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The Production and Dissemination of Knowledge in Scotland

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Lesley Graham

1. Education and learning

Drama in education in post-Reformation Scotland

Ian Brown

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1There is a prevalent myth that somehow the Kirk after the Reformation suppressed all theatre, in some versions of the myth for centuries. My recent Scottish Theatre: Diversity, Language, Continuity (Rodopi, 2013) has drawn attention to the falsity of this myth. This chapter draws on the fuller discussion of this topic in that volume and concentrates on two related aspects of the findings of my history, the role of drama and theatre within the larger informal education purposes of the post-Reformation Kirk and its encouragement of drama within the context of formal education in schools the length and breadth of Scotland.

  • 1 Christopher Small, ‘Foreword’, in David Hutchison, The Modern Scottish Theatre (Glasgow: Molendinar (...)
  • 2 Edwin Morgan, ‘Towards a Literary History of Scotland’, Crossing the Border: Essays on Scottish Lit (...)

2The post-Reformation period is one when Scottish theatre and drama is often supposed to have been suppressed in a bleak landscape of Calvinist intellectual oppression. Theatre, in particular, has, in this version of historical narrative, been described as non-existent, suppressed by the Reformed Kirk. For example, Christopher Small, former Drama Critic of The Glasgow Herald, has talked of ‘looking backward over Scotland’s barren theatrical landscape […] the theatre condemned as the home of Belial, has every reason to count itself among the chief casualties of Presbyterianism’.1 As we shall see, the first statement lacks accuracy and the second is partial. As Edwin Morgan has said, ‘The history of drama in Scotland may be the blank it seems to be, and then again it may not; the fact is that until a complete history of it is written we are talking about it from insufficient knowledge’.2 While the volume that lies behind this chapter would in no way presume to lay claim to being ‘a compete history’, it is true that, as this chapter may demonstrate, it fills some gaps in our knowledge.

3In self-critically considering theatrical categories for Scotland, we must address more closely the role and nature of the Presbyterian Kirk, often characterised, as above by Christopher Small, as entirely theatre-hating. In fact, the Kirk had a far more complex relationship with theatre. It actually employed it widely, however much some of its more fundamentalist members may from time to time have opposed its professionalised forms.

  • 3 John McGavin, Theatricality and Narrative in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland (Aldershot: Ashgate (...)
  • 4 Sarah Carpenter, ‘Scottish Drama until 1650’, in Ian Brown (ed.), The Edinburgh Companion to Scotti (...)
  • 5 Margo Todd, The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland (New Haven: Yale University Press (...)
  • 6 This and the examples in the rest of this paragraph are drawn from Bill Findlay, ’Beginnings to 170 (...)
  • 7 ibid., p. 18.
  • 8 ibid., p. 19.
  • 9 ibid.

4Recent research by, inter alia, John McGavin (2007),3 Sarah Carpenter (2011)4 and Margo Todd (2002)5 shows that before, during and after their 1560 Reformation Scots were used to seeing theatre and theatricality as a means of challenging establishment views and exploring social, political and religious change. In fact, pace the reputation of the reformed Kirk as a suppressor of theatre as, in Small’s words, ‘home of Belial’, theatre was often more dangerous for playwrights before the Scottish Reformation than after. John Kyllour’s Historye of Christis Passioun was performed on Good Friday 1535 on the Stirling playfield in front of King, Court and townspeople.6 It was clear the Priests and Pharisees who condemned Christ were represented as paralleling the contemporary clergy’s blinding of, in Bill Findlay’s words, ’the people to the real Christ’.7 The Catholic hierarchy hunted Kyllour down. Finally in 1539, by order of Cardinal Beaton, he was burned at the stake in Edinburgh. James Wedderburn, brother of the compilers of the Gude and Godlie Ballates, around this time wrote ‘diverse comedeis and tragedeis in the Scotish tongue’ satirising Roman Catholic clergy, including the Beheading of Johne the Baptist and the Historie of Dyonisius the Tyranne. Findlay believed these to have both been performed in public in Dundee around 1540 when ‘letters of captioun’ were issued against Wedderburn and he fled to France to live in Rouen and then Dieppe. There, he died in 1550, charging his son, ‘We have beene acting our part in the theater: you are to succeed; see you that you act your part faithfullie! ’ As Findlay says, ‘The analogy of life to theatre suggests how strongly James Wedderburn believed in the socially and spiritually transforming power of drama’.8 It follows from these examples that there was no sense in which the Reformation brought about a new suppression of theatre. In a sense, it may even be said to have liberated it. Certainly, it was reformers in these cases who used theatre for radical purposes, most famously for us, perhaps, in David Lindsay’s Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis. He avoided censure, but, as Bill Findlay comments, ‘Lindsay, as a senior courtier, was protected by the King from the Church’s wrath but had his play burned in public’.9 For theatrical drama to serve such a radical function implies that it was embedded in popular consciousness. The very presence of playfields, like those of Stirling, Cupar and Edinburgh, in many towns highlights theatre’s existence as a regular feature of Scottish civic life.

  • 10 Todd, pp. 185-86.

5In fact, the reformed Church of Scotland, the Kirk, in many ways appropriated Scottish theatrical impulses and in doing so foreshadowed contemporary approaches to drama in education. Theatricality and drama became key means of the Kirk’s seeking to stamp its authority post-Reformation on the larger culture of the community. As Margo Todd says, ‘The elders were no fools; they chose their battles carefully, and with the priorities of the larger church and community in mind’.10 From such subtler, less constantly oppressive approaches than usual caricatures imply, she later observes:

  • 11 Todd, pp. 221-22.

The evidence suggests […] that protestantism may have succeeded in part because the sessions enforced their legislation against festivity lightly, flexibly and sporadically.. […] session minutes reveal them gradually subsuming old traditions into a new kind of festivity, with new ways of demonstrating individual and corporate status and communal cohesion in the face of both the linear and cyclical passage of time.11

6That is to say, the Kirk, as we shall see, found a role for drama both over the years and within the annual cycle of seasonal plays, like May plays. Nonetheless, drama might still be subversive: John McGavin gives an example in early seventeenth-century Haddington where the presbytery could not, or chose not to, suppress annual local plays in the two adjoining nearby villages of Samuelston and Salton. He observes a move

  • 12 John McGavin, ‘Drama in Sixteenth-Century Haddington’, European Medieval Drama 1 (1997), pp.156-57.

from urban to rural drama [… and] from unthinking pleasures to pleasures pointedly enjoyed in opposition to the kirk. [… The Presbytery’s] flurries of activity against rural drama, our only evidence that such drama took place, were all it could manage in the circumstances. By contrast, instances of adultery and fornication were frequently recorded.12

  • 13 Todd, p. 127.
  • 14 For example, Donald Campbell, Playing for Scotland: A History of the Scottish Stage 1715-1965 (Edin (...)
  • 15 Michael Newton, ‘Folk Drama in Gaelic Scotland’, in Ian Brown (ed.), The Edinburgh Companion to Sco (...)

7And, when these were discovered, as Margo Todd has pointed out, such sins demanded the Kirk’s own highly theatrical enactment of repentance, social responsibility and forgiveness. In this, the minister’s role, in Todd’s words, included those of ‘drama coach and director’.13 Understandably, many important historians of Scottish drama14 have concentrated on professional drama’s travails in Restoration and post-Union Edinburgh. ‘Drama’ – that is, performing – and ’theatre’ – watching performances – are, however, embedded in post-Reformation Scottish society both Lowland and – as Michael Newton has vigorously reminded us – Highland.15 The processes of repentance in the Kirk, for example, follow, in what is, technically, an informal education context, almost exactly the techniques of what in Scottish formal education is now actually called ‘drama-in-education’, where the student learns by performing.

8 One aspect of the Kirk’s support for drama over the year and over the years had far-reaching and positive outcomes for Scottish professional theatre and playwriting, not always anticipated by the more severe members of the ministry. That was its active encouragement of school and university drama, a Europe-wide humanist educational phenomenon. Plays were performed in Latin and in English, as McKenzie draws attention to in an important older and, until recently, rather neglected article in Scottish Historical Review. Following an older scholarly tradition he suggests that the Reformation set policies that certainly continued into the 1700s,

  • 16 J. McKenzie, ‘School and University Drama in Scotland, 1650-1760’, Scottish Historical Review, No 3 (...)

Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries exercised a stricter control, banning Sunday performances, censoring plays, and restricting the choice of subject. School plays were [however...] used […] for imparting religious instruction or for revealing the errors of the Roman Catholic faith.16

  • 17 McKenzie, p. 104.

9Glasgow Grammar School’s 1643 education plan requires that ’when the scholars have committed to memory dialogues, speeches, and particularly comedies, they are to assume the characters of the speakers, rehearsing in an imitative fashion in order to acquire the arts of good pronunciation and acting’.17 H G Graham notes the purpose was to further learning, and

  • 18 H. G Graham, Social Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, 4th ed. (London, 1937) p. 439, quot (...)

not to pander to any sinful love of playing; and indeed, the pieces selected were admirably gifted to extinguish utterly all fondness for the stage in juvenile breasts throughout their natural life.18

10Yet, it seems clear that in many cases school performances embedded drama in the pupils’ breasts, and presumably their parents’ and the community’s consciousness (unless early modern parents’ view of their children’s theatrical performances were substantially different from ours – which one might beg leave to doubt!). When Scotland developed professionalised theatre and Scots later wrote for London stages, the drivers were largely the professions – including advocates and ministers, the very people to have seen, or participated in, school drama. It is an odd by-product of the Treaty of Union’s maintenance of the independence of Scots education, law and religion that the interaction of these three spheres should support the later eighteenth-century development of professional theatre in Scotland.

  • 19 McKenzie, p. 104.
  • 20 ibid., p. 104, 119.
  • 21 ibid., p. 106.

11Many schools across Scotland annually performed plays from the classical repertoire or occasional pieces by their masters for festive occasions, for the end of school years or for visitations by local magistrates, ministers and, sometimes, patrons. In 1659, though Cromwellian anti-theatrical rule pertained throughout Scotland, Aberdeen Town Council actually required quarterly visitations where various classical or renaissance pieces were played. In 1711, it required a public theatre to ‘be erected in some publict place of the toune, as the counsell shall think fit and there some publict action to be acted by the schollars of the said school’.19 Other councils, like Dumfries, Haddington, Lanark, Paisley and Selkirk, also at times contributed expenses for public performances.20 Meanwhile, school drama, often publicly presented, was seen in the late 1600s and early 1700s in, besides communities already mentioned, Crail, Dalkeith, Dunbar, Dundee, Dunkeld, Forfar, Forres, Glasgow, Hamilton, Kirkcaldy, Leith, Montrose, North Berwick, Perth and Selkirk. Even Lundie, a small village in the Carse of Gowrie, produced its play, though in 1688 the Dunkeld Presbytery suspended the master, William Bouok, for ‘acting a comoedie wherein he mad a mock of religious duties and ordinances’.21 Clearly Kirk anxiety about drama was based not only on doubts about theatre’s morality, but on drama’s power to interrogate politico-religious values critically and influentially. There is no evidence, however, that Bouok, unlike the unfortunate pre-Reformation dramatist Kyllour, was burned at the stake for his satirical drama.

  • 22 ibid., pp. 106-07.

12Meantime, university students in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow also performed, sometimes as in Edinburgh in 1681 in theatro publico and occasionally controversially as in 1720 when Glasgow university authorities opposed students’ desire to play Tamerlane, objecting to men playing in women’s clothes. The students would not concede; some masters supported them; permission to perform, but not on university premises, was finally conceded; on 30 December the performance took place in the Grammar School.22 The theatre after the Reformation, even more than before it, was a site for cultural contestation.

13School drama had a wider impact. Local schoolmasters’ roles could be significant and school drama near Samuelton and Saltoun had an important specific significance for Scottish theatre. Haddington’s master from 1720 to 1731 was John Leslie, a friend of Allan Ramsay’s. John McGavin’s work on sixteenth-century Haddington’s dramatic vitality, already cited, tempts one to see its teacher’s and pupils’ later lively dramatic ambitions as springing from continuing underlying community interest. This may explain why The Gentle Shepherd, first published in 1725, was revised into a ballad-opera for Haddington Grammar School pupils’ performance in Edinburgh’s Taylor’s Hall, the chief Scottish professional theatre venue of the time, on 22 January 1729. Clearly, by then, plays performed by scholars might be contemporary, even highly secular: in 1731, the year Leslie became Dalkeith’s schoolmaster, Vanbrugh’s The Provok’d Husband was performed there, only three years after its Drury Lane première. That is quicker than some popular West End plays now make it into the repertoire of British regional theatres.

14In light of all this, talk of ‘Scotland’s barren theatrical landscape’, widely suppressed for centuries after the Reformation in Scotland, seems odd. One explanation for such a view is, of course, over-dependence on a small range of sources, possibly partisan, accepted at face value. The theatre-loving advocate Hugo Arnot’s simplistic anathematisation of the Kirk’s views on theatre in his 1779 History of Edinburgh has become the sole foundation for some later ‘history’ – this source recurs in the references and bibliographies of many histories of Scottish or British theatre. His views are not dispassionate: he was quite explicit about his attachment to theatre and quite partisan about what he saw as small-mindedness in the Kirk. Another explanation is that the lens through which some writers have seen the history of Scottish drama is purely that of professional building-based theatre. I suggest this is a limited and reductive framing of a complex topic. Forms of drama and theatre with little, if anything, to do with professional paradigms were available in post-Reformation Scotland in both informal and formal educational contexts. Meanwhile there was a strong and continuing tradition of theatre and drama in Scotland which was not entirely suppressed by the Reformation, but was actually widely used by the Kirk for its own ends, while the Kirk failed time and again to suppress forms of theatre and drama of which, for whatever reason, it did not approve.

Notes

1 Christopher Small, ‘Foreword’, in David Hutchison, The Modern Scottish Theatre (Glasgow: Molendinar Press, 1977), p. v.

2 Edwin Morgan, ‘Towards a Literary History of Scotland’, Crossing the Border: Essays on Scottish Literature (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1990), p. 12.

3 John McGavin, Theatricality and Narrative in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).

4 Sarah Carpenter, ‘Scottish Drama until 1650’, in Ian Brown (ed.), The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), pp. 6-21.

5 Margo Todd, The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

6 This and the examples in the rest of this paragraph are drawn from Bill Findlay, ’Beginnings to 1700’, in Bill Findlay (ed.), A History of Scottish Theatre (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1998), pp. 18-19.

7 ibid., p. 18.

8 ibid., p. 19.

9 ibid.

10 Todd, pp. 185-86.

11 Todd, pp. 221-22.

12 John McGavin, ‘Drama in Sixteenth-Century Haddington’, European Medieval Drama 1 (1997), pp.156-57.

13 Todd, p. 127.

14 For example, Donald Campbell, Playing for Scotland: A History of the Scottish Stage 1715-1965 (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1996) and Bill Findlay (ed.), A History of Scottish Theatre (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1998).

15 Michael Newton, ‘Folk Drama in Gaelic Scotland’, in Ian Brown (ed.), The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), pp. 41-46.

16 J. McKenzie, ‘School and University Drama in Scotland, 1650-1760’, Scottish Historical Review, No 34 (1955), p. 103.

17 McKenzie, p. 104.

18 H. G Graham, Social Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, 4th ed. (London, 1937) p. 439, quoted in McKenzie, p. 104.

19 McKenzie, p. 104.

20 ibid., p. 104, 119.

21 ibid., p. 106.

22 ibid., pp. 106-07.

Auteur

Professor Emeritus at Kingston University, London, playwright and poet, has been ASLS President and Saltire Society Convener. Published widely on theatre history, cultural praxis and Scottish literature and culture, his most recent volume is History as Theatrical Metaphor: History, Myth and National Identities in Modern Scottish Drama (2016) and poetry collection, Collyshangles in the Canopy (2015).

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