TRISH Reid, in her little book, Theatre & Scotland (2013), notes that Anthony Neilson, in his play Relocated (2008), makes it “difficult for audiences to distinguish between fantasy and reality or indeed develop a clear sense of the basis on which its characters are drawn”. This connects the play to an essential characteristic of modern Scottish literature more generally: the move beyond realism. It is most clearly seen in three works in three literary genres of the 1980s: Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark (1981), Edwin Morgan’s sequence of poems, Sonnets from Scotland (1984) and Liz Lochhead’s play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987), which we looked at last week.

Each of these works radically destabilises what would normally be called “realism”. In Lanark, a dark fantasy of socially thwarted people counterpoints a realist account of an artist growing up in Glasgow; in Sonnets from Scotland, the nation is conjured up before prehistory, through actual and imagined events – historical visitors to Scotland like Edgar Allan Poe and Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nuclear explosion, a newly-established Republic of Scotland which itself passes away in time – to a future as yet unrealised (for example, a broad canal stretching along the border with England). Lochhead’s play weaves historical characters into their descendants, children in a school playground, imagining what horrible belief systems are maintained across generations and taken to murderous extremes. The work of the imagination in these literary texts is as vital as the accurate understanding of history and human character. And this is the irreplaceable value of the arts in the prospect and construction of an independent Scotland.

READ MORE: Alan Riach: How Scottish drama achieves the impossible

In her book, Trish Reid is led to a crucial conclusion: “by engaging with other discourses of identity like class, gender, ethnicity, globalisation and multiculturalism”, Scottish plays of the early 21st century “insist that, if we are to take seriously the notion of post-devolutionary Scotland developing a ‘new non-threatening nationalism’, one that can accommodate both the nation’s internal plurality and its ambition towards international engagement, we must carefully consider how these positive ambitions are culturally animated and not simply take them for granted.”

This is the core argument which has been running throughout my account of the history of Scottish plays and performances and it extends to all the arts. How can an independent Scotland encompass our own cultural plurality and animate the character and quality of our arts internationally, self-confidently, without pretensions of superiority but in the full knowledge of our inherited file of cultural achievement?

Learning about what our writers, artists and composers have done is the only secure foundation for independence. Without them, we are nothing but what Ezra Pound once called “a mere barbarian dung-heap”.

The National:

The work of revaluing and revising that inherited file goes on within education, as much as I and my colleagues can help to make it happen, but it is also the provenance of the writers and artists themselves. For example, David Greig’s (above) The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (2011) makes immediate use of music hall and variety traditions as well as older literary forms, particularly drawing from Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). The world of medieval border ballads, with their rhyme, meter and supernatural themes and questions about the authority and vulnerability of women in society are central in Prudencia Hart. The play is designed for performance by a small group of actor-musicians in pubs or common rooms rather than traditional theatres.

All Greig’s plays demonstrate the liveliness of an engaged and enquiring imagination healthily exploring ideas and willing to risk failure in the attempt. His earlier work, Europe (1994), set in a railway station waiting room with refugees about to move between different countries, is redolent with both existential questions and immediately effective political point, all the more pertinent in the 2020s. Dunsinane (2011) centres on the historical figure of Gruach (aka Lady Macbeth), picking up where Shakespeare’s play ends, but with the Queen still alive and in charge of bringing the next generation through and seeing off the occupying army. Matters of feminine and national empowerment, self-determination and military intervention are all here and applicable to more than one circumstance. Their relevance to contemporary Scotland is unmistakeable.

The key here is that sense of “liveness” and risk that we’ve noted before. Fixed and unchangeable definitions of “Scottishness”, to quote Trish Reid once again, “work to freeze the culture rather than allowing scope for variation and development.” If this is true of theatrical practice, and must be avoided, it is as true in the real, quotidian political world.

Neither plays nor governments can afford to be fixed, formed and unchanging. The result of that is stasis, stagnation and sterility: a world of bias and thwart, fear and frustration.

The National:

NUMEROUS playwrights working in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have taken up the challenge of “variation and development”: for example, John, later Jo, Clifford (above), in Losing Venice (1985), a tense parable about military occupation which toured internationally in the wake of the Falklands war; John McKay in Dead Dad Dog (1988), where the ghost of a father dogs the heels of the would-be trendy son; Stephen Greenhorn, in Passing Places (1997), in which two young men from small town post-industrial Lanarkshire flee away on a road trip through Scotland, heading through the Highlands to John o’ Groats, confronting urban and rural identities, threatened violence and promised civility, delivering comic effect and serious questions as Scotland is introduced to its various “selves”.

Another example of exploring varieties of identity from the 1990s was the company Suspect Culture, actor/director Graham Eatough, playwright David Greig, composer/musician Nick Powell and designer Ian Scott, who, in a series of works crossing the conventional boundaries of various art forms, collaborated with artists in Scotland and throughout Europe, to become established as one of Scotland’s leading companies.

New Scottish plays, the revival of older ones, and the replenishment of theatrical culture through encounters with new or neglected national and changing international contexts, are all of essential value.

One essential for the reappraisal that might lead to revival is fluent understanding of the languages of Scotland – Gaelic and Scots, as well as English – in which Scottish literature has been predominantly produced. Another is the collaboration between professionals in theatre and professional scholars and literary historians, to identify and help select work of both literary and theatrical vitality. That vitality becomes thin and irrelevant the further it is removed from literary substance. Literary drama becomes stodgy and dull the further it is removed from theatrical performance, presence and movement. Plays, performances and theatres of all kinds, have proven this through centuries. If anything worthwhile has come from lockdowns, it’s surely the value of living presence.

I’ve been concentrating on plays and theatre history in recent essays, but the argument applies to all the arts of Scotland. The arts are the genius of your country. Without them, you have nothing. And education is the key. That’s the only way we unlock the door to independence.