Academic journal article Scottish Language

Doric Drama: The First Thirty Years, 1894-1924

Academic journal article Scottish Language

Doric Drama: The First Thirty Years, 1894-1924

Article excerpt

Though one of the earliest texts in North-East Doric is a drama, Jamie and Bess by Andrew Shirrefs, there is no continuity in the history of Doric on the stage between this and the modern period: between 1790, the publication date of Shirrefs's play, and the re-emergence of drama in the North-East dialect there is gap of a full century. Once this century lapsed, however, a school of Doric drama sprang quite suddenly into vigorous life; and continued in being at least until the 1930s. Fittingly, the first Doric play of the modern period is the work of one of the landmark figures in the cultural history of the area: Gavin Greig, whose play Mains's Wooin' (1894), (1) described as 'a drama of Northern rural life with music', set the scene for an exuberant series of plays written wholly or partially in Doric. Many of these are trivial and banal, their settings are for the most part determinedly local and the subject-matter rarely ventures beyond domestic comedy or farce. At their best, however, they show both accuracy and a high degree of inventiveness in the presentation and use of the local dialect; and unquestionably they testify to a lively popular interest in the traditional culture and way of life of the region.

The extent to which local drama could or should confine itself to close representations of actual life was, naturally, a topic of controversy. A case in point is William Cumming's Burnie's Jeannie, or Wut an Genteelity (1924), (2) which I will discuss in more detail later. Burnie's Jeannie is introduced by the author with a note arguing that

   There can be no doubt that the majority of our dialect-speakers are
   not dialect readers, but the production of vernacular plays should
   do something to keep words and idioms in currency. There is too
   much of a tendency to make such plays, however, an excuse for pure
   burlesque. [...] We have, like other people, our foibles, but we
   also possess good-wearing qualities. Can we not preserve the
   tongue, and give at the same time a true picture of life? (p. 1)

Certainly an attempt to present the lives of the region's people seriously rather than mockingly is to be commended, but an article in the Aberdeen Press and Journal of 15 November 1924, while praising several aspects of the play, argues strongly that this principle alone is inadequate as a foundation for serious drama:

   There is nothing out of the common about either the characters or
   the things that happen to them. They might be found anywhere in
   Buchan and in the same circumstances. [...] Doubtless the highest
   art is to conceal art, but here there is no art to conceal. It is
   not art, but artlessness. And until our local dramatists realise
   that it is necessary, first, to select their material, and, second,
   to raise it above the commonplaceness of everyday, no progress will
   be made. (p. 3)

In the quantitatively abundant store of Doric drama, it must be admitted that few plays rise above the level deplored by this critic. Nonetheless, the field is rich and is worthy of attention as, at the very least, an integral part of the local cultural history.

The plays were written for amateur performance, many of them being premiered by local drama societies, church groups, Scout troops and schools. An exceptionally lively amateur musical and dramatic scene is an unmistakable and attractive feature of the North-Eastern artistic world to this day, though it is now more firmly centred in Aberdeen than was the case in the early decades of last century. Until the advent of television, practically every village in the area had an enthusiastically supported dramatic society, rehearsals being a regular winter pastime; and as will be briefly discussed at the end of this paper, the tradition then established of drama in Doric for amateur performance is still very much alive.

The rise of Doric drama, in fact, is an aspect, if not the most extensively studied one, of the sudden efflorescence in the late nineteenth century of a literary culture based on the local dialect. …

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