Aristophanes and Douglas Young

By Marshall, C. W. | Comparative Drama, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Aristophanes and Douglas Young


Marshall, C. W., Comparative Drama


Douglas Young (1913-73) was a powerful voice for the use of Scots language in poetry as part of the construction of national identity. His wry humor culminated in two Aristophanic translations, The Puddocks (Frogs) and The Burdies (Birds), which confirmed Young's place as a public poet. (1) It is not possible here to assess the nature of Young's translation, (2) nor to explore specific aspects of the stage performances, (3) but it is worth distinguishing three threads that braid together throughout his career--his work as an academic, as a politician, and as a litterateur.

Young achieved a first-class degree from St. Andrews in Scotland in 1934 and continued his studies at New College, Oxford, until 1938. Following the war, he held academic positions at University College, Dundee (1947-53), St. Andrews (1953-68), McMaster University in Ontario (1968-70), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as Paddison Chair of Greek (1970-73). His most significant scholarly publications were his Teubner edition of Theognis in 1961 (2nd ed., 1971) and his lighthearted but thought-provoking articles on Homeric composition (in one of which he demonstrates that Milton did not in fact write Paradise Lost). (4) A posthumously published translation of The Oresteia (1974, into English) has not been received well, in part because of his excessive conservatism as a textual critic; the translation nevertheless possesses many inventive and appealing turns of phrase.

As a student he supported the unsuccessful 1933 campaign of the novelist Eric Linklater, who was running for the National Party of Scotland (NPS) in a by-election. (5) Within a decade (one that included completing four years at Oxford), while still in his twenties, Young was elected Chairman of the Scottish National Party (SNP), as it was then known, a position he held from 1942 to 1945. Following the party position, he resisted conscription, defending himself ably in court by arguing that the 1707 Act of Union granted British Parliament no right of conscription over Scottish citizens. (6) This unpopular position led to vilification in the press and two jail terms. In 1944, he ran in a Kirkcaldy by-election and attained 42 percent of the vote. (7)

A leading figure in what has been called the Scottish Renaissance alongside Hugh MacDiarmid, (8) Young wrote poetry in what he called "Lallans," Robert Burns's term for the Scots language. Young's polyglot Auntran Blads (1943, with a foreword by MacDiarmid) contains poems of Burns rendered into ancient Greek as well as translations into Lallans from a variety of languages. This was followed by A Braird o Thristles (1947), celebrations of Edinburgh and St. Andrews, anthologies, and occasional essays. His entertaining 1950 travel narrative Chasing an Ancient Greek takes as its unlikely subject Young's journeys to European libraries while working on Theognis. His moving if overdetermined translation of Psalm 23 (composed in Edinburgh Prison on St. Andrews Day, 30 November 1942) ties his political incarceration with his literary ambitions, and was written amidst his reading of Homer, the tragedians, and Theognis. The integration of all three threads can be seen most clearly in the two Lallans translations of Aristophanes that Young produced.

The Puddocks, "A verse play in Scots frae the auld Greek o Aristophanes," was self-published in December 1957. The play premiered at the Byre Theatre in St. Andrews by the Reid Gouns (i.e., "Red Gowns" an allusion to the university academic dress), 25-28 February 1958. The play was subsequently performed by "the Sporranslitters" (Cutpurses), at the 1958 Edinburgh Fringe Festival ("Perifery o the Fest o Embro" according to a program note, 29 August-12 September), in advance of which a second edition of the script was published in August 1958. Both volumes, envisaging future performances, grant performance rights to amateur companies that pay a guinea (or more) to support the Scottish National Dictionary. …

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