In a new series of essays, Alan Riach considers Scotland’s plays, drama and theatricality. We all know about “cancel culture” – what about “performance culture”?

SIGNS of Scottish identity have become famous clichés throughout the world. Kilts, tartan, heather, whisky are among the most obvious examples. To wear a kilt is intrinsically a performance, both in the immediacy of its action and in the history of cultural oppression from which it emerges. To some degree, history always characterises how a society enacts itself and how it performs its identity to people in other nations, in other societies, as well as to itself. So is Scotland a “performance culture”?

Clothing is only one of innumerable outwardly visible examples of national identity in cultural “performance” evident in countries all over the world. Language, accent and vocal register are among the most intimate. But is there something particular to Scotland’s history which qualifies this distinction of the country as a “performance”? It’s essential to the country’s history, from pre to prospectively post-Union times.

“Britishness” is a performance – and what a performance! To many, its worst exaggerations are wretched and pathetically comical, or gloriously colourful spectacles of (rather costly) pageantry. They can seem unavoidable, almost every day. Is “Scottishness” different? And how has our culture been presented in theatres, in plays, in specific occasions designed to be staged?

Marshall Walker in his book Scottish Literature Since 1707 (1996) sums up a general perception: “Drama is the genre in which Scottish writers have shown least distinction.” This is qualified, however: “There is no shortage of Scottish theatrical heritage, but there is a shortage of durable Scottish plays.”

Yet in the decades since that was written, old works have been rediscovered, new works have appeared, and new ways of reading them all in their contexts have been developed. Ways of understanding Scottish drama and theatre (two different things) and evaluating cultural performance and specific plays (two very different things) have changed.

Maybe we should start with a clear sense of what “theatricality” means. Trish Reid begins her little book Theatre ans Scotland (2013) like this: “The theatre is everywhere, from entertainment districts to the fringes, from the rituals of government to the ceremony of the courtroom, from the spectacle of the sporting arena to the theatres of war. Across these many forms stretches a theatrical continuum through which cultures both assert and question themselves.”

Theatre in Scotland has a long, rich history, and the history of performance is especially dramatic if you include church history as theatre. After all, a pulpit is a site of performance and a kirk is intrinsically a theatrical building.

For generations there was at least one in every parish, where moral pronouncements, Biblical stories and songs (hymns) were more or less taken up regularly by attentive and participating or disengaged and dozy congregations.

The long history of sonorous monologues delivered within the solemn walls of churches is a clear indication of theatricality. Direct address to an audience, enacted public moral retribution for sinful behaviour, parable fiction, poetry, vocal music of lament or celebration, pious humility or militant evangelism, storytelling, both tragic and comic, complex or light, moralistic and assured or questioning and challenging – all these have been essential to the life of the kirk, whatever the orthodoxy.

This point is made forcefully by James Shapiro in his book 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (2016): “We tend to think of plays as the main site for exploring sensitive issues of authority in Shakespeare’s day. But for King James, sermons – both those for public consumption at Paul’s Cross and those delivered before him at court – better served that purpose, and for every play he saw James may have heard half-a-dozen sermons.”

JAMES’S preachers, Shapiro comments, were also “the king’s men”: “they just engaged in a different sort of writing and public performance, and they too turned to the distant past to explain the present. In ways now lost to us, these two popular literary forms, both of which explored the divisive issues of the day, were in conversation with each other.”

The dramatic and directly political engagement of the kirk in Scotland for centuries has been passed over too easily without comment. This is surely one reason why the Disruption of 1843 was such a crucial moment not only in Scottish church history but also in the performed political history of moral priorities in a world like our own, where ownership is power. The contest between material and spiritual possession was being starkly enacted.

When 474 ministers broke away from the established Church of Scotland what was in question was the authority of church and state over social morality and justice. The authority of the patron to install a minister of his choice was in direct conflict with that of the Church to maintain independent “spiritual jurisdiction”.

In 1834, the evangelical party, with a majority in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, had passed the “Veto Act”, giving the people of any particular parish the right to reject a minister nominated by their patron. The matter of who legitimised and confirmed the appointments of ministers would be crucial in the broader social context. State power was being challenged.

When the Court of Session ruled that the established church was a creation of the state, the church’s sense of its own identity and spiritual independence was challenged in turn. This is what led to the Disruption of 1843. Rather than denigrate the church as puritanically anti-theatrical perhaps seeing it in this light is more revealing. Its lessons, after all, are not confined to theological doctrine.

Two questions are pressing, though. If the establishment of the Free Church was initiated by such a radical act of self-determination in defiance of secular class power and the authority of the owners of land and material wealth, what went wrong? How did it become known as the orthodox religion of repression so familiar in cliches and caricatures?

And secondly, why is there so little fiction, poetry and indeed drama addressing this conflict? The most compelling exception is the novel by Robin Jenkins, The Awakening of George Darroch (1985). What else is there? These mysteries are only answerable perhaps within the cultural performance of Scotland’s history. We need to think further about this before we start talking about Scotland’s plays.