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Le crime, le châtiment et les écossais

Jean Berton
Bill Findlay

V – The People and Justice / La justice du peuple

Hamish MacDonald’s Singing Far into the Night1 or the 1931 Invergordon Events on Stage

Danièle Berton-Charrière

Texte intégral

PROLOGUE: meanings and correlated concepts of ‘crime’

  • 1  A two-act play initially written for Mull Theatre by Hamish Mac Donald (author, and joint artistic (...)
  • 2  Roger Le Joyeux, Alexandre Dumas, Crimes Célèbres, Marie Stuart 1587, 2011.

1In the first pages of his Crimes Célèbres, Marie Stuart 1587,2 edited by Roger le Joyeux, Alexandre Dumas draws a long list of royal figures, including Scottish kings and queens, who either died barbarously assassinated, or who yielded to melancholy and distress directly caused by terrible conditions imposed upon them (mental harassment, or long unjustified imprisonment…):

Il y a, pour les rois, des noms prédestinés à la mauvaise fortune: en France, c’est le nom de Henri. […]
En Écosse, c’est le nom de Stuart. Robert Ier, chef de la race, mourut à vingt-huit ans d’une maladie de langueur. Robert II, le plus heureux de la famille, fut forcé de passer une partie de sa vie non seulement dans la retraite, mais encore dans l’obscurité, à cause d’une inflammation des yeux qui les lui faisait rouges comme du sang. Robert III succomba au chagrin que lui causa la mort d’un de ses fils et la captivité de l’autre. Jacques Ier fut poignardé par Grahame dans l’abbaye des Moines-Noirs de Perth. Jacques II fut tué au siège de Roxburgh par l’éclat d’une pièce de canon qui creva. Jacques III fut assassiné par un inconnu dans un moulin où il s’était réfugié pendant la bataille de Sauchie. Jacques IV, frappé de deux flèches et d’un coup de hallebarde, tomba au milieu de sa noblesse sur le champ de bataille de Flodden. Jacques V mourut du chagrin d’avoir perdu ses deux fils et du remords d’avoir fait exécuter Hamilton. Jacques VI, prédestiné à réunir sur sa tête les deux couronnes d’Écosse et d’Angleterre, fils d’un père assassiné, traîna une vie triste et craintive entre l’échafaud de sa mère Marie Stuart et celui de son fils Charles Ier. Charles II passa une partie de sa vie en exil. Jacques II y mourut. Le chevalier de Saint-Georges, après avoir été proclamé roi d’Écosse sous le nom de Jacques VIII, et d’Angleterre et d’Irlande sous celui de Jacques III, fut obligé de fuir sans avoir pu donner à ses armes l’éclat même d’une défaite. Charles Édouard, son fils, après l’échauffourée de Derby et la bataille de Culloden, traqué de montagne en montagne, poursuivi de roche en roche, nageant de rivage en rivage, recueilli à demi nu par un vaisseau français, s’en alla mourir à Florence sans que jamais les cours de l’Europe aient voulu le reconnaître pour souverain. Enfin, son frère Henri Benoît, le dernier héritier des Stuarts, après avoir vécu d’une pension de trois mille livres sterling que lui faisait le roi Georges III, expira complètement oublié et léguant à la maison de Hanovre tous les joyaux de la couronne, que Jacques II avait emportés en passant sur le continent en 1688, tardive mais entière reconnaissance de la légitimité de la famille qui avait succédé à la sienne.
Au milieu de cette race malheureuse, Marie Stuart fut la privilégiée du malheur. (Le Joyeux)

2Such a reckoning of homicidal activity in the highest spheres of the Scottish state, whatever the period considered before the 18th century, draws a picture of a nation given to regicidal violence and general instability when the feuding clans were omnipotent. Rona Munro’s historical trilogy entitled The James Plays (premiered in 2014) definitely dramatizes some examples of these crimes and assassinations. Although drama and theatre are not necessarily mirrors held up to the spectators’ world, Brechtian historicisation – with plays set in the past helping the audience to see the present and envisage the future more clearly – plays a didactic part in the dramatic process and draws links between former and contemporary societies. The distanciation and alienation (or estrangement) effect, meant to offer a political perception of reality through simplified devices, helps transpose causality as well as historical iteration, and works as an eye-opener.

3For Alexandre Dumas, ‘crime’ is a generic term making no specific difference between planned homicides and unpremeditated murders, between lethal physical wounds and psychological pain, between martyrs and fools. Yet, the definition of this substantive needs refining for the present study.

4A ‘crime’ is defined as an offence, that is to say a form of transgression, of misdemeanour and illegal act. As such, according to the causality process, it is bound to call for some form of punishment, of retribution, to compensate for the harm done and to pay for it. As far back as we can go, this ‘cause and effect’ correlation has always existed in ‘drama’: God’s punishing evil and sinful crimes is advocated in miracles like Creation, Noah’s Flood etc., and in morality-like Everyman for example. Part of the didactic dimension of the genre, ‘crime and punishment’ underlie tragedies and revenge plays…

5The word ‘crime’ is also associated with the military since a ‘crime sheet’ is a report of soldiers’ offences against regulations and the verb to ‘crime’ means to charge with or convict of military offence.

6The meanings and concepts dealt with in these preliminary lines will be used in the study of Hamish MacDonald’s Singing Far into the Night dramatizing and staging the 1931 Invergordon events and their contextual aftermath. This paper will focus on the ‘criminal’ domain since in this play, the initial accusation is mutiny, the sailors of the Royal Navy’s Atlantic Fleet refusing duty in order to complain about the 25 % wage cuts imposed upon them as part of the national austerity program. Insubordination within the military frame has been legally court marshalled for centuries as one of the highest offences. Yet, in the afore- mentioned episode, the insurgents who felt within their rights and even wished to negotiate with the Parliament to win the case, were strangely not.

A context-saturated historical play: strike or mutiny?

7The theatrical locus has always offered a space for debate and Hamish MacDonald’s play can be regarded as the dramatisation and staging of some historical and political events of that particular period; the philosophical concepts and ideologies backing them are dealt with as well. Time and memory play an important part in this ‘historical collage’ which Peter Barry would say context-saturated. The collection of intertwining reminiscences, reported and narrated by characters inspired by real persons, is concatenated into interlocking flashbacks and present episodes, both set in different places of Britain and Russia. As a genre, historical drama – that is History revisited for the stage – is bound to use ellipsis and the concatenation of time and space. The play is structured around sequences with a national and international focus, alternating with domestic ones to render the chain effect. In an interview, Hamish MacDonald explained:

  • 3  Kenny Mathieson, for Northings, 1 Oct 2011, (...)

Northings: So how have you structured the play around the mutiny?
Hamish MacDonald: The mutiny itself is at the centre of the play, but it isn’t directly addressed as the focus of the action, it is spread out in fragments. The play moves around quite widely in space and time – it begins in a psychiatric ward, and there are flashbacks to the street disturbances in Glasgow in 1931, when the naval rating Connal comes home on leave for two weeks.
From that point the path to the mutiny is explored over a kind of two-week curve, but beyond that curve it also explores more widely on the characters’ lives – the other two principle characters are his brother and his lover, who flee to Russia, as a number of the people involved in the mutiny did. So the mutiny has impacted on them all in a dramatic way.3

8The symbolic explicit and referential setting is made obvious through a polymorphic changeable set composed of two battleship-grey dockyard-doors that ‘throughout the play are configured to construct a room, a street corner, a hospital ward and other setting’ (introductory stage directions on p. 1, in unpublished playtext). A ‘montage of sounds’ combines “announcements concerning British maritime and territorial interests with Marxist doctrine” (ibid.), thus completing the set with its sonorous dimension which Hamish MacDonald calls “the imagery of the sound”. In his Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts and Analysis, Patrice Pavis defines sound scenery as a “means of suggesting the framework of the play with sound. Sound effects draw on radio play techniques and are often substituted today for realistic and figurative scenery”. The visual effect brought about by the architectonic, the colours and the lines of perspective deriving from the geometric construction of the set render a feeling of massive power. The montage of sounds contextualises contrasting ideologies supporting “a history of struggle” (introductory stage directions on p. 1) and the irrepressible progress of trade and commerce within a “new world order” said “modern” (Pavis). Connal MacNab, a naval rating, and Admiral Tomkinson, Royal Navy Commander, are introduced as emerging “drawn by the imagery of the sound” (Pavis). Cheers and chaotic street sounds can be heard either enhancing the Admiral’s speech or giving a voice to “some mischief going on outside” Finlay’s – a political activist – room. Words and the reverberation of noises frame the story in which protesters defend a cause they think right although it seems lost against a powerful legal institution they claim unfair.

9The 1931 events and their consequences are recalled. What is emphasized throughout the play is the debatable appreciation and interpretation of what happened then. In fact, the seamen supported by some of their “Petty Officers” (dixit Tomkinson, Act 2, 32) called it a ‘strike’ whereas King George V and the admiralty and military hierarchy regarded it as a ‘mutiny’. Hamish MacDonald stresses the lexical fights opposing the two sides. The laws and regulations attached to each phenomenon being very different, the importance of words and semantics, is here overwhelming. Corcorron reckons: “It’s all in the syntax. The conjugation” (Act 2, 50). Beyond the grammatical process it refers to, the choice of ‘conjugation’ is interesting since the word also means “the formation or existence of a link between things”. In their lexical fight, each camp harping on their rights and duties, as well as on the Other’s, uses polysemes to prove right. The crew defend their refusal of duty as reasonable “concerted [industrial] action”:

  • 4  ‘Royal Navy ratings were organized according to their tasks and competence, and usually formed the (...)

Rating:4 Then let’s have concerted action.
Connal: A’ve no problem wi that. As long as it’s sensible.
Rating: I hear a lot of voices in this room, and the one word I keep hearing more than any other is ‘strike’.
Connal: Strike? We can’nae strike
Rating: That we follow the example of the industrial workers and go on strike. Would you rather have us degraded? See out our days like impressed slaves?
Connal: Never did I see this coming. But if the king can break his bond then we fail in our duty if we do nothin. It’s only fair. But A make an appeal to the Lower Deck. We make this a sensible action. Passive resistance. Our position stated clearly. This argument is between us and parliament. So we maintain politeness and respect to our commanding officers (Act 2, 31 in unpublished playtext).

  • 5,accessed22/07/2016.

10In the industrial sector, the word ‘strike’ defines ‘a refusal to work organized by a body of employees as a form of protest, typically in an attempt to gain a concession or concessions from their employer.’5 Yet, its semantic scope is wide enough for the admiralty to assimilate it to a dangerous military attack, to ‘mutiny’ that is to say a concerted crew revolt against discipline and orders, or against a superior officer to try and take control away from the person who commands them. In the play, when Royal Navy Commander ‘Admiral Tomkinson takes a commanding position’ and exclaims ‘All hands; Aft! ’, there is ‘No response’ (Act 2, 32) from the men of the Lower Deck of the Atlantic Fleet, said to be on strike by Rating. He repeats his order thrice and threatens: “Men. I have been led to believe that there has been some disturbance over pay. If any man on this ship has a grievance, he must bring it directly to me and I will personally look into it. And now, for a final time, I am going to give an order, and that order shall be obeyed. All hands. Aft” (ibid.) Naval Rating Connal MacNab then sums up the general situation: “The booin’ went frae ship tae ship, it got so loud it must’ve echoed off the tap o Ben Wyvis. And I thought. This is it. It’s going to hold. We’ll win this together. It’ll be a dignified action. We can’t move anyway. There are mates sitting on the hawser cables in protest. They won’t lift anchor. These guys’ll be sliced in half.” (ibid.) The “Focus [is then] on Admiral Tomkinson” who pensively reports the latest developments to his own hierarchy: “Hmm… To my lordships of the Admiralty. The ships at Invergordon of the Atlantic Fleet are in a state of open mutiny.” (ibid.). He paradoxically justifies his conclusion precising:

During this period the general attitude of the men towards their officers has been respectful and correct. It has been reported that some Petty Officers have shown signs of joining up with the disaffected men. The worst disruption thus far has been the hauling of a piano on to the quarter-deck of HMS Rodney, a prompt for singing, which spread from ship to ship. Some senior officers are in favour of using force to break the action. It is reported however, on every vessel, that all of the marines’ weapons are locked in the magazines, and that keys have been somehow lost. The use of force is, in my opinion, quite out of the question, and could lead to a much worse state of affairs. (ibid.)

  • 6  Finlay suggests that Connal should desert (Act 1, 17), which is the worst criminal offence within (...)
  • 7  “Corc. ‘With our sea-going brothers we endorse this reasonable and commendable action”.
    Your brothe
  • 8  Incitement to Mutiny Act: (...)
  • 9  “Corc. Articles of War. ‘If any person of the fleet shall conceal any traitorous or mutinous pract (...)

11Presented this way, can the sailors’ movement really be regarded as mutinous? Without any violence, with an impromptu piano concert party on the deck, with the officers respected (which appears in the fleet’s chief of staff’s report, and with everything reasonably under control, their ‘concerted’ and ‘unanimous action’ (Act 2, 37) followed the example of other workers’ in the industrial sector (note the pun on “concerted”). The crew are ready to negotiate: Policeman Corcorron (in plain clothes) ironically reads their manifesto “Unless we can be guaranteed a written agreement from the Admiralty confirmed by Parliament, stating that our pay will be revised, we are to maintain as one unit. The men are willing to accept a pay cut which they, the men, consider in reason” (Act 2, 36), and he concludes “Who the fuck do you think you are? […] You do not demand conditions of your superiors or your government.” (ibid.) In the king’s Royal Navy Admiralty, things are necessarily seen under a different light. Whatever happens, the crew obey orders. Hamish MacDonald uses such words as “serve”, “pledge”, “bond” to show that, as Connal puts it, they “can’nae strike” (Act 2, 31). It is not a right the crew of the Lower Deck enjoyed. A sailor refusing his duty aboard a ship of the Royal Navy is considered as mutinous and therefore punishable for high treason–the worst crime ever against the crown.6 The Court Marshall usual sentence for that offence is death (also applicable to accomplices7), according to the 1797 Mutiny Act.8 It was paradoxically referred to in 1931 (some articles are recalled in the play9), although none of the mutineers appeared before Court Marshall, the action being collective:

Corc: Oh no? And where was the respect for your Captain? Admiral Tomkinson, a decorated hero.
Conn: A good man.
Corc: A good man.
Conn: We respected him
Corc: Ha! (Conjuring another document) Articles of War. ‘If any person of the Fleet shall make or endeavour to make any mutinous assembly upon any pretence whatsoever, every person offending herein, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of the court martial, shall suffer death’.
Conn: Then where is the court martial? For ten thousand men?
Corc: We are not interested in the ten thousand. We are interested in the thirty-six.
Conn: Then how about courts martial for the thirty-six?
Corc: The agitators who brought this about.
Conn: It was a unanimous action.
Act 2, 37

12Onstage, the characters debate about these matters. To them, to serve does not mean to be servile. To the crew, the “bond”, the “pledge” relating the Crown and the sailors is – or should be – reciprocal: “But if the king can break his bond then we fail in our duty if we do nothin. It’s only fair”. The sailors think it is their responsibility to refuse and denounce their monarch’s being disrespectful of royal laws and engagements: the king can fail neither his obligation nor his word. The monarch thinks otherwise: “Finlay: And straight from the King’s mouth. ‘No man serving me has claim to any particular rate of pay.’” (Act 1, 14) The sovereign is no industrial leader!

13For Connal a “pledge” is a “covenant”, a “contract” set on the 1919 pay agreements allegedly vouchsafed by Royal pledge, whereas to the king it means “allegiance”. Their perception of what the bond and the pledge should be is so different that each thinks that the Other has broken it and that, therefore, he is wrong and should be punished one way or another. The discrepancy between customs including oral pledges, and written laws and Acts, between common people and royal status are questioned at a time when ideologies shake social and political grounds. Seamen are used to traditional ways, oral vows and guarantees:

  • 10  Apart from figures of speech such as paregmenon, diacope, interpretatio and correctio, Connal’s st (...)

Finlay: I’ll give it to you Connal. You have faith in the service.
Conn: Don’t know about faith. Sometimes I think back tae that mornin I took a stroll. Down the wharfside. Looked at a big ship. Only a length o rope holdin her back – ready tae slip off tae the world. Just a boy I was. My head full o pictures. Manhattan skyscrapers. Arabian ports. Mount Etna sending a wee wisp of smoke intae the sky. A step into a quayside office and the pledge was signed. But there you go. A signature, handshake or a spit in the hand, a bond is a bond.
Finlay: Connal. There is a better time coming. And we will live to see it. Man. Look at us and listen to us. Some day none of this will matter a shite. (Act 1, 19)10
King George V thinks mutiny is a condemnable breach in the military Law and in his subjects’ loyalty (this word is repeated several times in the playtext, for example the epiphora on 9: ‘Corc: A question of loyalty. / Conn: I know loyalty’.) For the sailors their strike is a response to the king’s breaking their employment contract and the 1919 pay agreements.
Conn: We were made a pledge
Corc: You enlisted to serve.
Act 2, 36-37

14They are all entrapped in what appears to be a dramatic dialogue of the deaf.

15Beside the problem of conscience it entails, it is a question of liberty, including the freedom of thought and speech obviously denied the sailors although they are quite capable of reasoning and of expressing their own opinions. During the strike, they’d like to explain themselves to their hierarchy and to the Parliament (surely the elected House of Commons):

Finlay: You should join the party.
Conn: Join the party?
Finlay: You wouldn’t be the first.
Conn: Don’t A know it. A’ve heard mair politics at a stoker’s tea-break than you could shake a manifesto at. But it’s no for me.
Finlay: Soldiers and sailors are allowed to think, surely?
Conn: You’ll have me shot, man.
Act 1, 19

16To negotiate is a right they believe is theirs. But negotiations have no place in the military world: obedience and discipline are compulsory. At a time when things are changing in Britain, as well as in other places in the world, the redefinition of words in context, and the redefinition of the material and professional rights correlated to these concepts and semantics, is at stake.

17Though the sailors’ resistance is said to be passive, they are determined in their struggle for justice and freedom (the Glaswegian expression “Hell mend them” shows it). The gap between the two sides is so wide and so deep that it seems impossible to bridge. The crew rebel against a treatment they consider unfair. They feel they are misunderstood, abusively bereft and ‘degraded’. They are demanded to be loyal to their monarch who, to their minds, has betrayed them; they use words such as ‘betrayal’ and ‘disgrace’: ‘Rating: The proposed measures, to slash the wages of the men of the Lower Deck, is a betrayal and a disgrace! ’ (Act 2, 29)

18Connal’s expression ‘a bond is a bond’ can be interpreted in two antithetic ways. The Royal Navy cannot accept that the Lower Deck should counter the king’s omnipotence, authority and word. To challenge His Almighty Majesty is, in a way, to challenge Almighty God as was thought in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance; the hierarchy is regarded as vertical with the monarch at its head and ‘Almighty God’ (mentioned by the Admiral) above. This clashes with the changes that occurred during George V’s reign –changes in the social and political landscape including the rise of socialism, communism, fascism, Irish republicanism and the Indian independence movement; not to forget the 1911 Parliament Act and the influence of W.W.1… These transformations were expected to provide the constitutional monarchy with some more social and political balance and horizontality. Yet, despite these openings, some everlasting ideas remain; they surface in the speech of Admiral Tomkinson who seems to regard the Royal Navy and the crew as English only, hinting at all the laudatory 16th century clichés related to the power of the English fleet. Connal makes it clear the Scots are present too!

Tomkinson: […] Not only have we shown that Our Majesty’s Ship is the finest afloat, but that she is crewed by the world’s best sailors.
On this indefatigable structure we are fourteen hundred strong. Yet we are more than that. We are a sort of a family, whose ancestry reaches back one thousand years, to when Alfred the Great assembled his oaken walls to show England’s might to the world. In this we shall continue. Our properties are a big, juicy bone that only too many dogs are willing to get their teeth into. It is our job to protect that bone, to preserve our freedoms, and to cause everywhere the public worship of Almighty God. Tomorrow we sail for Valetta. But tonight I say to you, that wherever there have been sailors, wherever there have been Englishmen
Connal: … and Scotsmen
Tomkinson: You have done their memory proud.
Act 1, 2

19The author’s bilingual writing (polylingual if we take into account words or accents from other languages, even if they are said to be written in phonetics) reinforces Connal’s Scottish identity. His brother Finlay rarely uses Scots: as a reporter, Standard English is his mode of expression. Yet, on p. 11, he mixes both in one sentence: he recalls his past youth in Scots but thinks of the future in English, which is not due to chance when one thinks of his indoctrination and final choices.

  • 11  Alfred the Great (871-899), is known as a pious and virtuous Christian king, as a resourceful hero (...)

20The English power and pride, dating back to Alfred the Great according to the admiral,11 is said to rest on His Majesty’s seamen’s unity, the Royal Navy crew being compared to a family. Connal’s remark recalls some members are discarded or simply forgotten as if Scottish identity did not exist or was not worth mentioning. What’s more, in this, the 1707 Union Act allowing Scotland to enjoy her own religious difference is ignored. The crew’s duty is to protect their nation (England?), her prosperity and freedom (in fact the sovereign’s regal prerogatives). In the admiral’s speech understated colonisation and evangelisation of other peoples –whatever the means– can be heard:

Corc: […] We never invaded anybody. We simply expanded our interests. Advanced our civilisation. Protected our dominions. And when it came to trouble. We didn’t make a mess like the others. We cleaned out villages. Rocketed the odd house to serve as an example. Dropped the occasional 25lb bomb here and there. […] That’s what I served.
Act 2, 50

21The man’s words oppose their royal assignment and (divine) mission to supposed opponents, predators despisedly compared to dogs. This amounts to the simplistic fight between Good and Evil. Within this frame, the higher the mission, the fouler and baser the insurgence. To Corcorron, Realpolitik and Raison d’État can cover every crime. The Admiral’s expansionist discourse sounds more English than Scottish if we think of the failure of the Darien expedition, the Scottish unique attempt.

22But was the Royal Navy crew’s revolt mutiny?

  • 12  The author’s note included in the theatre program.
  • 13  Following Maingueneau’s definitions, a perfect paratopical space for paratopical character-deviser (...)
  • 14  ‘Gulag, an introduction’, Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History, (...)

23If, in 1931 Invergordon, the crime had really been mutiny, the sentence would have been death, as Hamish MacDonald reminds the spectators in his play. Even in real life, there was no court martial for the thousand sailors involved in the manifesto and the strike. Those who were regarded as the rebellious leaders, said to be agitators, ‘Bolshevists’ and anarchists, were confined in a naval jail for seven weeks and then released after the general elections of October 28th: ‘Services no longer required’ was their sanction. Dismissed, the consequences on their lives, and on their families’, were hard: homelessness, poverty, wandering towards the east to communist lands and asylums12 of all kinds (including the mental hospital where some scenes are set13). For example Len Wincott fled to Leningrad and unfortunately, he later spent eleven years in a Stalin mass forced labour camp.14 The land of freedom and equality they had dreamt of was no better for the freedom of speech and the expected collectivist way of life they were longing for.

  • 15  The author’s note (ibid).

24In the 1931 British context, the Power feared that the chaos of riots would breed general national revolutionary, communist, anarchy. To them, the example of Chile was frightening and threatening (two weeks before September 15th and 16th 1931, ‘the same action by the Chilean Navy had resulted in their air force opening fire on the ships’15). La Raison d’État prevailed. In the play, Hamish MacDonald lists the security measures decided in Britain to protect the nation and the king: the author ironically uses rhetorical accumulation and amplificatio to magnify these feelings of fear that seem out of proportion. In London, Bolshevism was regarded as a menace to the west and the British Monarchy.

The ‘Bolshevist’ threat and attraction: from dream to reality

25Paradoxically and most cruelly, the British leaders and activists were punished by the very same people whose ideology they had followed. Retribution to their criminal offence (disobedience or mutinous rebellion in Scotland) was ‘indirect’ in a way (in a Siberian Gulag). The play shows that it was far worse on the eastern side of the world. The evolution from dream to reality can be summed up by the songs performed or mentioned onstage. Singing far into the night is the expression of hope for better days steeped in liberty, brotherhood and equality. Singing The Red Flag song and the Internationale gives it a collectivist communist international dimension which The Patriotic War song reduces to the confines and horror of the Gulag forced labour camp. Erica’s dream was broken and so is her life. The former artist, is scrubbing the floor, ‘swathed in rags’, to the exaggeratedly pompous sound of The Patriotic War. She is bitter and desperate: ‘Erica: Coming to see me in my wonderful little cabin. Ha ha ha! It will be neat and tidy. The tidiest dacha in the great estate of Kolyma’ (Act 2, 45).

  • 16 Accessed 20/07/2016
  • 17  ibid.

26In real life, Kolyma was a name that struck fear.16 It was reputed as the coldest inhabited place on the planet; sarcastically, prisoners said that there, twelve months were winter and all the rest summer! Kolyma was so remote that it could not be reached by an overland route. Convicts travelled by train across the length of the Soviet Union only to spend up to several months on the Pacific coast waiting for the few months each year when the waterways were free of ice. Then, they boarded ships for their trip past Japan and up the Kolyma River to their gold-mining destination. Surviving Kolyma was more difficult than any other Gulag locale.17

  • 18
    “The diary of Lyub

27Yet, the harsh freezing weather and living conditions were in keeping with the Soviet Stalinist regime. Corcorron’s reporting the anecdote of Stalin’s visit to Lyubov Shaporina’s puppet theatre in Leningrad shows the threatening and terrifying excesses of the communist system under Stalin.18 Understanding the moral of the comic – but didactic – fable performed onstage, showing a peasant’s trick to deceive an authoritarian wolf who claims the better share of the man’s production, a spectator shouts to Stalin attending and fully enjoying the funny show: “Glorious Marshall! That little puppet is defrauding the national quota! Have him and his family taken out and shot immediately” (Act 2, 45).

  • 19∼aho/musov/shaporina/shap.html“Shaporina’s diary is, above all, a chronicle of (...)

28Similarly, Corcorron sardonically recalls Ivanovich’s visit to St Petersburg, stressing the barbaric horror the place is steeped in. He calls his narration “a bed time tale of St Petersburgh. A fairy tale city” (Act 1, 9). He insists on the organisation of secret cells, on the violent repression of riots, on tortures… and finally exclaims “What a gorgeous spectacle!” A horror show one would call it !19 In the Soviet State, intellectuals and artists’ lives were jeopardized, which Erica denounces opposing Finlay more or less ‘blindly’ defending an ideology and a political and ideological system, a regime, he’s more or less still involved in:

Finlay: There were opportunities for artists.
Erica: Let me tell you of those opportunities. My friend Anna, for writing poetry, disappeared in the night. Zhovshenko was put into the chair and had his eyes punched out for writing a novel. You know what it was like to hear the sound of the elevator, or a car in the night?
Finlay: These are different ties. Old mistakes are being forgiven.
Erica: I didn’t make any mistakes! And it is only by good fortune that I did not walk out to the goldfields to freeze in the ice with the rest of them.
Finlay: I have seen first hand the progress of this nation. It is incapable of such barbarity.
Act 2, 49

29The two activists disagree because Erica’s dream was broken and she has to cope with the down-to-earth realities of Stalinism. On his side, Finlay is still defending what they all had believed in. The reporter is still holding tight to an ideology and a party that have betrayed a lot of the followers and members. Erica accuses him of being blind (the word is repeated several times). Connal deplores a form of self-destruction in his brother. Soviet propagandist discourse (Marxist doctrine) oozes from Finlay’s speech debunked by Erica’s clear-sightedness, derision and bitterness. Yet they both say it is a myth, but their meanings differ:

Finlay: […] And this province, Kolyma, that shows so much promise. It will be a jewel of discovery yet. Dazzling the world. A Siberian jewel in the Arctic sun.
Erica: You look at universities and monuments and see nothing. Yes, one day Kolyma will be a true place of true discovery. When another summer has passed, and the melting ice and the hungry birds have picked the flesh from their bones.
Finlay: Erica, it is a myth.
Erica: Of course! It’s all been a dream. Nothing but a delusion, that I have seen thousands go out and never return. (Act 2, 47)

30Erica denounces forced errancy, hopeless wandering towards death. Her accusations are steeped in sarcasm and they question the blinding form of activism Finlay seems to be suffering from. His travelling life as a reporter never allows him to stop and lucidly envisage the reality of things. He keeps on the same tracks and opinions. Whereas, on the roads, the exiled migrate, mass deported, or in slow trains and ships go to Siberian Kolyma or gulag, Finlay ceaselessly moves on to report what he obviously can’t see:

Erica: All this travelling. Do you never tire of it?
Finlay: Gracious, no. When a man tires of his vocation he tires of life.
Erica: […] But what wonderful adventures you have had, Finlay! Four thousand miles of railway, and half as many again by sea? Did you ever cry from the frostbite on your feet, or hide from rapists in the holds of a ship?
[…] But why did you refuse to see what is happening here?
Finlay: I have always believed in what we are doing. I have chose to follow that belief and I wallow in neither self-congratulation nor regret. And that has been the way of it. (47)

31It is more comfortable not to give up and deny one’s own beliefs, even to oneself, than to avow one has been wrong! As a reporter, he is one of those who ‘matérialisent le nomadisme fondamental d’une énonciation qui déçoit tout lieu pour convertir en lieu son errance.’ As Maingueneau wrote in ‘la paratopie des errants’ (Maingueneau 185-86):

En excès des partages sociaux, les chevaliers errants qui traversent des contrées aux lois opaques, les détectives qui circulent entre les milieux sociaux les plus divers, les picaros en tous genres sont autant d’opérateurs qui articulent le dire de l’auteur et la fiction, qui matérialisent le nomadisme fondamental d’une énonciation qui déçoit tout lieu pour convertir en lieu son errance.
Maingueneau 185

EPILOGUE: an epic rehabilitating saga

32To conclude, we can say that Hamish MacDonald’s dramatic, poetic and highly rhetorical historicisation of the 1931 Invergordon events aims at making the case and cause known, at rehabilitating some of his parents’ close friends involved and unjustly treated then, but also at denouncing blinding doctrines, blinded activists, and non-democratic regimes. He also questions legalised or officialised barbarism.

33Singing Far into the Night is almost a ‘family saga’ as Zinnie Harris would call it (Further than the furthest Thing). In The Tailor of Inverness, Matthew Zajac wrote the epic wandering life of his father from Galicia to Inverness (through many other countries and forced labour camps) during WW2. Similarly, in Hamish MacDonald’s play, Corcorron tells Connal that his return to Scotland was ‘a saga. An epic’ (Act 2, 41).

34The playwright thought that it was his generation’s duty to give the 1931 Invergordon protagonists their proper historical place and to offer a new perspective on these events. The play offers some possible denunciation through the debate frame and the contrasting standpoints. Its style is neither activist manifesto-like nor aggressive tribune. Rhetorics and mise en abyme highlight the pros and cons. Through hypotyposis, changing rhythm and numerous figures of speech laying the emphasis on key words and ideas, the narratives and reported speech precise facts and figures, and give a voice to those who were not even permitted to express and defend themselves, even in a court Marshall. The author investigated, interviewed the survivors and their families, collected information and memories. Through drama, he justified the sailors’ transgression and reported its main lines so as to make the ‘crime sheet’ right. To sum up his work and intention, one could use Admiral Tomkinson’s words: ‘you have done their memory proud’.

  • 20 Time of Strife (...)

35Hamish MacDonald recontextualises and localises facts and figures, alluding to songs and artists of the time. He, for example, mentions Joe Corrie (and the Unity Theatre) who dramatized the miners’ seven-month strike of 1926 in In Time O’ Strife.20 Through intertextuality the main points of Singing Far into the Night are echoed; so is Corrie’s comedy The Domestic Dictator mentioned on page 6. The author sometimes uses character Connal’s artistic writing gift to express and liberate his own: ‘Erica [to Connal]. Songs and poetry. Your true gift.’ (Act 1, 23)

36Inspired by the stories of Jack MacDonald, Len Wincott and Stephen Hutchings, Singing Far into the Night gives an insight into the period:

  • 21  Author’s note, ibid.

[…] viewed in fragments and memories from within the wards and grounds of a psychiatric hospital, it opens amid the turmoils of Glasgow Streets in 1931 and the arrival of Young naval rating Connal MacNab into a circle of family and friends, a world not only divided by loyalties to existing regimes, but also by the forces of anarchism and order within revolutionary movements. From this point the path to the mutiny is explored, during Connal’s two-week shore leave to events in Invergordon and then into the decades beyond.21

  • 22 20/07/2016.

37Yet, uncompromising, he also generates and leads a universal and atemporal reflection on illegal and so-to-speak legal homicide and exactions (perpetrated by dictators and soldiers…) through examples such as the burning down of a village at Bias Bay (Act 1, 18), which the men celebrated roaring drunk with ill-treated local prostitutes, and the suppression of the Chinese Boxer rebellion.22

38The status of the 1931 Invergordon sedition was debatable and Hamish MacDonald’s play accounts for it. Yet, Finlay calling his personal quarrels with Erica ‘mutinies’, at the end, desemantises the word (50) as if to put an end to the controversy. Moreover, Connal’s explaining to Corcorron what to serve means to him in a poetic universal opening as a response to the admiral’s military creed in violence and power, allows some hope in humanity. But even if words are daggers as Hamlet puts it, can they fight real weapons and bombs? At least historical plays can be eye-openers:

Connal: I serve no man and every man. I serve the boy that went to sea with adventure in his heart. I serve the island with the river. The mates who stood their grounds. I serve the hoar-frost on the trees. Aurora Borealis in the January night. The snype on the wing and the wren in the hedge. The pole star and Orion the hunter. The white blossom on the hawthorn trees. The summer wind when it blows from the west.




BARRY, Peter, Literature in Contexts, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2007.

MAINGUENEAU, Dominique, Le Contexte de l’œuvre littéraire, Paris, Dunod, 1993.

PAVIS, Patrice, Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts and Analysis, Christine Shantz translator), University of Toronto Press, Toronto & Buffalo, 1998.


1  A two-act play initially written for Mull Theatre by Hamish Mac Donald (author, and joint artistic director of Dogstar Theatre Company, Inverness. His work has toured extensively. For a short biography, see:, accessed 22/07/2016). All the quotations of the play in this work are from the unpublished playtext provided by the author himself. Let him be thanked for it. Many thanks to H. MacDonald. The title of the play is explained at the very end by female activist “Erica: In the days we used to tram out to the waterfall and sit around the fire. We would sing our songs under the stars and think everything was possible. I can see now that we were just like children then. But the world was ours all the same. In those days, we were singing far into the night.” 50 (last page of unpublished playtext, courtesy of the author).

2  Roger Le Joyeux, Alexandre Dumas, Crimes Célèbres, Marie Stuart 1587, 2011.

3  Kenny Mathieson, for Northings, 1 Oct 2011,

4  ‘Royal Navy ratings were organized according to their tasks and competence, and usually formed the main body of a warship’s crew. A rating’s official number had an alphabetical prefix indicating the branch of the service the individual was employed in, such as communications, stokers and sick berth staff. In the rank structure, petty officers and chief petty officers were above leading ratings, but below commissioned and warrant officers’,,accessed08/08/2016.


6  Finlay suggests that Connal should desert (Act 1, 17), which is the worst criminal offence within the military frame to be punished by death.

7  “Corc. ‘With our sea-going brothers we endorse this reasonable and commendable action”.
Your brother [Finlay the activist], the author of this [newspaper article], will hang for Treason. As soon as we find the bastard.” (Act 2, 37)

8  Incitement to Mutiny Act:

9  “Corc. Articles of War. ‘If any person of the fleet shall conceal any traitorous or mutinous practice or design, being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court martial, or being present at any mutiny or edition, shall not use his utmost endeavours to suppress the same, shall be punished as a court martial thinks fit he deserves’”, (Act 2, 38)

10  Apart from figures of speech such as paregmenon, diacope, interpretatio and correctio, Connal’s style is poetic, metaphoric and picturesque, his poet’s head being ‘full o’ pictures’ and dreams. (19)

11  Alfred the Great (871-899), is known as a pious and virtuous Christian king, as a resourceful heroic warrior, as a model and a symbol for the defence and the unity of his country. His reputation and ‘enduring cult’ have made him a legend. Accessed 22/07/2016

12  The author’s note included in the theatre program.

13  Following Maingueneau’s definitions, a perfect paratopical space for paratopical character-devisers (Le Contexte de l’œuvre littéraire, 183).

14  ‘Gulag, an introduction’, Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History, Accessed 20/07/2016

15  The author’s note (ibid).

16 Accessed 20/07/2016

17  ibid.

“The diary of Lyubov Shaporina, founder of the St. Petersburg Puppet Theater and aristocratic member of the intelligentsia, is a desolate record of the vanishing of friends. Like the poet Anna Akhmatova, she was apparently too prominent to be touched […] but she writes of a world falling to the barbarians.” The editors of
Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, edited by Véronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, and Thomas Lahusen introduce Lyubov Shaporina’s diary as follows: “Lyubov Vasilievna Shaporina was fifty-eight years old in 1937, living in Leningrad. The time described (1935-39), is truly Shakespearian: it is ‘out of joint’. In a poignant image, she sees herself inside a painting by [the St Petersburg Romantic artist, Karl] Bryullov [1799- 1852], Pompei’s Last Day.” Accessed 20/07/2016.

19∼aho/musov/shaporina/shap.html“Shaporina’s diary is, above all, a chronicle of the times of terror in the martyred city of Leningrad, which had been enduring a wave of arrests and mass deportations that began after Kirov’s assassination in 1934. It is a diary of resistance, […] Lyubov Shaporina was the founder of the Puppet Theater and the wife of the famous composer Yury Shaporin. Her world was deeply rooted in the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, those who returned from emigration and thrived in Soviet reality in spite of everything. […] In order to resist and survive, the diarist often abandons the present and retreats into reminiscences of her ‘tsarist’ childhood or of the short period of emigration in France where Shaporina seems to have lived between 1925 and the early 1930s. […] For long generally thought to have been the work of Stalin, the assassination of Leningrad Communist Party ‘boss’ Sergei Kirov on 1st December 1934 inaugurated an intensification of the normal level of Stalinist terror to such a pitch of savagery that the next five years became known as the Great Terror.”

20 Time of Strife by Joe Corrie was adapted, designed and directed by Graham McLaren for the National Theatre of Scotland: In the 30th anniversary year of the 1984 miners’ strike, the National Theatre of Scotland revives Joe Corrie’s 1926 classic play about a Fife mining community buckling under the strain of a seven-month lockout. Driven by live, gutsy, folk-punk songs and intense, full-blooded choreography, this uncompromising production is a stark reminder that class conflict between those at the bottom of the social heap and those in power is perennial. Accessed 20/07/2016.

21  Author’s note, ibid.

22 20/07/2016.


Université Clermont Auvergne, IHRIM, Clermont-Ferrand.
Danièle, Université Clermont Auvergne, IHRIM, Clermont-Ferrand, France.
Professeur émérite, Danièle Berton-Charrière est membre du laboratoire POURPRE, IHRIM-CLERMONT, UMR 5317, CNRS, de l’Université Clermont Auvergne. Ses thèmes de recherche sont : Théâtre de la Renaissance aux Lumières et théâtre écossais contemporain ; intertextualité et intersémioticité ; problèmes d’attribution ; méthodes assistées par ordinateur ; traduction de textes théâtraux pour la scène. Elle a soutenu sa thèse de Doctorat d’État en 2002 : Cyril Tourneur : vie et œuvre d’un dramaturge jacobéen.

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