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The Traverse at Fifty – Scottish Review of Books
by Joseph Farrell

The Traverse at Fifty

March 27, 2013 | by Joseph Farrell

When in 1887 Lady Gregory and W B Yeats sent out a letter seeking backing for the theatre that would become The Abbey, they stated clearly that the aim was to encourage plays ‘written with high ambition and so build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature.’ When in post-war Italy, Paolo Grassi and Giorgio Strehler drew up a manifesto for Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, they outlined their vision of theatre as a social service, as necessary to society as education or health. When in 1965, the free-wheeling Mickery Theatre was established in Amster-dam, its founder Ritsaert Ten Cate declared he was out to provide a venue dedicated to experimental, avant-garde ventures. And when the political climate created by the demonstrations and occupations in 1968 gave birth to a new style of theatre company, ranging from Dario Fo’s Nuova Scena to Peter Stein’s Schaubuhne in Berlin, they each issued high-minded manifestos proclaiming the new troupes to be socialist cooperatives committed to producing popular, mostly political, theatre and attracting ‘alternative’ (defining word of the Sixties) audiences.

So where is the comparable statement for the Traverse? What was it for? It came into being in 1963, and its history is garlanded with statements describing it as the most important theatre in, variously, Scotland, Britain, Europe, the World, and as having an unrivalled reputation for nurturing new writing. It is agreed on all sides that the Traverse matters, so why is it so hard to establish the initial driving force? Successive scandals, as well as directorial or committee disputes, have been discussed in anxious editorials in terms more suited to the Sarajevo assassination, sometimes leaving the impression that theatre-goers should tread carefully on the way to the auditorium so as to avoid pools of blood. There was no founding manifesto, no ringing declamation, indeed no programme at all. If the other theatres mentioned strode confidently into public life bolstered by conviction or credo, the Traverse seems to have peeped out like a mole emerging blinking into daylight, somewhat surprised at the hill it created as it burrowed to the surface. Maybe that is the Scottish way. Maybe David Hume has left a legacy of distrust of grand principles and an inchoate belief that it is better just to get on with the job, whatever that job is.

But that is not satisfactory either. If there were, in Hamish Henderson’s words on another age, ‘no gods and previous few heroes’, there were dreamers, aspirers and even visionaries. The problem is that the early members who are still around disagree over what their hopes were then. It is not even clear that the Traverse was to be a theatre. Perhaps it was to be a meeting place, a forum where like-minded people could meet and exchange ideas. Jim Haynes ran the legendary Paperback Bookshop in Edinburgh which was a proto-theatre and was certainly a place for debate. George Rosie, later journalist and playwright, frequented it and remembers the lively arguments but, with the scoffing scepticism of his teenage years, was decidedly underwhelmed by the level of the quasi-philosophical discussion. Maybe that too is the Humean outlook. Others were more impressed. It might even be that some deep symbolism should be attached to the assertion made by Joyce McMillan in her stimulating, insightful 1988 history of the Traverse, that the very name was a misunderstanding. The first artistic director, Terry Lane believed that traverse was the name for the design and shape of a theatrical space like the Traverse’s first home on the Lawn-market. Later he discovered that the correct term was ‘transverse,’ but by then the name had gathered the mystical qualities it would never shed. 

The impression is that the Traverse was the product of enthusiasm, energy, creativity and, above all, dissatisfaction, all bonded by the coming together in the one place of a group of people who were frustrated by the cultural and artistic status quo of an Edinburgh still weighed down by an eternal Calvinism of the spirit and by the heavy dullness of the post-war era. The past is not a different country, but its landscape has subtly different contours. The dominant cultural force then as now was the Festival, although for many its real excitement was located in the Fringe. In 1963, the City Council still viewed the Festival as a foreign and largely unwelcome implant which disturbed the digestive system of the douce body politic. Censorship was still in force nationwide,  and could only be circumvented in the way it had been when Ibsen was introduced to Britain, by the establishment of a private club, which the Traverse became. Sexual intercourse, as Philip Larkin intimated, may have been invented in 1963, and there were certainly people, males especially, who were prepared to risk volunteering for that apparently untested experience. And while the ‘Sixties’ may have been slow to arrive in Scotland there were rumours of changes in the offing and of sightings of something called the Permissive Society, but elsewhere. On the other hand, in many aspects decline has subsequently occurred. The role of the Welfare State in providing for people’s needs was unchallenged, standards of living were rising, students had no debt and thus spare cash for cultural activities, and Aids was unknown. Maybe living was for now. In 1963, the sense that Edinburgh was a cultural desert for most of the year but an oasis of culture for three weeks was strong, so a driving ambition was to create some centre which could be all-year round Fringe. The critic Michael Coveney wrote that the Traverse was Britain’s ‘first fringe theatre.’ There were other clubs elsewhere, but the adjective ‘first’ sits well with the Traverse. 

Some of the early Traverse members are, with hindsight, wholly unexpected. Who can match the Nicky Fairbairn who was on the board of the Traverse with the man who later became the censorious, gruff Tory MP? The names of Jim Haynes and Richard Demarco, founders both, have maintained their allure. The history of the Traverse can be written in many ways, and since it has risen to the status of institution it is tempting to write that history as a struggle between Prussians and Bohemians, between the indispensable, not always grey, people who form committees and negotiate with ministries and local authorities, and the anarchic, open-eyed, devil-may-care, free-wheelers endowed with a mentality it is pleasant to tag ‘artistic.’ The deficiency of the artistic mentality is that it rarely actually produces art, although it may make its production possible. Demarco and Haynes were and are romantics, animated by vision, optimism, energy, enthusiasm and intelligence, all marred by a certain existential carelessness. Demarco is an altruistic egoist, once described by John Byrne as a ‘secular saint,’ but saints are exasperating people. He was ousted in the early days by a committee which did not understand his passion for art or the demons which drove him. There is a fire in him which can mean that conversations are liable to be interrupted by cries of ‘Look, look!’ perhaps at something no more remarkable than a sunset but a sight he is desperate to have appreciated.

So the Traverse happened, but the question of what it was and is remains open. When I met Orla O’Loughlin, the current artistic director, I wondered what had drawn her to this particular theatre. ‘The Traverse is a legend,’ she replied thoughtfully and might have gone on even more thoughtfully had I not interrupted her rudely at the mention of the word ‘legend’, which has attached itself to the Traverse as an adornment, a challenge, an obstacle or an invitation. With the Citizens in the days of glorious epoch of Havergal-MacDonald-Prowse, the comparable word was ‘style.’ The term irritated all three of them, who disbelieved in a single Citizens style and asserted that each of the three had a style of his own. In the Traverse, every director has to live with the legend but has the chance to reshape it. For the impressively astute Ms O’Loughlin, the Traverse is essentially a writer’s theatre, and so it has been for some time. Playwright Peter Arnott speaks gratefully of a meeting with directors Peter Lichtenfels and Jenny Killick when all he had done was some student work, which Killick had seen and enjoyed. They told him to write a big play for three actors. Being temporarily, and untypically, bereft of ideas, Arnott went to the library, found a book on Soviet women pilots in World War II and produced White Rose. O’Loughlin today speaks joyfully of her pleasure at working with contemporary playwrights such as David Greig, Donald Maxwell and Peter Arnott. On appointment, she promised to make time for any playwright who wished to come and talk to her, and last year launched an ambitious venture when aspiring writers were invited to submit 500 word scripts, and she is continuing to develop many of these.

‘The Traverse Theatre is Scotland’s new writing theatre,’ it says on its website, and this dedication to new writing is now inscribed into the Traverse’s DNA, but it was not always. Some past directors have chafed at the constriction of working only with new writers, and have been unhappy at being unable to stage new interpretations of classical or at least established work. In the 1980s, Lichtenfels was happier with innovative, translated work. O’Loughlin says she is glad she has the opportunity to work elsewhere on more familiar, perhaps classic, plays, but that the Traverse will remain the shrine of innovative, unperformed work. In its early days, the main impulse seems to have been to let in some air from Europe, so works by Arrabal, Sartre, Brecht and Betti featured. George Rosie saw an early production of Ubu Roi, but his clearest recollection was of amazement at hearing swear words on stage. It was a liberation of a sort. So too were the scandals provoked by early work, such as Balls which consisted of two tennis balls swinging in the void, or other works involving nudity, obscenity, blasphemy all leading to media denunciation and to debates in the City Chambers, with the late Councillor Kidd prominent among the scourges of licentiousness. We live in tamer days.

The website’s slogan also underlines the theatre’s Scottishness, and here lies another source of recurring strife, although less so in recent years. The issue of the obligations of theatres and galleries in Scotland to foster native talent has always been a thorny one, made more prickly by the fear that focus on local ability would in some way expose the institution in question to the dire charge of provincialism, the sin against the Holy Ghost. There is something in the Scottish psyche which whispers that too much self analysis is harmful, that real political or aesthetic depth is attained only when the gaze is turned outward. Conversely, the Citizens was always open to the charge that its self-view as a classical theatre meant that it disregarded current conditions, Scottish writing and Scottish traditions, a charge now raised in some quarters against the National Theatre of Scotland. In an odd way, the Citizens and the Traverse tacitly helped each other out. The Citizens were able to point to the Traverse, the Tron and later the Arches, as complementary places which cultivated contemporary talent, leaving them free to stage re-evaluations of classical theatre. The Traverse became at ease with its part in this divide of responsibilities. Perhaps this tacit collaboration reached its peak when John Byrne took The Slab Boys trilogy to Giles Havergal, who recognised its worth but felt it was not right for his company. He suggested to Byrne that he offer his play to the Traverse, where under David Hayman’s assured direction it became one of the company’s most successful productions. The ‘Scottish question’ in its widest sense is now, in the lead-up to the referendum, more urgent than ever. Playwrights like Greig and Arnott in particular have puzzled over dilemmas of identity for years, sometimes, especially in the case of Greig, in plays set in foreign borderlands or in those no-man’s-lands which are airport lounges. O’Loughlin, who took Alasdair Gray’s recent remarks on ‘settlers and colonialists’ more personally than the genial Gray could have intended, says she is on the lookout for the play which will dramatise tellingly the predicament of the state of the Union, but has not so far found it.

It is, by the way, puzzling that at a time when Scotland has produced more playwrights and actors of international quality than at any point in history, no really top quality director has so far emerged, so the  task of nurturing Scottish playwriting talent at the Traverse has been left to some English directors who happily took on the task. Chris Parr in the 1970s was especially active and successful on this front, as was Jenny Killick in the 80s. The contribution of the Traverse in recent decades to Scottish playwriting cannot be underestimated, but often this is expressed according to a very Scottish habit of mind which decrees that every achievement will be met and resisted by an equal and opposite force of patrician or sniggering disparagement. Peter Arnott suggested that the centrality of the Traverse could be seen both in what it had done and in what had been done in opposition to it, by rival cliques who loathed what it came to stand for. At one point, the Edinburgh Playwrights’ Workshop and the Traverse, now viewed as the establishment venue, were two sides in a civil war, but each galvanised the other.

The history of the Traverse could be written from many angles, for instance in terms of the three buildings it has occupied – an ex-brothel in the Lawnmarket, a building up a close on the Grassmarket which gave a frisson of historical as much as contemporary excitement each time it was entered, and the current modern building in Cambridge Street. The space as much as authorial imagination, directorial initiative or actorial flair determines the nature of what can be done.

For individual theatre-goers, its history will be recalled in terms of memorable experiences. Simon Callow has written in Being an Actor of his delight in playing in 1974 in C. P. Taylor’s adaptation of Schippel, a work I remember as one of the most deftly and amusingly staged comedies I have ever seen. Jo (then John) Clifford’s Losing Venice in 1985 is another that merits a place in the same most treasured category. Seemingly, Clifford and director Jenny Killick were convinced during rehearsals that they had a flop on their hands, but the whimsical, probing work featuring the Spanish poet Quevedo and an ageing Doge whose concern is not with the threat from Spain but with the inadequacies of his dinner exploded into riotous life on stage. It received then, and still requires, delicate handling. A Los Angeles production, where the director had one of the Spanish soldiers wearing a Nazi helmet, crushed its delicate magic. 

But most effectively, the history should be written in terms of the writers who have worked there, but here too a distinction has to be made between excellent playwrights who have had work performed there, such as Byrne and Liz Lochhead, and others who can be viewed as Traverse playwrights. Of the latter, the pre-eminent are surely C P Taylor and Stanley Eveling. The philosophical probing which underlay much of Eveling’s delicate, unconventional dramatic structures delighted a generation of theatregoers, which makes it all the sadder that his final dissociation from the Traverse was so painful. They are both dead and in history, but they helped nurture that most timid of flora, the Scottish theatre tradition. Others carry on in their own way. The Traverse has been fertile ground for that delicate, but now thriving, flower. 

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