FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT #42: False Beards and Rustics
The on-going canard, perpetrated by certain sections of the press and media, of their being an “anti-English” tendency at the heart of our new, evolving Scottish democracy – more specifically in the SNP – has to be brought out into the open and dealt with. So perhaps we should all thank Keith Bruce (Herald, July 25th) for mentioning it in relation to the on-going changes at the National Theatre of Scotland. His assertion that Vicky Featherstone (now director of the Royal Court Theatre in London) was subjected to “anti-English abuse” during her time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland needs to be examined a little.
I was in frequent dialogue with Vicky from when she first took up her post to the time she left; prematurely, in my opinion. The result of our conversations was that the “Home” production in Wick was one of the most successful of the series of geographically scatted productions which constituted NTS’s debut project. We also collaborated in bringing the NTS’s “Transform” project to Thurso High School and the resultant production is still talked about by those who saw it and pupils who performed in it, some of whom are now, sadly, “adults”.
Over all these years, in all these conversations, I never once heard her say anything about “anti-English” abuse, although I am aware she might have felt it too sensitive an issue to mention. The pair of us certainly enjoyed a robust dialogue about what we thought theatre should be in both its subject and object. She always respected my views, even though she didn’t agree with them and I always respected her right to ignore them and to do what she felt she had to do as the director of the National Theatre of Scotland. She used to laugh when I told her that, in Grey Coast, I had the “National Theatre of Caithness”.
I know that in the theatre business we do live in a bubble but I cannot remember having heard, within the confines of my contacts in Scotland, anyone who had a bad word to say about Vicky Featherstone. She is quite simply a very likeable and approachable person.
The question I have is this: why does Keith Bruce feel the need to raise the spectre of “anti-Englishness”, alleged or otherwise, in relation to a story about a Welshman and a Scotsman going to join an Irish theatre company, even if it is from the NTS to the legendary Abbey Theatre in Dublin? Was this the most important aspect to the news story? He must have thought so because he began his piece with it under the headline “Nationality an irrelevance at our national theatres”. Perhaps the headline should have read “Subjectivity an irrelevance at our national theatres”?
This was always my argument with Vicky Featherstone at the NTS: what are you putting on the stage and why? Her reply to me was that everything was judged on purely artistic merit; that was the only criteria. I never accepted that then and I still don’t. Why is this important? Because “artistic merit” is a bogus subjective argument and is nothing but a smokescreen behind which lurk some seriously dubious cultural attitudes, a couple of which, I would assert, are to be detected in Keith Bruce’s Herald piece.
Theatre does not live in a cultural or historical vacuum. The word “national” in the title of the Scotland’s principal theatre company indicates that its reach and object should be to illustrate and stimulate, draw from and promote the entirety of Scotland’s rich cultural legacy in a dramatic form and present that work to the audience of the nation. This is a cultural criteria and the artistic merit of the resultant work can only be judged by those in a position to judge when it is ready (or not) to go before an audience. In any case the audience will offer the ultimate validation on whatever “artistic merit” is going. This, I would suggest, is an active and objective cultural process. Judging a play, or whatever, on purely artistic criteria is a passive and subjective decision taken, usually in Scotland, by one person: an artistic director.
Keith Bruce broadly hints that those who complain that the top posts in our cultural institutions are habitually filled by “non-Scots” suffer from “the so-called Scottish cringe” and that those who so express this view somehow suffer from “blinkered bigotry”. It always amazes me when people who should know better say these things that they do not recognise the “cringe” within. What we are all involved in, post-referendum, is in building a nation despite the political restrictions placed upon us. We face the comic situation whereby the very forces that proclaim loudly that they are defending the Union (the Tories) are doing their utmost to destroy it. David Cameron acts as if the Union is over. Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, is acting as if Scotland is already an independent country, even though constitutionally it is not. So perhaps both being in the Union and being independent are a state of mind? The National Theatre of Scotland is part of Scotland’s state of mind and is a vital component in how we, as a people, define and perceive ourselves. In many ways it should be our dream-shop.
Be that as it may I think we have to look a little beyond all this “ant-English/anti-Scottish” bu-baa-ism if we are to see the situation plain: we need to get the idea of what kind of Scotland we want and what kind of cultural institutions we desire out onto the threshing floor of historical experience. We have to begin to realise that freedom is never something which is granted from above; it is always attained from below.
In 1988, in a letter to the Scotsman on the subject of bilingualism, the poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson cited the example of the Sardinian communist Antonio Gramsci urging his sister Teresina to let her son Franco speak Sardinian. Gramsci writes further, in relation to all his sister’s children, “let them develop spontaneously in the natural environment they were born into”. Hamish Henderson follows this up, in his letter, with this question
“What is culture if not our human consciousness of the natural historic ambience into which we are born, and whose colours and sounds we have inherited?”
In many ways Hamish Henderson is stating what most Scottish people have been denied or been taught to value as inferior. Whether our cultural institutions are run by an English person, a Welsh person, an Irish person, or lo and behold! – a Scot – a sympathy for and a knowledge of Scottish cultural history should be a prerequisite. In Scottish theatre, in my experience, a blissful ignorance of this is seen as an asset. Anyone who has read George Davie’s book “The Democratic Intellect” will come to the conclusion that the British establishment may know little about the Scottish academic (or cultural) tradition and care less, but it has a flawless nose for potential opposition. In our current cultural institutions – our “national” companies – I would contend that this opposition to native Scottish intellectual energy still resides.
To get beyond and beneath this even further it is instructive to return to Antonio Gramsci. For Gramsci “history”, in fact all meaning, derives from the relation between human practical activity and the objective social processes (history) of which humanity is a part. Any idea cannot be understood outside its social and historical context. How we organise our knowledge of the world does not derive primarily from our relation to things, to an objective reality, but rather from the social and economic conditions (or “bearers” as Gramsci would have it) which give rise to these ideas and concepts. In other words there is no such thing as an unchanging “human nature” because philosophy and science cannot reflect a reality independent of humanity and no idea or theory can be said to be “true” unless it expresses the real development of the human situation in historical time.
As the Westminster comedy turns into farce and then, inevitably, into tragedy, how are we in Scotland going to splice the Gramscian threads of human practical activity and the objective social processes of history into the rope of our political future, our civic future, our cultural future? Can Scotland’s social superstructure afford to sit and wait for statehood when, for example, in his recent budget George Osborne proved that two wrongs don’t make a right but that three, for him, do? How can we hope to protect our weak and vulnerable people when we are yoked to a parliamentary system where the Labour party, the opposition, abstain on the most draconian anti-social security bill seen to pass through the museum of Westminster? Where in Scotland’s creative community can we expect to find an imaginative expression of the real opposition to this reactionary and cruel legislation? In the work of the National Theatre of Scotland; on any of Scotland’s stages?
A changing of the guard from one national institution to another, whether one be in Scotland and the other in Ireland, is surely not the most significant aspect of dramatic provision which should obsess our journalists. It is interesting that Keith Bruce concludes his Herald piece with the following
“Anyone who cannot appreciate that all this traffic across the stages of theatres throughout these islands is dramatically positive should exit stage left, pursued by their fears.”
Surely Mr Bruce means “bears” not “fears”? This made me think of one who indeed knew how to “expresses the real development of the human situation in historical time” and one who was fond of having characters exiting pursued by bears, and often by fears. In Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” in Act 4, Scene 4, he has that god-gifted champion of thievery and rascality, namely Autolycus (the lone wolf) – who is in disguise – and who meets a clown and shepherd on a road. Autolycus has this short, brilliant speech:
“Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance: let me pocket up my pedlar’s excrement. (Takes off false beard) How now rustics! Whither are you bound?”
We Scottish rustics are bound for the future of our own making where peddling Chancellors and venal Prime Ministers cannot rob us blind along the road and tie our political hands behind our backs, and where the self-denying arguments of those who would see boogeymen and bears where there are none are revealed for what they are: the false beards of history.
©George Gunn 2015
George Gunn’s book “The Province of the Cat” (£9.99 plus postage and packaging) will be published by The Islands Book Trust later this month.