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Reassessing Robert McLellan: SRB at the Theatre – Scottish Review of Books
by Joseph Farrell

Reassessing Robert McLellan: SRB at the Theatre

August 3, 2014 | by Joseph Farrell

DURING the Franco dictatorship, the use of the Catalan language was banned both in private and in public, so in Catalonia one of the main consequences of the restoration of democracy was the ‘normalisation,’ that is, the assertion of the right to use what Catalans considered their normal language. I met more than one Catalan writer in those days who declared with great simplicity, ‘my nationalism is my language.’

Robert McLellan (1907 – 1985) held a similar view. There is series of quotations from him interspersed throughout this collection of his plays, and one reads, ‘When he speaks English, the Scot loses contact with the national element of his unconscious.’ Some critics have advanced the view that the growing use of English after the Union led to a split in the psyche, with English employed as the currency of thought and the suppression of Scots robbing people of the normal language of feeling. The word ‘national’ lacks the force or coherence of ‘natural’ or ‘normal’, but it was the rehabilitation of the Scots language which seems to have been McLellan’s main passion and a recurrent theme in his plays. Scots is the language always employed in his writing.

The Flouers o Edinburgh (1948) is a rumbustious, near-farcical comedy, set in post-Union, post-Jacobite, Enlightenment Edinburgh when anxieties about correctness of language were most strongly felt. Both David Hume and Adam Smith felt the need to have their treatises read by a linguistic connoisseur so that Scotticisms could be eliminated, and in the play the minister-poet Daniel Dowie, author of The Tomb, and the Lord Advocate Baldernock are prey to a sense of inferiority because of their Scots tongue. Lord Stanebyres is a more robust defender of Scotland’s legal and political rights, as well as a champion of the Scots language, so he is disappointed to find his son Charles, recently returned from the Grand Tour and a period in London, adopt different ways.

Aa’s wrang. Baldernock’s been lauched at in the Hoose o Lords because he daesna speak like an Englishman; Doctor Dowie here’s been sneered at by a wheen o poets in London because he daesna write like an Englishman; and here’s my son Chairlie lookin like a skeerie-malinkie queyn, and soondin like a corn-skrech wi a bad hoast, because he’s tryin to be what he caas British.

In the outlook of late Romantic nationalism, as proposed most strongly by Johann Gottfried von Herder, a nation is distinguished by three main factors – religion, history and language, which together constitute what a later generation would call ‘culture.’ In the nineteenth century, political and cultural movements in many countries went hand in hand, with the same people often driving both. In Helsinki in 1831, when the country was still under Russian rule and Swedish was still the main cultural vehicle, a Finnish Cultural Society was established, whose aim was to have Finnish become the official language of a state which did not yet exist. Similar movements were springing up in Greece, Poland and Ireland. De Valera was active in the Gaelic League as well as in the Nationalist movement.

The case of Scots is, yet again, more complex, not only because the question of the language was posed much later. Scott, Stevenson and Buchan used Scots in their dialogue but not in the narrative passages, while many Scots poets and playwrights today, as happens in Mauritius, Haiti, Quebec, India or Sicily employ the spoken speech of their region or nation. But there is still a problem in certain circles over Scots. Liz Lochhead’s 1998 comedy, Perfect Days, is currently being revived in Pitlochry and it has been remarked that there is an audible murmur when certain passages are spoken. Perhaps it is an objection to what the TV warnings describe coyly as ‘strong language,’ perhaps to the idiom of Glasgow, or perhaps the audience in Pitlochry is more refined, or ‘refained.’ Lochhead uses language, whatever language, with verve and poetic fantasy, a characteristic which is even more marked in her translations. Curiously, Scots has been more easily accepted for translations, such as Lochhead’s adaptation of Molière in Tartuffe, Edwin Morgan’s version of Cyrano de Bergerac, or Victor Carin’s translation of The Servant o’ Twa Maisters.

The central complexity that presents itself in the case of Scots concerns the choice not just of tone and rhythm but of register and vocabulary. In Perfect Days, Brendan, a hair dresser, says to Barbs who is scoffing at the present he had given her:

Gie’s a brekk, time I’d finished that full head highlights and you’d finally let us oot of work that night, ya bliddy slavedriver ye, there was bugger all open except Waterstone’s and the Nine o’ Clock Chemists on the corner, and it was either that or a box of foosty Quality Street oot the Asian Grocer’s for which I did not think you’d thank me.

Is this Scots or English with a Scots accent? There is no doubt that that passage has the tempo and the overheard quality of speech in the west of Scotland, and it is comprehensible without the use of a glossary. A younger writer, like D. C. Jackson with his play The Chooky Brae, to take only one example, writes unashamedly in the tones of Ayrshire, and while his writing is accessible to Scots, I have seen English theatre-goers struggle. Both writers use up-to-date Scots, which is a way of saying that it has none of the traditional vocabulary which distinguished Scots in other ages, and to which people are exposed when celebrating Burns on 25 January. In the current patois, ‘one’ becomes ‘wan’, ‘wee’ is omnipresent, ‘isn’t’ becomes ‘isnae’, and there remain a few distinctive words and phrases which often those who use them are unaware are exclusively Scots – pinky, pawky, couthy, or ‘you missed yoursel’ are random examples. As I write, my computer puts disapproving red squiggles under these expressions.

It was different in the period which George Bruce, in a poetry anthology, termed the Scottish Literary Revival. Once again there was, Scotland being Scotland, a complicating factor, the sentimental Kailyard school, whose couthy sentimentalism produced a brief flourish and swift reaction. In debates then, there were two obstacles to the universal use of Scots in writing, even when it became called Lallans rather than the Doric. One was the range of choices available to a Scottish writer – English, Scots or, in some cases, Gaelic. Norman MacCaig, for instance, declined to use any form of Scots. To some writers, English was their domestic language and Scots was simply not as natural as, presumably, Sicilian dialect to a Sicilian. The other was establishing what Scots was and agreeing on the range of vocabulary appropriate for addressing a modern reader. How much respect should one have for the development of the language, or to what extent should Scots be regarded as fixed in the age of … whom? Henryson, Burns, Scott or RLS? Would an English poet choose to write in the language of Wordsworth and Keats, let alone Shakespeare?

Hugh MacDiarmid famously chose a synthetic Scots, which allowed him to make use of a dictionary to employ words which he discovered as he flicked through the pages. McLellan, a friend of MacDiarmid, would have no truck with this approach. He did not need to. Born in the Clyde Valley, he received his schooling in the posher suburbs of Glasgow but he returned to the farm for his holidays so his ear was thoroughly attuned to Scots speech. He uses the language with confidence and naturalness, to the manner born. For him this was also an assertion of political philosophy, although none of his works concerns themselves overtly with politics of any stripe. He uses some Scots words even in stage directions, and resolutely refused to increase his audience by writing in English or by tempering his Scots. But does his language enhance his drama, or is it an application of principle, admirable in itself, but not necessarily an element which deepens his work or widens its appeal?

The Carlin Moth is a one-act, verse piece which has dance sequences and visual effects which would seemingly make it unsuitable for radio, but they had more imagination in those days and it was broadcast in 1946. The play has a Celtic Twilight feel which is not representative of his main work. It features only four characters, the Mother, the Lass who is her daughter, the Lad whom the Lass loves, and the Moth. The Lass, with her mother’s help, tries to attract the boy, but he is enchanted by the moth, who takes on the form either of a beautiful girl when appearing to the Lad or of an ugly witch when confronted by the two women. The play can be interpreted as a fable about human capacity to remake identity in accordance with desire and fantasies or simply as a fairy story set in some Never-never land. But what will the audience make of these lines, spoken by the Mother to express her disbelief that any man could be taken by a female so ugly as she appears to them?

A fozie neep beglaubert in the rain

Hauf eaten by a tup, and fou o’ snails

Wad put her face to shame, she’s sic a sicht.

No doubt in the spoken form conveyed by a skilled actor the words could still make an impact, but it is senseless to deny that this pure, traditional, classic Scots raises barriers.

McLellan was a poet and a short story writer but viewed himself principally as a playwright. Sweet Largie Brae (1956), commissioned by the BBC, is a work for voices, and perhaps the commission, if not the writing, owed something to the memory of Under Milk Wood. He wrote five radio plays, which are included in Robert McLellan: Playing Scotland’s Story, as well as a series of short stories which recall his childhood on the farm, but these are omitted from the new work. It is good to have his work readily available, in part because it gives some substance to the Scottish theatrical tradition, which, it has to be said, is a wee, sleekit cowrin but not unduly tim’rous beastie. It was the hope of some campaigners, notably Paul Henderson Scott, who advocated the establishment of the NTS, that one of its functions would be to stage Scots plays from other times and revive recent plays which had enjoyed one single run before being filed away on a library shelf. I cannot see McLellan being revived by the current management of the NTS, nor by any of the major theatres in Scotland, and I cannot bring myself to see that as an outrage.

In addition to the editor’s introduction, there are informative, engaged but not effusive essays by Douglas Gifford, Donald Campbell and Alastair Cording. Historical drama is McLellan’s genre, and Gifford makes the acute judgment that ‘re-reading McLellan’s work, I gradually became aware of an underlying pessimistic ethos. Scottish history is seen as damaged.’ More importantly, after noting the disagreements between McLellan and James Bridie over the future and nature of Scottish theatre, Gifford writes that ‘both writers came to seem out of kilter with the direction of Scottish theatre,’ which followed more the political passion and social protest of such writers as Ena Lamont Stewart or Joe Corrie (whose work will be toured by the NTS this autumn). Campbell states baldly that ‘whatever else he was, Robert McLellan was not a great playwright (his emphasis).’ He lacked the collaborative willingness, indispensable to theatre, to work with directors and actors. Campbell does add that McLellan was ‘a superb lyric poet who happened to have the additional gift of a great theatrical imagination.’

I am unsure about the ‘theatrical imagination’ Campbell generously attributes to him, although I do remember with affection a production in 1982 of Jamie the Saxt (1937), a work usually viewed as McLellan’s masterpiece, by the short lived Scottish Theatre Company. On stage, it showed an undeniable vitality and dynamism. On the page, McLellan reads badly, but it is impossible to conclude that he would now transfer easily to the stage. Donald Campbell informs us that McLellan resented any suggestion that cuts or alterations might improve his script, but it seems he would benefit from the attention of an intelligent director. His plots are often cluttered and awkward, twisting and winding before ending abruptly, his characters one-dimensional and often clownish, while his themes frequently shallow and undemanding, and the emotional life is not his forte. It is not just that his plays have no undercurrents; they have no real current of ideas. They live on stage as romps. The targets are recurrent and facile. In few of his works does he confront modern society, and then very gingerly.

McLellan was disappointed that his early work got all the attention, but The Hypocrite is a late play, and one all the contributors in this volume warm to. Hypocrisy is the easiest of targets for satire. It used to be the homage vice paid to virtue, but now it is the only sin a secular society recognises. The protagonist is a caricature of a righteous minister of the Kirk, Samuel Skinner, out to frustrate the plans of Signor Barocci to exhibit in Scotland etchings inspired by the canvases of Renaissance masters. Skinner’s objection is that the paintings are obscene and papist. McLellan would appear to give voice in several plays to the anti-Calvinism current among many writers in the 1930s, not on the grounds of theology but of its lack of colour. However the Rev. Skinner is seen exiting from the bedroom of a Lady who had seduced him, and faces ruination until the providential death of her husband means that the threatened divorce case cannot go ahead and so he is free to continue his hypocritical career. It is hard to see this thin work as an attack on double standards. McLellan himself was no hypocrite, but sadly there is a gulf between his aspirations and his attainments.

Robert McLellan: 

Playing Scotland’s Story

Edited by Colin Donati

Luath Press, £25

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