MacMoliere and the Barbarians
As I write, I have ringing in my ears the witty metrics, wry anachronisms and sharp Scots dialect of Theatre Babel's production of Liz Lochhead's Educating Agnes (2008), her latest adaptation of a Moliere play (L'Ecole des Femmes):
No point in shouting, pet, he's gone!
And left wee Agnes with the Big Bad Wolf here, all alone.
Disappointing, intit? The end of all your hopes.
Because: It's Over. Read My Lips.
Still so young, eh? And so full of cute tricks.
As sleekit as anything, giving it big licks
With treachery, and cunning and ... plain badness
That I'd never have expected from my wee Agnes. (p. 71)
Lochhead has written several Scots-inflected versions of Moliere, as well as other European classics. Hers are the most recent in a long tradition of Scots Moliere translations--'MacMolieres' as she calls them:
Why Moliere? What is there about this particular
seventeenth-century Frenchman that has made him our
darling? ... Critics talk about the vigour of his language, his
mixture of current cliche, colloquialism, earthy talk with the
high-flown. All varieties and shades of Scots, from the
classical eighteenth-century language of Burns and Ferguson
to the despised (oh, not by me!) modern urban varieties,
have this--often vulgar, but very real and undeniable--vernacular
vigour. Scottish people are very used to shifting
registers ... [and] Scots vocabulary is arguably still a lot more
robust than 'standard English' as a medium for the
translation of comic rhyme. (p.7)
Discovering these riches of contemporary Scottish literature has been a pleasure for me over the last twenty years, in particular the verse of Edwin Morgan, Jackie Kay and Liz Lochhead and the prose of James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Irvine Welsh. There's something about these writers' work which (as Lochhead suggests) seems particularly to reflect the creative potential of being Scottish, culturally and linguistically. Their language is constantly playing on the border between Scots and English, and between the standard and the demotic; their characters and themes challenging definitions of and attitudes to nationality, class, language--and literature--in a way which reflects their allegiance to a culture whose identity is defined partly by its difference from England and English, by positing a different way of being British.
The Scottish poet and critic Robert Crawford (currently Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at St Andrews) writes about this aspect of Scottish literature in his book Devolving English Literature (2000), from which the subtitle of this article is borrowed. In fact, he identifies what he calls a consciously 'barbarian' tendency in the literature of the 'Anglo-Celtic archipelago':
There is a widespread wish in recent poetry to be seen as in
some manner barbarian, as operating outside the boundaries
of standard English and outside the identity that is seen as
going with it. Such a wish unites post-colonial writers such
as Les Murray and Derek Walcott with writers working
within the 'Anglo-Celtic archipelago.' It joins the postcolonial
and the provincial ... For most creative users of the
English language today, one of the fundamental questions is
how to inhabit that language without sacrificing one's own
distinctive, 'barbarian' identity.'
Devolving English Literature
In invoking post-colonialism and notions of standard English, Crawford hints here at his broader theme--the traditional and continuing dominance of standard English conceptions of 'English Literature.' In his introduction, he writes:
Much attention has been devoted to the question of how
we might define, select, or construct the entity known as
'literature'. Until very recently, it seemed the word 'English'
was left unexamined.
The development of the subject 'English Literature' has
constantly involved and reinforced an oppressive homage to