Returned from the archive, Alan Riach notes a multitude of plays by Joan Ure, Edwin Morgan, Jackie Kay and Alan Spence, as well as Chris Hannan, Sue Glover, Rona Munro, Ann Marie Di Mambro and many others. Exploring that archive more deeply might bring rich treasures into a sustaining light.

THE complementarity of studious close reading with performativity and theatrical effect is continual but, as we have seen, it is not constant. In the history of performance, theatricality and drama in Scotland – and all these words have distinctive, if related, meanings – different kinds of plays are abundantly evident. And since so many plays await revival, much remains to be done.

A multitude of plays are stored in the archive, awaiting new productions. They constitute a silent, multi-faceted, under-researched resource. For example, the plays by Joan Ure (Elizabeth Clark Thomson, 1918-78) have languished unperformed for a long time and reconsideration of their value is long overdue. Her first play, Cendrillon, was written in French for a fourth-year school performance, and might be entirely of its place and moment, but she worked with Ian Hamilton Finlay at the Falcon Theatre in 1962, and her two short plays Something In It For Cordelia and Something in it for Ophelia centre on Shakespearian questions of sexuality and potential unfulfilled. Their concerns are as pertinent as ever.

The National: Joan UreJoan Ure

Many of the collected poems of the first Scots Makar, Edwin Morgan, are characteristically theatrical. They enable different voices. The Apple’s Song or Hyena or The Loch Ness Monster’s Song are effectively dramatic monologues, ideal for performance. This is surely the sexiest apple you’ve ever encountered:

hold me, sniff me, peel me

curling round and round

till I burst out white and cold

from my tight red coat

and tingle in your palm

And the hyena is so much more than an African scavenger – his power is metaphoric, and deadly:

I am waiting

for the foot to slide,

for the heart to seize,

for the leaping sinews to go slack,

for the fight to the death to be fought to the death

Because: “My place is to pick you clean / and leave your bones to the wind.”

Morgan developed this performative capacity in his dialogue or multi-vocal poems such as The First Men on Mercury or the horrific Stobhill, in which various characters reflect on the reported incident of a still-alive newly aborted foetus being taken away to be incinerated. We hear the voices and understand the points of view of the doctor, the boilerman, the mother, the father and the porter, with an increasing sense of horror and sympathy.

The National: Edwin MorganEdwin Morgan

One of Morgan’s earliest poems, The Whittrick (1961), is a series of eight dialogues between famous characters – James Joyce and Hugh MacDiarmid, Hieronymus Bosch and Johann Faust, Queen Shahrazad and King Shahriyar, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Marilyn Monroe and Galina Ulanova, The Brahan Seer and Lady Seaforth, Hakuin (the founder of modern Zen) and Chikamitsu (the “Japanese Shakespeare”), Dr Grey Walter of the Burden Neurological Institute, author of The Living Brain (1953) and Jean Cocteau.

Coruscating verbal wit, a sense of the speed of good repartee, and Morgan’s ventriloquist’s expertise all fuel the poem’s lively theatricality. Teachers looking for Scottish plays might start here: not only dramatic dialogues but fascinating characters engaged in them.

Morgan’s early plays in translation, The Apple-Tree (1982, from a medieval Dutch play) and Master Peter Pathelin (1983, from an anonymous 15th-century French farce) were followed by his magnificent 1992 translation of Edmond de Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) and in 2000 by Racine’s Phaedre (1677).

Both of these radically revise the language and formal proprieties of the originals, transferring their impact by use of Scots and contemporary references. In production, their popular success and literary brilliance are dazzling, exhilarating, bringing de Rostand and Racine to new Scottish audiences with an unpredicted immediacy.

In AD: A Trilogy of Plays on the Life of Christ (2000), Morgan treated the Bible story on the premise that Christ was a historical man who actually lived, re-imagining his life for a modern audience. Temptations were actual, on stage, not locked within an orthodoxy of moral certainty. The plays offended leading members of various parts of the Christian church but remain triumphant achievements in Morgan’s ouevre.

ESSENTIAL aspects of Morgan’s personal credo are given voice when Jesus says: “Take a crossbow to the bloated belly of convention” and explains, “The kingdom of heaven is not a thing. / Nor is it a place, it is alive, it grows.” For “in the midst of life I find myself in art. / In the midst of art I find myself in life.”

Morgan’s last major work for theatre was The Play of Gilgamesh (2005), deriving from a 5000-year-old story recorded in one of the earliest known works of literature from ancient Sumer. In December 2021, an original 3500-year-old clay tablet bearing a portion of the words of the epic poem were returned by the USA, to their place of origin, Iraq, from which it had been looted from a museum in the 1991 Gulf War.

The National: Jackie KayJackie Kay

Just as Morgan in his plays of Christ and Gilgamesh goes back in time to find contemporary questions of power and sexuality, in the fraught political and religious context of late 20th-century Scotland, Jackie Kay brought keen questions to conventional representations of sexual identities, from Chiaroscuro (1987) to The Maw Broon Dialogues (2009).

Sue Glover in Bondagers (1991), set in the rural landscape of the Borders in the 19th century, where women were exploited as labourers in the fields, Chris Hannan in Shining Souls (1996) and Elizabeth Gordon Quinn (1985; revised 2006), set in the Glasgow rent strike of 1915 with one of the strongest, most complex female characters in modern Scottish drama, and Rona Munro in The Last Witch (2009) and The James Plays (2014), an epic trilogy taking us across three generations of Scottish kings in the 15th century, have all written work drawing on history, demanding detailed study, and delivering the pleasures of live immediacy in performance.

The National: Chris HannanChris Hannan

Indeed, a “school of women playwrights” has been noted in this constellation: not only Sue Glover and Rona Munro but also Ann Marie Di Mambro, whose Tally’s Blood (1990) addresses the fact of immigration, in this case of Italians living in the west of Scotland before, through, and after the Second World War, Sharman Macdonald, Marcella Evaristi, Catherine Lucy Czerkawska, Aileen Ritchie, Linda McLean and others. However, they cannot be easily grouped in any other way, since their work is intrinsically so diverse.

Novelist, short story writer and poet Alan Spence, in Sailmaker (1982), produced a play of eminent practical use in schools, while in No Nothing (2015), a two-actor play imagining the politician Jimmy Reid and the poet Edwin Morgan meeting after death in an ante-room to

who-knows-where, Spence produced an adult, but undeniably playful and sometimes very funny work in which the lives of two of the most significant public figures in modern Scotland introduce themselves to each other and to new generations of audiences with unpretentious immediacy.

The pathos is deep, the humour comforting, but the serious and unresolved political questions stay sharp.