Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature

By Ian Brown; Alan Riach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Twentieth-Century Scottish Drama

Donald Smith and Ksenija Horvat

However the position might have changed by the end of the century, in 1900 prospects for a distinctively Scottish theatre were mixed. The national drama inspired by the fiction of Sir Walter Scott had waned, persisting in amateur productions or on the professional margins. In terms of popular entertainment, music hall or ‘variety’ was supreme and variety played to a British and imperial market place, dwarfing in scale the audience for plays. Since the mid-nineteenth-century expansion of the railways, drama touring was also based on a British market and London was the dominant hub. In London there was a nascent art theatre appealing to a niche audience of literati and intellectual reformers. Scots, including William Sharp, the proponent of Celticism, and William Archer, critic and translator of Ibsen, played an active part in this late nineteenth-century movement, but their efforts were largely disconnected from Scotland’s cultural scene.

This overall situation was altered by the formation in 1909 of Alfred Wareing’s Glasgow Repertory Company, which began to build an audience for ‘art’ theatre including Shaw, Ibsen and Granville Barker, alongside other European playwrights like Gorky and Chekhov. Scottish writers also involved included Neil Munro and J. A. Ferguson, whose Campbell of Kilmohr was the first of a long tradition of modern Scottish plays about the Highlands. Nonetheless, Scottish drama in itself was not the priority. Unfortunately Wareing’s company succumbed to the onset of war in 1914 and had to wait for its genuine successor until the emergence of subsidised repertory theatre after World War Two. Meantime, however, the enterprising Scottish National Players reactivated the movement for a national drama, directly inspired by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The Players drew strength from the burgeoning amateur movement and stimulated an audience for new Scottish drama through both city-based seasons and touring.

From the late 1920s, commercial repertory companies began to emerge in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth (1935–). Some, such as the Brandon Thomas and Wilson Barrett Companies in Edinburgh, were oriented towards British theatre or, as critics like R. F. Pollock and Hugh MacDiarmid argued, English

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