surrealist innovations, and applying their imaginations rigorously to contemporary assumptions and conditions in Scotland.

Scottish history also informed Hector MacMillan (1929-2018) in The Rising (1973), about the insurrection of 1820 and The Royal Visit (1974), about King George IV in Edinburgh in 1822 but contemporary issues are at the heart of The Sash (1973), about religious sectarianism, and The Gay Gorbals (1976), which addresses then-current attitudes to homosexuality in Scotland.

Stewart Conn (b.1936),

in I Didn’t Always Live Here (1967) and Play Donkey (1977), presented contemporary settings, while The Burning (1971), enacts the intense power struggle between King James VI and the Earl of Bothwell; Thistlewood (1975) centres on the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 and Herman (1981) sees the author of Moby-Dick pursued by his own tormentors as the whale was by its, while Hugh Miller (2002) is a one-man play about the 19th-century stonemason and writer beset by self-doubt in the Godless universe.

Donald Campbell (1940-2019) in The Jesuit (1976) wrote searchingly about religious conviction, goodness, persecution and martyrdom, while his The Widows of Clyth (1979) movingly explored the lives and bereavements of fishermen’s wives in his ancestral Caithness.

TOM McGrath (1940-2009) in Hardman (1977) focused on the life of convicted murderer Jimmy Boyle, looking at what drives such a man to violence and what might promise redemption. Bill Bryden (b.1942) explored the ideals and disappointments of Red Clydeside in Willie Rough (1972).

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Though of an older generation, CP Taylor (1929-81), in Good (1981; film version 2008), describes the corruption of a German university teacher as he unwittingly rationalises his complicity in Nazism and ultimately finds himself caught up in the “Final Solution”of genocidal murder. It is a terrifying play but he wrote around 70 others, again testifying to the abundant quantity of under-researched work in Scottish theatrical literature.

Taylor’s Good and Tom Gallacher’s Mr Joyce is Leaving Paris (1970) – to take only two examples – show conclusively how effectively Scottish playwrights could write without reference to Scotland. Tony Roper (b.1941), in The Steamie (1987) shows the other side of this coin. Here is a very specific location and historical moment in Scotland, where the dialogue of Scotswomen busy at the regular communal washing in the industrial city opens up an entire society, its prejudices, loves and social structures of support and humour, but without over-sentimentalising working-class experience.

It is a fond play, and the emotions it evokes are generally warm, but these women are credible, sometimes nasty, and their limitations are always evident. And yet there is a common factor of decency at work and a quality of resilience in the humour. For a contrasting vision of the women of the steamies, Ralph Glasser’s memoir Growing Up in the Gorbals is a sobering corrective.

The sheer range of these plays – historical, contemporary, set in specific Scottish locations or internationally, translated from classical French or ancient Greek, nationalist by declaration, anti-Fascist by commitment and expressiveness – testifies to the wealth of Scottish theatrical history and the amazingly bulging file of plays that should be immediately available in the archive for revival and new performance and study, research and reconsideration. These plays amount to a sizeable steely gauntlet thrown down on the marble floor of common cultural indifference – or even hostility – to Scotland’s literary history and vibrant potential. The question is, where does that indifference or hostility come from? And the next question is not how to oppose it, but how to end it, once and for all.