THROUGHOUT the 20th and 21st centuries, Scottish drama entwines revaluations, adaptations and new productions in a process of rediscovery and re-assessment.

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was as much of its moment in the early 1970s as Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits was of its in the 1550s. Revivals of both these plays have had to balance recognition of historical locations on the clock with the renewing value of contemporary application: how do we tell the stories about what really matters to new generations?

That question became especially pressing in the 1970s and increasingly since the 1980s. After the Second World War, the Satyre was freshly produced in 1948, revised by Robert Kemp and directed by Tyrone Guthrie, then in the 1980s a new production by the Scottish Theatre Company directed by Tom Fleming addressed a new generation.

In 1996, a completely different play prompted by Lyndsay and satirising (among other things) the corruption of the popular press, was written by John McGrath and performed by Wildcat as The Satire of the Four Estates. In 2002, Alan Spence revised it as The 3 Estaites: the Millennium Version.

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An interdisciplinary research project led by scholars from Edinburgh and Brunel universities staged a full-length production employing many of the finest of the Scottish acting community in 2013, the record of which can be visited on the website at

The Cheviot was revived in 2015 by Dundee Rep, directed by Joe Douglas, also receiving high critical praise and achieving popular appeal, more than 40 years since its first production. In The Herald newspaper (September 8, 2015), Douglas commented: “I think the play is totally right for now and feels brand new.”

Revival is a form of translation through time. The long tradition of plays in translation from other languages and different cultures always has close pertinence in a Scotland where people are questioning their own lack of statehood and the status of their languages.

There are plenty of examples in major work by Liz Lochhead, Edwin Morgan, Hector MacMillan, David Harrower, John Byrne, Robert David MacDonald, Peter Arnott, Ian Brown, David Grieg and Rona Munro, translating plays by Moliere, Racine, Gogol, Brecht, Genet, Lorca and versions of ancient Greek tragedies.

While these Scottish playwrights worked over decades after the Second World War, the playwrights whose works they have translated come from various European languages and across centuries.

Meantime, Bill Findlay, a Scot, and Martin Bowman, a Canadian of Scottish descent, translated eight plays by the Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay from Joual, the Quebec dialect of French, into a vibrant contemporary Scots, thus translating not only from one language to another, but from one culture to a sister culture, both facing comparable political dilemmas.

Liz Lochhead (b.1947) began publishing poems and dramatic monologues, portraits in voices, in the 1970s and 1980s. She accumulated a list of major plays drawing on feminist, Gothic, Scottish historical and contemporary linguistic resources in Blood and Ice (1982), Dracula (1985), Tartuffe (translated into Scots, 1985) and most emphatically in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped

Off (1987). La Corbie, the chorus-like commentator on the action, a “ragged ambiguous creature”, introduces the main subject of the play, not simply Mary herself, but the nation:

LA CORBIE: Country: Scotland. Whit like is it?

It’s a peatbog, it’s a daurk forest.

It’s a cauldron o’ lye, a saltpan or a coal mine.

If you’re gey lucky it’s a bricht bere meadow or a park o’ kye.

Or mibbe…it’s a field o’ stanes.

It’s a tenement hoose or a humble cot. Princes Street or Paddy’s Merkit.

It’s a fistfu’ o’ fish or a pickle o’ oatmeal.

It’s a queen’s banquet o’ roast meat and junketts.

It depends. It depends… Ah dinna ken whit your Scotland is. Here’s mines.

National flower: the thistle.

National pastime: nostalgia.

National weather: smirr, haar, drizzle, snow.

National bird: the crow, the corbie, le corbeau, moi!

If we imagine the play “set” in Mary’s time of late 16th-century Scotland, the peatbog and forest draw on prehistory and the coal mine and tenements are prophecies of an industrial future. This opening speech is a panorama of eras, revolving around the perspective of the carrion crow, a hideous dancer, nourished on roadkill, part scavenger, part parish priest, a minister skating on very thin ice.

Youthful energy and childish glee are mixed with adult cruelty and consequence. The whole play keeps these connected.

The title is the name of a children’s game, with the actors representing the major historical characters both as adults and as children in a contemporary school playground. Playful? Yes, but ultimately, it’s a deadly pageant of political entrapment and encroaching power.

THE play asks us to consider how history is passed on to younger generations, through icons of divisiveness, religions of hatred and a politics of competing powers. In one memorable production, the climax was a dance of the characters around a maypole, long red ribbons stretching down from the top of the pole into the characters’ hands.

As they danced in devious rings, the ribbons encircled Mary’s neck, until there was no way out. The children at play had become adults at the execution. The final image of Mary, the crimson bands around her throat, her pale hands raised in silence, holds us – and then blackout!

Lochhead has gone further in Medea (2000) and Thebans (2003), adapting ancient Greek plays by Euripides and Sophocles with immediate impact. Her translations of these plays show her deep and intuitive grasp of the full sense of tragedy, addressing issues of feminism, self-destructiveness, social positioning and the extremes of passionate response.

She brings these issues into Scotland with crafty, subtle and immensely powerful effect, enhancing cultural self-confidence and endorsing a political ideal of self-determination the establishment will always want to suppress. Lochhead’s sophisticated retellings of the Greek plays in 21st-century Scotland went hand-in-hand with her work in small theatre venues, such as Piece of My Heart (2007), a three-hander set in a kitchen with two students, Susie and Nick, and their landlady, Aggie. Love, sexuality, caring, death and old age are all there, lightly, movingly, unpretentiously delineated.

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It was written for Oran Mor, a converted church in Glasgow’s west end which established an annual lunchtime series, A Play, a Pie and a Pint. Folk could come in, buy a ticket, a drink and a bite to eat and be entertained for an hour by a short play. Some of the best contemporary writers as well as newcomers writing first plays contributed to the Oran Mor seasons. In Educating Agnes (2008), Lochhead revised Moliere’s School for Wives (1662) and referred to Robert Kemp’s Scots language version of 1948, Let Wives Tak Tent.

Kemp’s version is a lasting masterpiece of writing in Scots for theatrical performance. Lochhead’s version does not supersede it but rather demonstrates how a work of literature is not an unassailable, immaculate text, but rather is engaged in contemporary dialogue with its audience, a crafted articulation in an immediate space.

This sense of plays as practice, rather than individual masterworks, is carried forward in early 21st-century work by, for example, Anthony Neilson, Henry Adam and Douglas Maxwell.

To quote David Hutchison, “the essence of the theatrical experience” is, always, “Liveness”. That plays are “live” rather than fixed artefacts is of the essence.