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Women and Scotland

Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon

Women in History and Myth

Mary (1977) and Margaret (2000): perspectives on the representation of Scottish historical figures1

Ian Brown


Among my plays are two on quite different Scottish Queens, Mary, Queen of Scots, and (Saint) Margaret. The play on the former was presented by the Royal Lyceum in 1977 and the latter at the Gateway Theatre by Queen Margaret University Acting Degree students in 2000.
This essay considers the differing dramaturgical approaches taken in drafting the two plays, the ways in which the agency of royal women has been historically represented and how the dramatist can approach that representation. In particular, it considers the ways in which Mary Queen of Scots has often been represented as glamorous, but not powerful, while Margaret has been represented as powerful, but not glamorous, and what this difference implies about both historians’ and dramatists’ views of women in power in history (and not only that of Scotland). It approaches this general discussion with examples not only from the two plays under examination, but also from plays by other playwrights on these queens including Robert Kemp and Liz Lochhead.

Texte intégral

  • 1 This chapter is developed from the paper, “Before Mary (1977), Margaret (2000): A male dramatist’s (...)

1In 1967 I graduated from Edinburgh University and, whatever else I was to do, I wanted to write plays. I had had some work produced in my final year at Edinburgh by a student-staff group, including a Nativity play mentioned later, and had tried before then to write – in a desperately over-strained and overheated way – other

2 plays, which fortunately have never seen the stage. In that year, as I worked on a summer job with the Coal Board, when I got home each day I worked to finish a play. The topic was Mary, Queen of Scots and I turn to the story of that play’s development below. The ordering of my title, meanwhile, derives from the thought that I wrote about the earlier queen, Margaret (1045-93), later in my career and in a different way to that with which I earlier approached the later queen, Mary (1542- 87). In that distinction lies my theme: twentieth-century Scottish playwrights’ approaches to writing about individuals, especially women, in powerful positions and to history/herstory itself. I address differences in approach not only among male dramatists of different generations, but also the changes implemented by women playwrights like Liz Lochhead and Rona Munro.

  • 2 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance Eng (...)

3Stephen Greenblatt opens a study of Shakespeare’s drama by observing, “I began with the desire to speak with the dead”.2 By the end of his first chapter he has expanded on this:

I had dreamed of speaking with the dead, and even now I do not abandon this dream. But the mistake was to imagine that I would hear a single voice, the voice of the other. If I wanted to hear one, I had to hear many voices of the dead. And if I wanted to hear the voice of the other, I had to hear my own voice. The speech of the dead, like my own speech, is not private property.2

4The Scottish playwright Donald Campbell uncannily echoed the American scholar’s 1988 observation five years later in his opening speech for the bereaved Hector Sutherland in The Ould Fella:

  • 3 Donald Campbell, The Ould Fella, Typescript, Scottish Theatre Archive, Glasgow University Library, (...)

How do ye live with the dead? When the end comes a door locks fast and there is never a road back til the living. (Nods) We know that much in our cradles! (Rises) The trouble is – there are so many doors! How do we find one and [sic] other afterwards? How do we live with the dead?3

5No matter to what extent the scholar exploring history may find herself “hearing” the voices of the dead – and her own voice in that process – it may be said the dramatist writing on historical themes has a parallel challenge. She must find not only means of “hearing” dead voices as the historian does, but give those voices theatrical life. Yet, in Campbell’s insight, “there are so many doors” though which she may (one hopes successfully) “find” a dramatic realisation of a character. Further, once she has found that character’s voice, she has to express it within the range of her own “voice” as a dramatist.

6Of the historian’s “voice”, Mary Fulbrook observes:

  • 4 Mary Fulbrook, Historical Theory (London: Routledge, 2002), 195.

The processes of historical investigation and representation are about making sense of the past. Making sense is of course an activity in the present; and it is an active practice, not a matter of passive reception and reflection of what has gone before [… but] imbuing the past with meaning.4

7E. H. Carr in his seminal study, What is History?, illuminates such historiographical “imbuing the past with meaning” further, using a theatrical reference:

  • 5 E. H. Carr, What is History? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 11.

These so-called basic facts, which are the same for all historians, […] speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context. It was, I think, one of Pirandello’s characters who said that a fact is like a sack – it won’t stand up till you’ve put something in it […].5

8The point, of course, is that the process of making “theatre” from history presents the theatre worker with similar problems to those faced by the historian writing “history”.

9The playwright’s selection of historical material to dramatise parallels the historian’s selection process. Clearly, a historian will select with reference to a number of criteria – for example, verifiability – which may not necessarily affect the playwright. The latter’s criteria will, in contrast, include such elements more or less foreign to the historian as (perhaps) dramatic conflict or (certainly) stageability. Nevertheless, Carr’s insight suggests that underlying both processes is the selection of what facts to “give the floor”, “stand up” and, one might add, allow to “speak”, that is to determine which facts are “meaningful”, that is to say which “facts” have ideological significance. Carr’s Pirandellian dramatic parallel may be metaphorical for historians; it is literal for playwrights.

10In both historical record and dramatic treatment Queen and Saint Margaret has been represented as powerful, but not glamorous, while Mary, Queen of Scots, has often been represented as glamorous, but not powerful, or at least, one might say, deprived of power. Mary’s “glamour” has often been represented by male writers, employing a literary/historical male gaze, but also by such women historians as Antonia Fraser, as a source, or even cause, of feminine weakness. The historical record for Margaret, meanwhile, has been fundamentally hagiographic since her confessor Turgot’s eleventh-century Life of St Margaret which anticipated her eventual canonisation. Mary’s historical reputation is considerably more openly controversial and, at least since Schiller, has attracted much attention from playwrights. With regard to modern Scottish theatre, this distinction between the queens may be observed in the work of the leading mid-twentieth-century Scottish male playwright, Robert Kemp, in The Saxon Saint (1949), about Margaret, and Master John Knox (1960), in which, of course, Mary is a key figure.

11Kemp (1908-67) was remarkably prolific, producing, according to the Doollee database, of the order of a hundred plays – some-one-act, some full-length, some for the stage, some for other media – plus five novels, criticism and journalism. He adapted – and bowdlerised – David Lindsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis in a famous version first presented at the 1948 Edinburgh Festival and, with Tom Fleming and Lennox Milne, was one of the three founders of the Gateway Theatre Company, as a permanent Edinburgh-based repertory company in 1953. This, in effect, transmuted into the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company when it closed in 1965 to allow the later company, with many of the Gateway’s artistic personnel, to be launched. In other words, Kemp was a highly active man of theatre whose impact, not least in founding permanent repertory theatre in modern Edinburgh, is long-lasting. Much of his own output, often involving light comedy, has, however, been forgotten, while arguably his most lasting legacy is his Molière translation into lively Scots: Let Wives Tak Tent (1948) and The Laird o’ Grippy (1955) are versions, respectively, of The School for Wives and The Miser.

12Kemp’s ideological approach to Margaret and Mary is imbued by his own religious interests. A Church of Scotland member, Kemp, talking of Master John Knox, notes:

  • 6 “Introduction”, Master John Knox (Edinburgh: Saint Andrews Press, 1960), v.

The play was written at the request of the Special Committee appointed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to mark the Fourth Centenary of the Reformation. […] I could not write except as a child of the Reformation.6

13Given this, one understands why his representation of history often concerns major moments of church history or issues of moral choice with large socio-cultural impact. His employment of history to religio-ideological ends is seen in The Saxon Saint. Performed in Dunfermline Abbey, his life of Queen Margaret from her arrival in Scotland to her death, is more pageant than play, designed to use the space of the Abbey she founded in the early 1070s, whose present nave her son David I (r. 1124-53) caused to be built. The play’s characters become lay-figures arguing polemically for their beliefs or pedantically explaining politico-diplomatic contexts, as when her husband Malcolm says:

  • 7 Page references are to Robert Kemp, The Saxon Saint (Glasgow: Brown, Son and Ferguson, 1988).

The Norsemen are settled in the islands to the west and north of my country, and on the mainland itself. The Danes are on my east. The Northumbrian English threaten my southern flank, and now this new peril has blazed up like a fire in the heather on a hot afternoon […] William of Normandy. (p. 20)7

14Kemp does, however, achieve an occasional wry dramatic reversal of hegemonic expectation, as when he has the Queen’s attendant Fenella say, “My nurse was an English slave. It is strange to think that English was once the language of our servants, and now we must all learn to speak it.” (p. 38). (It is, incidentally, odd for Kemp to suggest everyone spoke English in Margaret’s Gaelic-speaking Scotland: even if he were following the line Brian Friel later took in Translations of having English stand for Irish or Gaelic, it would not make sense. Obviously, he liked the joke the line offered, as many a playwright would, and damn the logic.)

15In general, Kemp’s play/pageant operates through set piece scenes, each with a title. “An Impartial Chairman”, for example, presents a summary version of a synod where Fothad, the Celtic Archbishop of St Andrews, and Turgot, who would become his Roman Catholic successor, debate the differences between Celtic and Roman practices as Margaret’s Romanised upbringing wins the day. Kemp’s hagiographic treatment of Margaret is qualified somewhat in another scene, entitled “The Black Sheep”, involving her second son, Edmund, who was very much influenced by Malcolm’s younger brother Donalbain and his support of Celtic customs:

Edmund […] I love all that comes from the Scots – their old tongue, the airs they sing, the tales they tell over the fire […]
Margaret Edmund, why do you reproach me as if I were a conqueror and a tyrant? Edmund Because you are a conqueror and a tyrant! (pp. 76-77)

16Yet, this is the only time Kemp’s representation of Margaret as a “civilising”, Romanising saint is open to question, and the issue is taken no further. Kemp’s approach in his historical drama tends to one-dimensional presentation of received versions of Margaret.

17 Master John Knox returns to the pageant format and lay-figures, Kemp justifying this approach in his introduction to the text:

  • 8 Robert Kemp, Master John Knox, v.

Such plays as I know take either Knox or Mary and make the drama personal to them.
But the drama of the Reformation was something vaster than either.8

  • 9 Randall Stevenson, “Re-enter Houghmagandie: Language as Performance in Liz Lochhead’s Tartuffe”, in (...)
  • 10 James Bridie, John Knox and other plays (London: Constable, 1949), 80.

18 He talks, without any nuance, of “sketching in the tragic destiny of Mary, whose folly, wilfulness, frailty and sheer ill fortune sometimes seem the main instrument in the defeat of the cause which was so dear to her” (p. vi). Kemp abjures possible ambivalence, writing to promote his own Kirk’s vision of the Reformation. Act One begins with the looting of St Giles being seen as a “good thing”, proceeding to present a scheming Mary of Guise. Act Two, after Mary of Guise’s death, continues to show the destructiveness of the Reformation as positive necessity, while representing the religion of the newly arrived Queen Mary as threat. Act Three runs from the murders of Rizzio and Darnley and then marriage to Bothwell to end with John Knox’s hearing about the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day’s massacre of French Protestants. The play is, in fact, as one might anticipate from its commissioned status, a propaganda piece for the Church of Scotland, demonising its opponents, whether Mary, Catholic Church or nobles who appropriated church lands. Randall Stevenson summarises the qualities of the strand of Kemp’s work to which these plays belong as follows: “Kemp provides little more than historical accounts of his periods and their people – expository dramatic pageants, tenuous in conflict and characterisation”.9 As Stevenson implies, for Kemp, historical characters – women and men – seem important only because he can use their historical representations to embody his own values, whether Margaret as putative pre-Protestant reformer, or Knox as lionised Calvinist reformer, while his Mary embodies “folly, wilfulness, frailty and sheer ill fortune”, her agency non-existent. Kemp’s versions of fact are, in Carr’s striking metaphor, like sacks: they stand up for his religio-ideological views once he has put – or, rather, stuffed – those views into them. Kemp was not alone in this approach in the middle of the last century. Despite James Bridie’s achievements in other plays, in John Knox (1947), like Kemp, he seems unable to move much beyond historical exposition and under-developed caricature in his version of Knox and Mary’s relationship. Set within the frame of the facade of the National Gallery of Scotland with three late-night moderns providing an ironic chorus, the play involves much reported action, again from a male Protestant viewpoint, until there is one of the most improbable final scenes of ultimate reconciliation one has come across: Mary says, “John, I love you. We didn’t know what that meant, did we?”; Knox responds, “We knew nothing”.10 Knox and Mary as lovers, even if they never consummated their love, requires some stretch of the imagination. What then brought me in 1967 to want to write about Mary was – at least in large part – a desire to attempt to move beyond stereotyped, even far-fetched, characterisation and over-explicit, ideologically naïve and religiously prescriptive propaganda.

19The play’s first version was, however, very different from that finally performed a decade later in 1977. When I wrote, I was still, like Kemp, something of a churchgoer. My first step into writing drama seriously was a Nativity play, mentioned already, entitled, for some reason which I cannot now work out, A Cold Crib and Red Wine. The “cold crib” is self-explanatory – Palestine is cold in winter, especially at night – but “red wine”? It must have seemed symbolic to my naïve younger self. I had, nonetheless, offered it to my local church as a Christmas play. Peter Brodie, the minister, asked to read the script before giving permission. When I called in to see what he thought, he told me it would not do. When I asked why, he said, “In the first scene you treat Mary as if she’s an unmarried mother”. When I said – perhaps not unreasonably – that she indeed was, he said, “but not like that. I’ve got to think about the old ladies in the front pew.” That was the beginning of my leaving the Kirk, though it did his career no harm. In 1978-79, this somewhat narrow-minded censor became Moderator of the Kirk. So, having taken what was perceived as a shockingly radical view of one Mary, I started my Mary play full of delayed adolescent lubriciousness, inspired by a post-pubescent reading of the then-fashionable DH Lawrence’s views on sexuality: the play started with the passionate relationship of – now to my mind incredibly – Mary of Guise and the political fixer, Maitland of Lethington. This is, of course, an even more unlikely coupling than that of Bridie’s love between Mary and Knox. Mary Queen of Scots arrived later in the action of this play to be inducted into good, if sometimes raunchy, Scottish ways of thinking and loving by the wisdom of Lethington and passion of Bothwell – or something like that. I sent the script to my mentor at Edinburgh University, Professor Ronnie Mulryne, now of Warwick University, and thought not a lot more about it, to be frank, as I went for two years to work in London.

20When I returned to Edinburgh in 1969, I had a message from the then literary manager of the Lyceum, Alan Brown, asking me to drop in. He told me he had had the play from Ronnie and had wanted to meet me before, except that, in my ignorance, I had sent in the play without including my address. Having in the end tracked me down through Professor Mulryne, he told me the play about Mary was too racy to be put on at the Lyceum – but at least it was perceived as having flesh and blood characters rather than lay-figures – and so he had sent it to Max Stafford Clark, then director of the Traverse, which might cope with the spicy material I had written. So, off I went to see Stafford Clark, who in the end felt the play was not a Traverse piece – hardly a surprise when one gives the matter any thought. Nevertheless, he engaged me to work with him on my first professional writing project with the newly-founded Traverse Workshop Company, fore-runner of Joint Stock, launched in 1974, although I was not actually paid, only given a credit in the programme. I sent the play to the Citizens’ where Roddy McMillan came back, saying he liked it, while the literary manager, Tony Paterson, said they could not do it then, but could I drop by? Being not only naïve then, but somewhat stupid and youthfully arrogant, I decided I would not do that if they were not going to do my play, not knowing how much of a good thing an invitation to meet the literary manager is for a young playwright.

21I talk about the aetiology of Mary to mark not just my naïve approach then to the business of playwriting – should I mention the first version was a poetic drama in Scots? – but the callowness of my thematic approach. Actually, after Bill Bryden arrived in 1970 to become at the Lyceum part of the wellspring of the renaissance of contemporary Scottish theatre, so often these days mistimed to the late 1970s and, especially, the undoubtedly wonderful 1978-82 Slab Boys trilogy, he decided he wanted to do the play. His idea, which emerged about 1974, was to present it in a site-sensitive manner in Craigmillar Castle with the stars of his company, people like Roddy McMillan, Edith Macarthur and Fulton Mackay. I said “No”. I told this story in 2015 to Douglas Maxwell and he responded in disbelief, “You had the chance to work with Fulton Mackay and turned it down?” He might have gone on to remonstrate with me that my decision meant I missed the chance to work with Bill Bryden on a high-profile production at Craigmillar Castle. But, while I may have been naïve then, this was actually the right thing to do. By then, I had rethought what I thought of Mary and the ways she was presented theatrically and begun writing the version presented at the Lyceum in 1977 under the direction of the late-lamented Stephen MacDonald. Bryden had promised me that, if I let him do the first version, he would see the second was also done, but by then I had the legendary Peggy Ramsay as my agent: her advice was that, whatever he said, “They won’t do two versions of your Mary play, dear”.

22How, then, did I get to two (and, as will become clear, many more than two) versions of Mary?

23The reply sits at the heart of this discussion and, indeed, at the heart of the approach of playwrights – and in some ways especially Scottish playwrights – to the employment of historical themes on stage. As has been seen, Kemp had a particular ideological approach, but inevitably any playwright willy-nilly has a particular ideological approach to their topic. Dramatists use historical material to embody their thematic interests, as does, say, Peter Shaffer in his history plays, glorifying the immanent in the human, whether in Atahualpa in The Royal Hunt of the Sun or Mozart in Amadeus. Robert McLellan, a key parallel figure to Kemp, tended, for example, in his early plays to mythicise a version of Borders history as sexist romp, while his later work achieved a greater subtlety in seeking to establish Scotland as a centre of Enlightenment civilisation and Scots as its language of profoundest discourse. McLellan is worthy of substantial discussion in his own right, of course, but we may note he did not deal directly with the kind of historical women being focused on here, not even in Jamie the Saxt, although in Lady Athelstane in The Flouers o Edinburgh he showed he was entirely capable of delineating a fully developed powerful and intellectual woman. Despite such exceptions, however, by the 1960s and even the early 1970s, there was, as we have seen in the example of Kemp, a general tendency for male playwrights to under-characterise even a powerful woman like St Margaret, and often, further, either to romanticise or – as with Kemp’s “Mary Queen of Scots” – denigrate them. Or one might say, as with my own first version of Mary, sentimentalise them.

24What changed my own ideas was a combination of factors in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One was meeting and debating with and learning from such feminists as Aileen Christianson. Another was participating in aspects of the racial and sexual protest movement of that period. In theatrical terms, another was being influenced by the work of post-Shavian and post-Brechtian companies like New York’s La Mama, directors like Jerzy Grotowski and Luca Ronconi and writers like Peter Weiss. In terms of my own work, it was working on my first full-length original play to be professionally produced, Carnegie (1973), as it explored ways of dealing with the iconic millionaire philanthropist, exploring through song, speeches and dramatic scenes the contradictions of his career, exploitation of others and generosity. The stage history of the first production of that play marked for me a personal education, not unlike that of the minister Brodie, in the ways in which writing challenging plays about iconic historic figures might appear to threaten current establishment figures whose own ideological security was based in values they perceived as embodied in those my plays were interrogating. In brief, Carnegie was to be a leading production in the 1972 official Edinburgh Festival. The likely director, Toby Robertson of Prospect Theatre Company, had found the space that later was used in 2006 for Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, the spare bleak Edinburgh University Army Officer’s Training Corps Drill Hall. He envisaged a site-sensitive piece and promenade performance in the style of the Italian director Luca Ronconi (1933-2015) who experimented influentially with promenade and site-sensitive production methods. When Ross Rankin, then a senior figure in both the Bank of Scotland and the Festival Board, read the play, he blocked its production, claiming it was too expensive. The underlying view he held was exposed when Clive Perry took the play forward and produced it in 1973 at the Lyceum: Rankin, also a member of the Lyceum’s Board, told Perry he hated the play’s representation of Carnegie’s Robber Baron strikebreaking capitalism and did not care if it was never produced.

25It was such accumulated experiences that led to my reworking my play about Mary Queen of Scots. What I realised was that my sentimentalised version of the play, quite apart from the historical improbability, if not impossibility, of an affair of any kind between Mary of Guise and Maitland of Lethington, let alone a passionate one in blank verse in Scots, was simply promoting a one-eyed version of Mary, one that seemed now to me to diminish her complexity, not to mention the complexity of her context. I also reached the view that perhaps when someone is treated with such solemnity as she had been dramatically till then, a more interrogative position might be appropriate. Following Horace Walpole’s dictum, “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel”, I developed my play as a comedy. What is more, at the centre of this comedy was an icon of a variety of views of Scotland and Scottishness, so, as I developed the play, I sought to tell a variety of stories and versions of Mary and Scottish life through a form of theatrical gallimaufry. In that generic gallimaufry, there were three kinds of scene. Roughly a third are straightforward dramatic scenes, featuring the actor playing Mary herself; another third, involving the sharp practice of the nobles around her, show them as a combination of ruthless business men, cynical politicians and gangsters striking deals behind her back, manipulating her within their power games; a third carry forward the story of events of Mary’s adult life where characters play other characters and Mary is always played by others, like her companion Mary Hamilton, her maid or even her husband, Darnley. In other words, Mary is performed both by “herself” in the first two kinds of scene as a person and by others in the third as an icon with multiple personalities and embodiments. Those last scenes are written in differing theatrical genres, including Shakespearean blank verse, Noel Coward pastiche, pantomime, and kailyard comedy.

26Some brief examples may help illustrate the tone of such scenes and the framing of the play as exploring versions of “Mary Queen of Scots”. In the earliest of the transformations that run through the play, querying the identity not only of Mary but other key historical figures and Scottish cultural icons, the first scene has the actor who will play Darnley enter, announcing:

  • 11 Original typescript, p. 1.

I’m going to be Mary, Queen of Scots […] for the time being. Now, some people have said I’m a gay queen. And some people have said I’m a romantic queen. And some people have even said I’m the great Catholic martyr. All I can say is that I was born in 1542. My father died six days later, which was almost immediate and most inconsiderate, and my mother sent me to France when I was only six years old. […] I was betrothed at the age of one to Edward, the son of Henry VIII of England, and then, at the age of six, to the Dauphin of France. My reputation as a precocious and demon lover derived from this double and premature engagement. As a matter of fact, it all rather put me off the idea of sex. Well, anyway, I returned to Scotland in 1561, married Henry Darnley in 1565; he died in 1567, and I married Jamie Bothwell in the same year. And the next year I left for England. Oh yes, and I had a little baby boy in 1566. […] I spent less time in Scotland than in any other country I visited. I died, that is to say, Mary died, in 1587. Frankly, it was a bit of a relief.11

27In a later scene, a writer, told by a film producer, LG, he wants a script about Mary Queen of Scots, responds, rolling his eyes at the potential clichés, “Mary Queen of Scots. Jesus Christ.” To this, the producer replies “You don’t like it, we can always get another writer” and his aide asks “List of writers, LG?”. At this, the writer’s integrity is confronted by his desire for film industry levels of income. The producer wants, and will surely get, “a strictly commercial story of human passion, love, lust, and frailty”. He asks “What would you say to tall romantic, red-haired, short-sighted Vanessa Redgrave as the tall romantic red-haired... was she shortsighted?” Told Mary wasn’t, the producer says “That can be arranged.... as the tall romantic, red-haired, shortsighted, lovelorn highland queen”, so transporting Mary’s provenance from the historically verifiable to Hollywood Highlandism.

28The emerging point may be clear. The rewritten play explored the potential of varieties of versions into which Mary may be deformed and reconstructed, representing different cultural and ideological positions. Other icons of Scotland are explored, questioned and satirised, as when two Scottish stand-up comics make jokes about Mary, themselves becoming objects of satire on other versions of Scottishness as one says to the other: “I am treating these gentle people to a wee tottie taste of the gloriositities of Scotland’s literatury masterpisses; a rolling braeside from the wee bit hill and glen of the great Jock Hairy literary historicalary”. In short, among other things, the play is about being a play and history as a process of making history. In it, Mary is not only a person, although we are in the straight scenes allowed to see, inter alia, her personal anguish at being betrayed by those around her, but also a manipulated symbol of versions of herself depicted according to the needs of the political, diplomatic, religious and ideological requirements of those perceiving her and interacting with her in life or with her image after her death. In the final scene, on one side of the stage the Regent Morton says of her, after her exile, she’s “A figment o the imagination. Wha cares aboot her?” When Ruthven responds “It’s a travesty”, Morton replies “Aye, son, it’s aw a travesty”. At once, we turn to Mary in her prison, where her final speech to the audience concludes: “All that blood, all that hope, and all that blood from my body in births. And the Scots call me whore, the English danger, and the Catholics they already call me martyr. They call me all these things and I am no-one. Who cares about me? I could be neither public nor private. Myself. I am nothing. All my life is this pain.” Then a giant cardboard copy of a portrait of Mary descends from the flies, the cast sing a spoof sentimental Scottish music hall song and the play concludes as Mary says “All my death this pain”.

29We have travelled a long way from Kemp’s ideologically simplified pageant structure. We are faced with the very process of the construction of images of Mary and their complex variety as different schools of thought and belief contest the very nature of who Mary may be and what she represents.

  • 12 Dorothy McMillan, “Choices: Poems 1972-2011”, in Anne Varty, ed., The Edinburgh Companion to Liz Lo (...)
  • 13 Ksenija Horvat, “Gender Politics in Late Twentieth-Century Drama”, in Ian Brown et al, eds, The Edi (...)
  • 14 Ibid.
  • 15 Randall Stevenson and Cairns Craig, eds, Twentieth-Century Scottish Drama: An Anthology (Edinburgh: (...)
  • 16 Jan McDonald and Jennifer Harvie, ‘ “Putting New Twists to Old Stories: Feminism and Lochhead’s Dra (...)

30This complex variety is what Liz Lochhead also explores in her very different 1987 play about Mary, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. As Dorothy McMillan says, Lochhead “is suspicious of any story that is too confident of its explanations, any version of the world that is too neat. For stories are both necessary and deceptive, comforting, yet potentially self-serving and duplicitous.”12 The shiftiness of neat stories is reflected in the shape-shifting which is a key theme of Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. Ksenija Horvat suggests that its “episodic structure is reminiscent of film scripts, fragmentary episodes being tied together by a narrator, La Corbie, who can be seen as cabaret commère, Greek chorus, or Celtic bard”.13 Horvat reflects widely-held opinions when she says that the play is “about Scottish identity and language, but also about the construction of histories, religion and female identity”.14 What at once strikes one is Horvat’s emphasis, perhaps reinforced by her own playwriting experience, on the interaction of dramaturgy and meaning: “[fragmentary] episodic structure” and “construction of histories, religion and female identity”. Horvat, in common with many others, recognises that Lochhead’s interest in the “construction of […] female identity” places her within the wider discourse of feminist practice. As Randall Stevenson and Cairns Craig put it, Mary Queen of Scots… emphasises in its very theatrical nature, “the constructed, performed nature of both political power and gender role”.15 Horvat refers to the play’s freshness, part of which arises from just this ability of Lochhead’s in performance constantly to cast shifting light on events being addressed, so that, in the very act of performance, what is being presented is problematised. When Mary Queen of Scots… was written in 1987, ten years after Mary, despite the innovations of the 1970s and early 1980s, the preponderance of existing Scottish history plays had been written by men, usually within patriarchal frameworks, and implicitly or explicitly supported chauvinist and largely inward-looking perspectives on political, gendered and, indeed, religious visions of Scottish society. Therefore, when Lochhead interrogates dramaturgically the nature of history, myth and what matters in both, she is, as Jan McDonald and Jen Harvie propose, offering “the audience not a re-vision of the historical Mary, but a re-vision of the myth that popular culture has built up around her. […] Lochhead, using crosscutting and role-playing techniques, […] investigates the conflicting personal and public demands made on women”.16 Further, Margery Palmer McCulloch makes a key point about theatrical provenance when she explains,

  • 17 Margery Palmer McCulloch, “Bards and Radicals in Contemporary Scottish Poetry: Liz Lochhead, Jackie (...)

As might be expected as a result of its commissioning by Communicado, a company that performed in a non-naturalistic, Brechtian mode, Lochhead’s exploration of Scottish history in her Mary Queen of Scots play is itself very different from what one might call an endorsement-of-historical-reality drama […]; emphasising instead that it […] is intended to provoke questioning, to involve the audience in re-assessing and re-interpreting historical events as they have traditionally come down to us.17

31McCulloch’s term, “endorsement-of-historical-reality drama”, a term that might be applied to Kemp’s plays, for example, but not Lochhead’s, highlights that Lochhead makes no attempt to provide a naturalistic illusion of “historical reality”: rather, we have constant foregrounding of the very theatricality and performativity of the occasion. Thus, she highlights by implication the metatheatrical and performative nature not just of political power and gender roles, but, remembering E H Carr’s comment cited earlier, of history and myth.

32Conscious theatricality is expressed through a variety of methods. Whether it be the moment in Act One Scene Four when Knox is represented through economic stagecraft as simultaneously Calvinist reformer and modern Orangeman, the transitions through which Mary and Elizabeth play not only one another’s maids, Marian and Bessie, but Mairn and Leezie, street girls living by their wits, or such scenes as Act Two Scene Five where the murder of Riccio is communicated through a mummers’ play nominally performing “The Mask of Salome” where Mary is forced to play Herod, Lochhead’s story of Mary demands the audience participate in a helter-skelter journey of changing perspectives and perceptions. As Anne Varty observes,

  • 18 Anne Varty, “The Mirror and the Lamp: Liz Lochhead”, in Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan, eds, (...)

Masculine and feminine, Protestant and Catholic, repressed and oppressed, adult and child, English and Scottish, virgin and whore, imprisoned and free, the binaries of the argument multiply, swop, and converge. Audience perspective is kalei-doscoped and surprised [although we know what happens next and no-one wins].18

33When the play’s climax might be expected to focus on Mary’s death, it concludes in the scene entitled “Jock Thamson’s Bairns” where the cast enact cruel sectarian and sexualised modern children’s games, Marie is taunted as a “pape” and wee Knoxxy is bullied. Only then do they present their childish version of Mary’s execution and the company grab Marie/Mary by her throat in a red-lit tableau before a sudden blackout.

  • 19 This topic is one discussed in substantial detail and some of its theatrical implications examined (...)

34By the end of the last century, then, the ways in which a figure like Mary was being treated was transformed from the mid-century lay-figure pageant-play approach, based on, in Margery Palmer McCulloch’s term, “endorsement-of-historical-reality drama”, often only just earning the dynamic description, “drama”, and sometimes entirely missing a sense of the dramatic at all. Plays of the kinds under discussion were becoming at least as much about the nature of how we see powerful women and men as about those people themselves. Instances include, for example, John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil (1973), exploring exploitation of the Highlands and its people, Hector MacMillan’s The Royal Visit (1974) with its satire on Walter Scott’s promotional manipulation of George IV’s 1822 Scottish trip, and Stewart Conn’s Thistlewood (1975) or Donald Campbell’s Somerville the Soldier (1978), both of those exposing establishment subversion and corruption of popular resistance movements. In all of these, the play’s themes include how we see power performed, powerful people performing and history itself as performance. Whether focused on central women or men, such work interrogated as much the nature of historical understanding as character and events. As this chapter’s title notes, my own play about Queen Margaret came over twenty years after my play about Mary, and queen Margaret came before by five centuries. In another sense, the dramaturgical movement was backward too. While Mary questions the nature not only of varieties of versions of Mary Queen of Scots, it also questions the very nature of theatrical and historiographical authenticity: it is postmodern and deconstructive as Margaret simply is not. If Mary’s questioning represented progress, then Margaret was dramatically regressive: it focuses on telling the story of Margaret and her marriage to Malcolm III in a way not a million miles from McCulloch’s ‘endorsement-of-historical-reality drama’. This is not the place to follow further what has been implied earlier about the fluidity of any concept of ‘historical reality’ that might be “endorsed” whether in drama or not.19 Let us settle for the term as helpful in broadly characterising plays which do not in themselves question the nature of history. If Margaret is in a sense a throwback, why was it written?

35There are three answers. All tend to feed into the phenomenon that “endorsement-of-historical-reality drama” as a dramaturgical form has now to be revisited in the light of the experiments of the 1970s onwards. Such work now arguably interrogates, as much as represents, our historical understanding as well as the “reality” it performs.

36The first reason Margaret was written as it is, then, is a contextual one. In the light of the deconstructionist work of others, let alone my own, the “endorsement-of-historical-reality drama”, if it is to be effective now, has to revisit and revise “historical reality”, because the nature of history on stage in Scotland is now problematised and unstable. This means not that one cannot seek to explore historical characters and events, but that pageants and lay-figures will not now suffice for that exploration. One cannot turn back to the forms of mid-twentieth century work. The revisited “endorsement-of-historical-reality drama” has to embrace re-visioning of “history”, “reality” and “drama”.

37The second reason is a practical one. The play was commissioned out of a conversation I had with Clive Perry, then my fellow professor at Queen Margaret University, as that institution approached in 2000 the 125th anniversary of its oldest constituent part’s foundation. I said that maybe we should think of putting on a play about Margaret in our Gateway Theatre. Clive agreed in principle, but asserted it was not possible to write a play about a good person, or about goodness. I suggested that Margaret could not just have been good, though I recognised Perry was reacting to any hagiographic approach – whether he knew Kemp’s play or not – of the kind that had imbued earlier attempts to dramatise her life. So, on one level the challenge for me was to find a way of researching and realising Margaret as a historical individual, so far as I could, rather than a symbol of Christianity or Romanisation of the Celtic church or whatever. The challenge was to find a way to represent a saint without making her saccharine. To achieve what she did in terms of political and religious reform anyway, she would be less, I suspected, saccharine, more steel.

  • 20 This topic is one discussed in substantial detail and some of its theatrical implications examined (...)

38The third reason is a creative one. My interest had developed, in an earlier post-Mary play, in another woman with a powerful spirit. This was a Frenchwoman, Beatrice de Planissoles, a key figure in Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s wonderful exposition of life in an early fourteenth-century Cathar village, Montaillou. In the early 1980s I had been asked to write a one-woman play. Having been engaged by Beatrice’s evidence to the Inquisition and what it revealed about her life, beliefs and values, I was able to return, beyond Ladurie’s work, to the Latin text of her Inquisition and from that, inspired by Ladurie, write a one-woman play, which was to be performed by Monstrous Regiment, the women’s theatre company, in 1989. The very fact that a feminist company like Monstrous Regiment – which only ever produced work by one other male playwright, David Edgar20 – engaged with the play gave me the tentative confidence later to seek to write a play which represented Margaret as a rounded personality in the political and religious context of her times and in relationship with those around her. In that sense, Margaret is a rather old-fashioned play. Nonetheless, it was this emphasis on her rounded personality that allowed me to escape the sense I was presenting only a “good woman” and so evade the risk of hagiographic pageant. Indeed, I found myself exploring her marriage relationship with Malcolm who, despite the way he is traduced by my friend David Greig in Dunsinane (2010), was actually one of the most successful of Scotland’s medieval kings. This he was to the extent that around the same time in the fourteenth century as Alfred of Wessex was gaining the sobriquet “the Great” he was gaining his of “Ceann Mor”, signifying in Gaelic – rather than the odd translation sometimes heard, “Big Head” – “Malcolm the Great”. In other words, rather than the serious-but-jokey-but-serious games one can seriously engage in in post-modern representations of historical icons, the dramaturgical challenge was to explore dramatically in an earlier fashion the personality of a figure who had remained somewhat opaque in the public mind. What I aimed to do was to reclaim an earlier form of historical drama, but represent, instead of an icon of goodness, and without lay-figures or ideologically propagandistic axe-grinding, a strong, multifaceted woman directly engaged in religio-political power play.

  • 21 These plays are discussed in detail in History as Theatrical Metaphor.

39I claim no special credit for this. Others were still seeking to write “endorsement-of-historical-reality drama” with varying success. Indeed, Rona Munro, in a series of plays including The Maiden Stone (1995), The Last Witch (2009) and The James Plays (2014), has written strong roles in such plays for powerful women. In The James Plays, particularly, while she makes some remarkably odd, not to say bizarre, representations of Scottish history, nonetheless she refocuses our attention on the strong women she presents as active political players21.

40So, drawing on my own experience, I suggest that. in the 1970s and 1980s particularly, some Scottish playwrights, including myself, took a quizzical postmodern approach to the traditional “endorsement-of-historical-reality drama”, deconstructing it and arguing for the performative nature of political and gender roles in drama and daily life and the fluid nature of history and historical “reality”. Yet such developments allowed refreshment of the more traditional approaches to representation of Scottish history on stage of the kind previously employed by writers like Kemp or Bridie or, one might add, for example, Sydney Goodsir Smith in his tendentious 1960 The Wallace. This process did not supplant such dramaturgically more traditional plays, but did enhance their revitalisation by writers like Bill Bryden, Stewart Conn, Sue Glover and Rona Munro. Hence, it was possible for a playwright, as in my own case, having explored the deconstructive approach to historical drama, still to explore the potential of a reconstructive drama. This, rather than emphasising the performative nature of history, could accept that a play might seek to re-enact a performance, once more masking, but no longer able to hide, the processes by which history is constructed and performed. In short, the tools available for the playwright in dealing with Scottish history onstage were radically enhanced, but the new methodologies did not become a new orthodoxy. They were simply another avenue to explore and enjoy the dramatic potential of Scotland’s history. As Scotland has refreshed its sense of itself in the political debates of the 1970s onwards, it has been a stimulating time to continue fulfilling my early desire to write plays. Since 1970, Scottish theatre has refreshed and broadened its sense of what Scotland – understood through its history – might be. And it has done so without demanding new orthodoxies be rigidly followed. Rather as “Scotland” became increasingly “Scotlands”, all interlinked and all ideologically questioning established political and gender roles, so its history on stage became increasingly dramaturgically varied in presenting histories – and her stories – including those about those women who made “Scotland”.



Bridie, James, John Knox and other plays, London: Constable, 1949.

Brown, Ian, History as Theatrical Metaphor: History, Myth and National Identities in Modern Scottish Drama, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Campbell, Donald, The Ould Fella, Typescript, Scottish Theatre Archive, Glasgow University Library (n.d.).

Carr, E. H., What is History?, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

Fulbrook, Mary, Historical Theory, London: Routledge, 2002.

Greenblatt, Stephen, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Horvat, Ksenija, “Gender Politics in Late Twentieth-Century Drama”, in Ian Brown et al., eds, The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature vol. 3, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

Kemp, Robert, Master John Knox, Edinburgh: Saint Andrews Press, 1960.

Kemp, Robert, The Saxon Saint, Glasgow: Brown, Son and Ferguson, 1988.

McDonald, Jan and Jennifer Harvie, “Putting New Twists to Old Stories: Feminism and Lochhead’s Drama”, in Crawford, Robert and Anne Varty (eds.), Liz Lochhead’s Voices, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994, 134-5.

McMillan, Dorothy, “Choices: Poems 1972-2011”, in Anne Varty, ed., The Edinburgh Companion to Liz Lochhead, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013.

Palmer McCulloch, Margery, “Bards and Radicals in Contemporary Scottish Poetry: Liz Lochhead, Jackie Kay, and an Evolving Tradition”, in Ian Brown and Jean Berton, eds, Roots and Fruits: Scottish Identities, History and Contemporary Literature, Glasgow: Scottish Literature International, 2014.

Stevenson, Randall and Cairns Craig, eds, Twentieth-Century Scottish Drama: An Anthology, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001.

Stevenson, Randall, “Re-enter Houghmagandie: Language as Performance in Liz Lochhead’s Tartuffe”, in Robert Crawford and Anne Varty, eds, Liz Lochhead’s Voices, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.

Varty, Anne, “The Mirror and the Lamp: Liz Lochhead”, in Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan, eds, A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.


1 This chapter is developed from the paper, “Before Mary (1977), Margaret (2000): A male dramatist’s perspective on two Queens of Scots”, presented at the SFEE Aix conference, Ces femmes qui font l’Écosse, on Saturday 19 November 2016.

2 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 1. 2 Ibid., 20.

3 Donald Campbell, The Ould Fella, Typescript, Scottish Theatre Archive, Glasgow University Library, 9-10.

4 Mary Fulbrook, Historical Theory (London: Routledge, 2002), 195.

5 E. H. Carr, What is History? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 11.

6 “Introduction”, Master John Knox (Edinburgh: Saint Andrews Press, 1960), v.

7 Page references are to Robert Kemp, The Saxon Saint (Glasgow: Brown, Son and Ferguson, 1988).

8 Robert Kemp, Master John Knox, v.

9 Randall Stevenson, “Re-enter Houghmagandie: Language as Performance in Liz Lochhead’s Tartuffe”, in Robert Crawford and Anne Varty, eds, Liz Lochhead’s Voices (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), 109.

10 James Bridie, John Knox and other plays (London: Constable, 1949), 80.

11 Original typescript, p. 1.

12 Dorothy McMillan, “Choices: Poems 1972-2011”, in Anne Varty, ed., The Edinburgh Companion to Liz Lochhead (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 31.

13 Ksenija Horvat, “Gender Politics in Late Twentieth-Century Drama”, in Ian Brown et al, eds, The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 297.

14 Ibid.

15 Randall Stevenson and Cairns Craig, eds, Twentieth-Century Scottish Drama: An Anthology (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001), 465.

16 Jan McDonald and Jennifer Harvie, ‘ “Putting New Twists to Old Stories: Feminism and Lochhead’s Drama”, in Crawford and Varty, (eds.), Liz Lochhead’s Voices, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994, 134-5.

17 Margery Palmer McCulloch, “Bards and Radicals in Contemporary Scottish Poetry: Liz Lochhead, Jackie Kay, and an Evolving Tradition”, in Ian Brown and Jean Berton, eds, Roots and Fruits: Scottish Identities, History and Contemporary Literature (Glasgow: Scottish Literature International, 2014), 56-7.

18 Anne Varty, “The Mirror and the Lamp: Liz Lochhead”, in Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan, eds, A History of Scottish Women’s Writing (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), 652.

19 This topic is one discussed in substantial detail and some of its theatrical implications examined and interrogated in my History as Theatrical Metaphor: History, Myth and National Identities in Modern Scottish Drama (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

20 This topic is one discussed in substantial detail and some of its theatrical implications examined and interrogated in my History as Theatrical Metaphor: History, Myth and National Identities in Modern Scottish Drama (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

21 These plays are discussed in detail in History as Theatrical Metaphor.


Emeritus Professor in Drama at Kingston University, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Scottish Literature at Glasgow University and formerly President of the ASLS and Convener of the Saltire Society. He was General Editor of The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature (2007) and is series co-editor of The Edinburgh (now International) Companions to Scottish Literature. His edited collection The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Drama (‘essential reading’ – Alan Riach) was published by EUP in 2011 and his Scottish Theatre: Diversity, Language, Continuity (‘transformational’ – Anne Varty) by Rodopi in 2013. His History as Theatrical Metaphor: History, Myth and National Identities in Modern Scottish Drama was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016, who will publish his Performing Scottishness in 2020. A playwright and poet, his most recent poetry collection, Collyshangles in the Canopy, was published in 2015.

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