Scottish Plays Lead Edinburgh Festival
Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic trilogy is turned into thoughtful, engaging drama
THE Edinburgh Festival is known for its internationalism. Orchestras, opera, theater, and dance companies descend on the Scottish capital each summer, along with a flood of visitors from around the globe. If the somewhat dignified and upscale official festival program suits many, it would appear that an increasing number of people find the multiplicity of entertainments "on the Fringe" (ranging from rank amateurism to the extremely professional) a more than adequate reason for risking the uncertain weath er.Skip to next paragraph
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But if the official festival likes to emphasize its international scope, it always tries to introduce its clientele to things Scottish. The annual military Tattoo up at the Castle, with its marching and kilted pipe bands, represents one kind of Scottishness. Probably more subtly, over the years a number of Scottish plays (including the "Scottish Play" written, however, by an Englishman), have shown the Scots to have a literature and imagination not to be taken with a pinch of salt.
This year, for the three weeks of the festival, a Scottish theater company offers a 20th-century view of Scotland as tough as it is lyrical in "A Scots Quair." A "quair," as several generations of Scottish school and college kids have by now been informed, is "a literary work of any length."
"A Scots Quair," published as a trilogy of novels in 1932, '33, and '34, is on the long rather than short side. "Sunset Song," the first book, has become something of a classic. It summons up in rich flowing language, with a persuasively Scottish lilt and atmosphere, the life of a rural community in Aberdeenshire in the years up to and including World War I. The second and third books, "Cloud Howe" and "Grey Granite" extend to the Depression.
The whole work traces the disappearance of a sense of rural community in the face of increasing poverty and urbanization. It also explores the dissolution of the old patriarchal feudal attitudes and the development of socialism as a counter to capitalism. Also, the threatened confrontation of communism and fascism was divined early by the author (who died in 1935) in the third book. The question of class struggle in Scotland is the work's recurrent theme.
But "Sunset Song" is not just social documentation, it is a wonderful piece of imaginative writing as well, its prose original and compelling. Author James Leslie Mitchell was, to a degree, recreating his childhood, though the book is fiction, not history or autobiography. It is significant that Mitchell adopted a pseudonym for these books, based on his mother's names: Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The main character is a woman, Chris Guthrie, whose life is traced by the entire trilogy. Everything is seen from h er point of view.
It is here that a dramatization encounters its first difficulty. The narrative voice of the novels can only be lost in translation to the stage. The inner feelings and thought processes of both author and central figure are eroded, not to mention (as adaptor Alistair Cording himself does in the program) "a loss of much detail concerning countryside and community ... to serve the interests of clarity and pace."