Why Shakespeare should be sacrificed for ‘dire’ Scots

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By Kenneth Roy
 
Ena Lamont Stewart wrote this letter to one of my children in response to a request about choosing her play ‘Men Should Weep’ as a study text:
 
Six weeks to O Levels! Horrors! I am glad it’s you and not me, but I am sure you will do well. About your query re scene or character from a play. You could use ‘Men Should Weep’ because it is published and has been professionally produced (and I should be very flattered!). 

By Kenneth Roy
 
Ena Lamont Stewart wrote this letter to one of my children in response to a request about choosing her play ‘Men Should Weep’ as a study text:
 
Six weeks to O Levels! Horrors! I am glad it’s you and not me, but I am sure you will do well. About your query re scene or character from a play. You could use ‘Men Should Weep’ because it is published and has been professionally produced (and I should be very flattered!). I think if I were writing about a play I would concentrate on one character and write about the kind of person he/she was and then deal with what happened to him/her through involvement with the other characters. Granny, for instance, or the weak son, Alec. The advantage might be that you would be on your own. Most people will be choosing something well known.

But then the author wonders about the wisdom of this advice, and attaches a PS:

The thought occurs to me that you may be expected to deal with a well known play which the examiners will have studied, in which case I would stick to a classic! It might be safer. Check with your teacher.

This is a letter full of warmth and encouragement, but it is also a rather sad letter. It concludes with a recognition that the boy might be doing himself no favours by choosing an obscure Scottish drama, which at that stage had been revived only once since its original production in Glasgow in 1947. What Ena was not to know, and would never have dreamt, was that ‘Men Should Weep’ would be named by the National Theatre (of Great Britain) as one of the 100 greatest plays of the 20th century. She was still alive when this honour was bestowed in the millennium year, but knew nothing of it. By then she had lost all memory.

…I would stick to a classic! It might be safer. Check with your teacher.

There is no longer any need to check with the teacher. ‘Men Should Weep’ is itself a classic now. Its status, with that of its author, has been transformed in less than quarter of a century. But a fatal national disease was stamped over that letter.

Like so many Scottish writers, Ena had been taught by years of indifference to expect very little. Another playwright of the same era, Joan Ure (Elizabeth Clark in whatever passed for her ‘real’ life), spoke to me bitterly of having been ‘starved by neglect’ and died before her 60th birthday without serious recognition in her own country. The work of her contemporary and close friend Ian Hamilton Finlay, an artist as well as a writer, was greeted with such blank incomprehension that he came to regard with the deepest suspicion any goodwill extended to him in Scotland. From a slightly later period, Cecil Taylor, a prolific dramatist with a Glasgow Jewish background which informed much of his work, was so affected by critical hostility north of the border that he chose to live in a Northumberland village. A few miles over that border made all the difference; he assured me he could breathe more easily there.

I quote these examples because they were personally familiar to me, but they were far from being unusual. This country has a shameful record of discouraging writers and destroying their work. The latter is literally true. Despite some belated efforts to rescue scripts from oblivion, most of the new plays performed in Scotland since the second world war no longer exist in any form. It is a shocking state of affairs and any attempt to remedy it should be applauded. I do therefore applaud the efforts of the present education minister, Mike Russell. But the malaise goes somewhat deeper.

A young Norman MacCaig, a teacher at the time, said he would have ‘Palgrave’s Golden Treasury’ forcibly removed from Scottish schools; he may have recommended a mass bonfire. What, he raged, did ‘Palgrave’s Golden Treasury’ have to tell a Scottish boy (he didn’t mention girls) about the nature of his existence? Fancying myself as a Scottish boy at one time, I have to agree. These visions of a remote, idealised society taught me nothing about the nature of my existence on the stony ground of Bonnybridge, and nor – ultimate heresy coming up – did Shakespeare have much to say to me. I am with Joan Littlewood. He was not a bad old hack. Some of his quotes are in the Woody Allen class. But even now I cannot sit through three hours of one of his works, over-cooked to the required state of reverence by Ac-Tors, without having to suppress an urge to scream. The legs twitch involuntarily.

It is perhaps a result of my plebian tastes. The Scottish boy in me would have preferred the good doctor Chekhov, a modern man whom I have always adored, or the gloomy Scottish dramatist Henry Gibson (Henrik Ibsen as he was better known in Norway), both of whom would have said more to me about the nature of my existence; and I would have appreciated an early introduction to Edwin Muir’s ‘Scottish Journey’, to the novels of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and to the sayings of the wild man Christopher Grieve who would have scared and fascinated me with his dangerous ideas. I knew nothing of any of this – or them. I knew mainly the English classics, with a smattering of Burns and a song called ‘The Piper o’ Dundee’ which I recited constantly; and, of course, ‘Palgrave’s Golden Treasury’, cover to cover.

The Scottish boy in me was suppressed; I see that now. I was brought up as a British boy. We all were. It was a post-war phenomenon.

I fondly imagined that things were different now. But then I saw this headline in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. I shouldn’t allow myself to be upset by headlines in the Daily Telegraph; it is too lowering. But this one got under my skin:

Shakespeare replaced by ‘dire’ Scottish works in curriculum overhaul

This is a lie: Shakespeare isn’t being replaced, although there may be slightly less of him. I would settle for no Shakespeare at all for a while, pending a critical re-evaluation of the artistic merits of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. If we’re talking ‘dire’, look no further than some of the pot boilers from Stratford-upon-Avon.

But the lie is the least of it. The ‘story’ under the disgraceful headline concerns the SNP government’s modest but laudable scheme to introduce a compulsory Scottish text in the higher exams. English teachers, poor souls, cannot wait for the next of their many holidays, so overwrought are they by being ‘forced’ to teach plays and novels by Scotland’s own writers. Help. A monstrous imposition. Scottish writers, indeed. In a country called Scotland. Whatever next? And, of course, the home-grown product is ‘dire’. We ought to know our place: we should have stuck with ‘Palgrave’s Golden Treasury’.

Stubbornly, however, I feel a small sense of obligation to Ena, and Joan, and that difficult customer Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Cecil, and all the other perpetrators of ‘dire’ Scottish works past and present. I hope that the education minister’s lasting achievement will be to inculcate – by compulsion if it has to be that way – an appreciation of Scottish literature in future generations, an appreciation denied to my own generation by a deliberate policy of cultural absorption. No other self-respecting nation would behave in this extraordinary way. The teachers should be instructed to get over themselves, and get on with it.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review