Dràma na Gàidhlig: Opening the curtain on neglected Scottish pieces

Over the past two months I have looked at the history of Scottish plays, performances and theaters, presenting many works in Scottish and English – but now we need to change the way we think. The Gaelic world is different.

Start with the role of the seanchaidh, the storyteller, in traditional Gaelic society, a role that could be compared to that of the playwright and actor, who not only tell but perform stories in front of an audience. And think of the folk drama, sometimes involving an element of dance, and the Gaelic-speaking tradition of ceilidh, a celebratory gathering with joint performances, including chants and monologues as well as storytelling.

These forms of performance were very prevalent in Gaelic culture and after the Clearances they traveled and settled in Scottish industrial towns. Michelle Macleod, the editor of this new anthology, alerts us to these components of Gaelic theatricality in her essay “The Gaelic Drama: The Forgotten Genre in Gaelic Literary Studies”, in Lainnair a ‘Bhùirn – The Gleaming Water: Essays on Modern Gaelic Literature, edited by Emma Dymock and Wilson McLeod (2011).

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And Adrienne Scullion has suggested that such songs and performances contributed significantly to the development of a uniquely Scottish form of popular music hall performance. In the literary tradition there were the còmhraidhean, or written dialogues, popularized by Reverend Norman MacLeod (“Caraid nan Gàidheal”, 1783-1862), published in Gaelic periodicals and collected in anthologies. MacLeod can be considered the first author of Gaelic plays as performed in the theatrical tradition, which, of course, usually arises in an urbanized economy from which, for many centuries, the Gàidhealtachd was free.

Michelle Macleod identifies two ways of exploring the origins of theater in general – one is the concept of “performance” and the other is the development of dramatic “text”. Performativity is and always has been a key element in civic, social, political and even intellectual life. The courtroom is an inherently theatrical scenario. Its counterpoint is passivity, contemplation, resignation or resolution.

Performance requires action. Friedrich Nietzsche summed it up in a memorable way in the fourth part of Beyond Good and Evil (1886): “What? A great man ? I still only see the actor of his own ideal.

Macleod’s proposal suggests two ways of understanding theater: one, a capacity for engagement with others through play, gesture, performance, and the other a literary text to be used in productions, basis for the performance, which serves as an intermediary between the social world of daily news and the political, domestic, human events from which an audience of civilians is normally drawn to assist, assist and learn from the production of this “text”.

The room, says Hamlet, is where he will catch the king’s guilty conscience. The plays are traps for the unwary, exhibitions, exercises for the speculating mind, experimental tests, staged constructions to experiment with ideas, alternative perspectives, interpretations of past events, thoughts on what might happen next, prompts for better understanding.

In the “Drama” section of Michelle Macleod and Moray Watson’s essay, “In the Shadow of the Bard: The Gaelic Short Story, Novel and Drama since the Early Twentieth Century”, in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, volume 3 : Modern Transformations: New Identities (from 1918), edited by Ian Brown, co-edited by Thomas Own Clancy, Susan Manning and Murray Pittock (2007), we are told that The Humors of Greenock Fair (1789) and The Highland of Archibald Maclaren Drover (1790), include the dialogue in Gaelic, in the latter case without any translation being involved in the responses of the English-speaking characters.

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These have apparently been performed in Inverness, Aberdeen, Perth, Dundee and Greenock. These towns all border on the Gaelic-speaking areas of the time, Greenock being a major fishing port with a large seasonal fishing population from across the west coast, so the audience for these plays was most likely bilingual in Gaelic and English. Audience records from the late 1700s are rare, but these plays were successful enough to be shot in theaters close to the Gàidhealtachd.

Of all the literary arts, the theater, with its need to employ actors and technical staff, is the most directly dependent on financial support. This usually goes through the box office. Directors don’t spin plays that don’t make money around five theaters, let alone those that are relatively far apart. It is clear that Maclaren’s pieces incorporating Gaelic dialogue were successful in their day.

The seminal modern play on multilingual identity and its political and social contexts is the Translations of Brian Friel (1980), set in Donegal in 1833. Irish, Latin and Greek are familiar to the school of local village, but when the Irish and English characters speak to each other, they are mutually incomprehensible, although the words of the Irish characters are “translated” into English for the public.

The play features the creation of maps and the translation of Irish place names into English as part of a larger political and colonial struggle that has personal consequences, as lovers seek to overcome linguistic and national divisions with results. deadly.

Maclaren’s 18th-century Scottish multilingual plays suggest that the apprehension and fluency of the language in Scotland was much better than the conventions of English plays in 21st-century Britain and America demonstrate. century.

There appears to have been a play performed entirely in Gaelic by the Edinburgh University Celtic Society in 1902, but the title and author are unknown. Earlier, Macleod and Watson told us that plays were published in Gaelic periodicals like An Gaidheal / The Highlander and An Teachdaire Gaelach / The Highland Messenger, but the first sign of wider encouragement came from Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr, who published plays in his periodical Guth. na Bliadhna in 1912.

More details in Gerard Cairns’ splendid new biography, No Language! No nation! The Life and Times of the Honorable Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr (Perth: Rymour Books, 2021). It deserves a full-fledged try.

During this time, the theater was also becoming popular in the communities of the Highlands and Islands, far from major urban centers and professional theaters. The tradition of ceilidh has combined with a developing amateur ethic and, after the Clearances, has been influenced by the more urbanized experience of the new generations. This has helped develop the existing culture of performance towards something more recognizable theatrical, and raises a question about the relationship between performativity and dramatic writing that remains healthily unanswered.

While some early pieces are often light and comical, Erskine of Marr emphasizes the priorities of political engagement and education. Individual writers and plays can be noted: Rèiteach Mòraig / Les Fiançailles de Morag (1911) and Pòsadh Mòraig / Le Mariage de Morag (1916) by Iain MacLeòid / John Macleod, which focus on the traditions of engagement and marriage ; and Fearann ​​a Shinnsear / Land of His Ancestors (1913) and Crois Tara / Cross of Tara (1914) by Dòmhnull Mac-na-Ceardadh / Donald Sinclair, which focus on Gaelic history, the Clearances and the Jacobite uprising of 1745, endorsing the virtues of the Highlanders and despising the vicissitudes of the Lowlands, while Domhnaull nan Trioblaid (1912, 1936) and Suridhe Raoghail Mhaoil ​​(1929) are comedies about the lives of small farmers.

READ MORE: Government urges Scots to speak Gaelic to save ‘fragile’ language

Gilleasbh MacCuillaich / Archibald McCulloch and Iain MacCormaic / John McCormick have written songs embellished pieces, endorsing the Gaelic identity but hardly opening it to questioning the ambiguities and responsibilities that become more urgent in situations of cultural oppression.

Playwrights often produced works for local drama groups. For example, Iain Mac a ‘Ghobhainn / Iain Crichton Smith wrote for the Gaelic theater group Oban. The main characters and the conflict, concerned with the impact of Clearances on a Highland widow, in his classic English-language novel, Consider the Lilies, return in the theatrical version, A ‘Chùirt (1966).

In Fionnlagh MacLeòid’s Ceann Cropic (1967), the bizarre dialogues and absurd humor are reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. As in Waiting for Godot, the isolated arena of the stage accentuates the enunciation of the characters: banality is heavier with implication. There is no reason why Gaelic plays should be less experimental, radical, and existential humorist than any play in Scottish or English, or for that matter, any other language.

A strong advocate of Gaelic theater was Tormod Calum Dòmhnallach, whose plays sometimes begin with a song or poem, from which the action builds and unfolds. The piece Anna Chaimbeul is based on the song “Ailean Duinn” and A ‘Bhean Iadach from the song of the same name, while Cnoc Chùsbaig or Na Seòid a th’ oirre sealg is based on the life of the poet Uilleam MacCoinneach (1857-1907 ),

whose poetry was inspired by the death of his wife and his departure from the Isle of Lewis. Aimhreit Aignis (1888) deals with the land rights movement and Bathach Chaluim with religious evangelism to Lewis.

In 1977 the first professional Gaelic theater company was formed, Fir Chlis, although it closed in 1981; a successor, Tosg, was established in 1996, although it also did not last, closing after a decade. Its brilliant founder, playwright, actor and director, Simon Mackenzie, died in 2008. But generally, in the words of Michelle Macleod, “Gaelic drama has thrived in the environment of festivals and competitions.”

And there is more to say.

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