9.2 Scots in drama since the 1900s

This section will draw your attention to the development of Scots language drama since the beginning of the 20th century.

By the end of the 19th century, Scotland-produced theatre was diminished – outside of variety and pantomime – by the professional theatre’s increased ‘industrialisation’. The mid-19th century railway revolution facilitated the development of a touring system focused on London’s West End, even though one of the major managements, Howard and Wyndham’s, had its headquarters in Edinburgh. This system was designed to develop and exploit scripts in versions of Standard English, with ‘regional’ accents reserved for minor or comic parts.

It was not that Scottish playwrights were excluded by this system – one of its mainstays at the beginning of the 20th century was J. M. Barrie. To succeed, however, dramatists had, like Barrie, to adjust their language and creative ideas to a British market in which Scots language dialogue was non-standard and, outside of ‘character’ parts, generally avoided.

The one major exception to this was Graham Moffat’s Bunty pulls the strings (1911), a West End success that ran for over 600 performances, opened in parallel in the same year on Broadway and at once toured the United States. The play, written in Scots, appeared to have no difficulty in reception by non-Scottish audiences. Yet, when he published the script, Moffat translated it into English, leaving only a few Scots words.

One can only speculate about his motivation – the play continued to play on tour in Scots – but it may be that there were some commercial doubts that a Scots language publication would be well-received.

Whatever Moffat’s reasons, Joe Corrie, a Fife miner, who began his playwriting career in the 1920s in a semi-professional context with his local Bowhill Players, wrote dynamic, politically committed plays in Scots about the people he lived amongst. The lively dialogue of In Time o Strife (1927), for example, explores industrial and domestic tensions surrounding the 1926 General Strike.

In the same decade, two other initiatives encouraged writing in Scots. One was the semi-professional Scottish National Players (1921-47) which toured plays on Scottish themes; the other was the amateur Scottish Community Drama Association [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (SCDA) founded in 1926 and still going strong. What marked all three developments was their ignoring, or even rejection as irrelevant to their concerns, of the commercial touring system.

Their concerns were with matters of direct interest to their audiences in Scotland. Corrie himself by the 1930s was writing for Sottish Community Drama Association companies, having developed a line in lighter comic plots.

Activity 7

To develop an idea of Joe Corrie’s bitingly critical political commentary at the heart of all his writing, you will read one of his poems telling the story of the miner Rebel Tam who became a complacent politician.

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Part 2

Now practise your spoken Scots again by performing the poem or reading it out loud. Listen to our model, then record yourself and finally compare your version with our model.

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Part 3

Although the text you have engaged with is a poem, it provides a good insight into the style of Corrie’s political satire and commentary. Read the poem again and this time highlight words and phrases which you think express the satire in his text.

Also, look for other features in the poem that make it very expressive. You might want to consider the structure of the poem as well, i.e. what each of the three verses tells us about Tam and in what way.

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The poem uses strong images that are painted with words and underlined by the use of Scots language. For example the phrase tholed the very pangs o’ Hell has a Biblical association to underline the intensity of the suffering endured by Tam the miner. A similarly compelling image painted with words is Tam’s vow that the trumpet-ca' o' Revolution would be ‘Blastin' in their ear!', which is a vivid illustration of the strong voice and impact Tam thinks he could have on Parliament as an MP.

The story told through these vivid images comes to a close and takes a sudden turn in the third verse where the reality of Tam’s role as an MP is that he merely listens… to the farce O’ Tweedledum and Tweedledee, showing the disrespect for politicians who are far removed from the reality of the lives of the people they are claiming to represent. The reference to the two identical characters from Lewis Carroll’s 'Alice in Wonderland' story underlines the derogatory commentary, as these two names have become equivalent for any two people who look and act in identical ways and have no minds of their own.

The very last word of the poem underlines the disdain for Tam through the use of a pejorative term for his backside, and the phrase rise off one’s arse links back to verse one in which Tam tirelessly fights for the workers’ rights and which shows how far Tam has moved away from what he fought for in the past.

The naming of the poem’s protagonist is satire in itself. We hear about Rebel Tam, which clearly is a degradation, as the poem undoubtedly highlights that Tam has become anything but a Rebel.

Through the use of direct speech in the second verse of the poem effectively counter-poses what Tam promises his potential voters and then the third verse shows the reality of this promise.

9.1 Scots on stage (1700–)

9.3 Scots language drama after 1940