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How Successful Were Playwrights of the 1970s in Accurately Highlighting Social and Political Issues in Scotland?

Info: 11124 words (44 pages) Dissertation
Published: 2nd Mar 2022

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Tagged: English LiteratureHistory


Due to the social and political unrest of the 1970s, playwrights John McGrath and Roddy McMillan were successful in bringing to light historically accurate social and political issues in Scotland in their work, irrespective of the times in which their plays were set. Social and political issues have always been a long running theme in Scottish theatres. Many playwrights use theatre as a way of bringing hidden histories into the spotlight. The 1970s in Scotland paved the way for workings of revolutionary theatre, that gave people the chance to change the way they were thinking about their current situations. There was a lot of political unrest in Scotland from the 1960s and through to the 1970s and many playwrights used this as a focal point of their plays. Playwrights also took the time to take the political issues and social issues in Scotland and intertwine them with their stories. What needs to be brought into question is how accurately the social and political issues were presented in their work. It is important to get a greater insight into Scottish theatre of the 1970s by giving an accurate analysis of both the plays that will be explored and the historical events of the time and setting of the plays.

Scotland have not been under a Conservative rule since the 1970s and there are similar issues that the public are having to face in society today. Although currently under an SNP rule, Scotland is, to an extent, under a Conservative rule, once again, due to Scotland’s powers not being fully devolved from Westminster. This opens an opportunity to analyse the plays under a political climate, which is similar to that in which they were written. Many of the social issues that were prominent at the time are still extremely relevant in today’s society, which gives a chance for the plays to be looked at in a way that presents parallels with the then and now.

The year of 1968 can be seen as one of the most important years in both theatre history and also political history on a global scale. There was what can only be described as a worldwide political revolution in many different countries, for many varied reasons, which awoke a fire within people.

…in the case of 1968 so many events coincided on a global scale that it clearly marked the end of an era in a historically unprecedented fashion, and the beginning of a period of equally unprecedented political consciousness and activism. (Itzen 1986, p. 1)

Back in 1737 the Lord Chamberlin had put in place a censorship act which involved censorship of the stage and put limits on what people could present to audiences, however, the Theatres Act 1968 abolished this censorship. This gave playwrights and other artists the opportunity to speak freely within the theatre and give people performances to really think about. Due to the limits, that had been in place for hundreds of years, it is extremely likely, that throughout these years, people’s knowledge of their history was limited. Playwrights were restricted with the themes and topics they could present onstage and this caused people lose touch with some of their own heritage and history. However, it is possible that playwrights were not always able to make their plays entirely historically accurate. In What is History? by E.H. Carr he states that “The facts only speak when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.” (Carr 1972, p. 11). In this instance, it could be said, that the playwright is the historian and that the playwright is possibly being selective of the facts he is presenting to the audience.

One of the most influential playwrights that came out of the 1970s was John McGrath. McGrath was an extremely prominent figure within the industry and his legacy will more than likely last for generations through his work and influence on theatre. McGrath spent two years doing national service before studying at Oxford, which gave him the opportunity to work with working-class men, it is possible that this is why he was so passionate about creating theatre for and about them. It could be suggested that this is why his work spoke to the working-class, because he had the chance to understand their situations and lives. He always had a strong political and socialist voice and this can be seen throughout much of his work. “McGrath was always a passionate socialist: he believed strongly that the function of art was to reach as many people as possible, to heighten individual awareness and to help change society for the better.” (The Guardian 2002). One of his most influential pieces of work was The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (McGrath 1974), which follows the route of Scotland’s history from the Highland Clearances through until the North Sea Oil Crisis. It revolves around the endless mistreatment of both the Scottish Highlands and the people that lived and worked there. Due to the revolutionary way in which the play came about and the way in which McGrath wanted to portray the social and political issues in the highlands throughout the play, it makes it an appropriate choice for the research.  Further reasons for the choice of this particular play are explored in the Literature Review.

As well being an actor, Roddy McMillan was another influential playwright in the 1970s. He was an important figure in the Scottish arts industry, due to his representation of the working class within his plays. His plays had a truth behind them, which made the audiences feel connected to the stories being told. The Bevellers (McMillan 1974) revolves around the life of a young man from a poor background who is starting a job in the glassworks. The Bevellers has been described as “a painfully accurate portrayal of a day in the working life.” (Stevenson et al. 1996, p. 106). McMillan’s realistic view of the social and political issues faced in working class life is successful as he clearly tries to accurately depict them in an honest and truthful manner. This makes this play another important and relevant choice for the study. The reasons for this choice of play are further discussed in the Literature Review.

The research will also intertwine theories from Marxist philosophers, Fredric Jameson and Antonio Gramsci. Both of whom, believe that history plays a vital role in their ideas. This will benefit the study by helping show the thought processes of the radicalisation of theatre at the time and how these views effect the accuracy of the work. It will also consider the Situationist Internationale’s belief that theatre is for everyone and how this, in turn, effected the revolution within theatre.

This study aims to look at these plays and look at the historical accuracy of the social and political issues which are presented in the plays being studied. It also aims to investigate the relationship between theatre and history, by considering Scottish theatre and how it was influenced by the social and political issues at the time. It will explore the settings and issues of the plays and their historical truth by finding the ways in which they either succeed or fail in correctly the portraying the time they are set in. It seeks to determine, if the way that theatre became so revolutionary influenced the work from the time. It will research the impact the changes in the theatre industry had on the work being presented at the time It also hopes to find out whether the radicalisation of society itself throughout the years, had an effect on the plays.

This introduction is followed by a Literature Review which examines other writings that are related to this chosen area of study. It gives the basis for the study and helps to inform the work being presented.

The first chapter will investigate theatre in Scotland in the run up to and including the 1960s and 1970s. It will consider the radicalisation of theatre and how people’s left-wing views began to change the landscape of theatre. It will also consider how changes in people’s everyday lives cause these changes. It will mainly feature a historical analysis of the events at the time and how they led to the creation of the plays.

Chapter two will look in greater detail at John McGrath, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Part of the main research method for this section will be an in depth textual analysis, along with a historical analysis of the different eras within the plays. It will look to investigate the possible successes and failures of McGrath’s work.

Chapter three will have a similar structure to the previous chapter, however, this time it will be focussing on Roddy McMillan and his play The Bevellers. It will, once again, consist of an in depth textual analysis and a historical analysis based around the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, when the play is set and where many of the social and political issues at the time arose from. It aims to explore the potential success and failures that could be presented in relation to the historical accuracy of the work.

This will then be followed by an evaluation and conclusion, which will let us know to what extent the research was successful, if it achieved what it intended and will answer the question presented along with the hypothesis.

Due to the revolutionary theatre being produced at the end of 1960s and 1970s, playwrights were trying to represent the real issues faced by the everyday people. It is important that the accuracy of these problems and topics is explored, so it can be figured out, whether these plays were a true representation of the times or not. It aims to make people understand if there is a deeper meaning to the work or not, than was originally thought. It hopes to create a better understanding of the revolution that took place within theatre and the way that this effected the work that was presented. It aims to understand the relationships between both the need for historical accuracy and the success of it. This study aims to answer this question and form an open discussion around the topic. 

Literature Review

It can be suggested that all theatre, to some extent, is written as a reflection of the social and political situations of the time. During the 60s and 70s theatre within Scotland became more revolutionised. Playwrights and practitioners were more politically and socially aware of what was going on around them and many took the opportunity to use theatre to make their voices heard. They began to focus on past and present events to make outspoken and realistic stories. The study looks into whether or not the stories presented to the audiences were of a historically accurate manner in terms of the social and political issues which the playwrights wanted to present. It will lead into a textual and historical analysis of the times and will tie into the critical theory of Frederic Jameson, Antonio Gramsci and the Situationist Internationale.

The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil

Written by John McGrath first published in 1974, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, is one of the most iconic plays to come out of the decade. Presenting itself as a timeline of Scotland from the Highland Clearances through to the North Sea Oil Crisis. In this play, there is a voice that seems passionate and honest about Scotland and its history weaved throughout the storyline. The play has a historical influence running through it from beginning to end. This makes it an excellent choice to be explored within this study. Although, The Cheviot has always been a prominent piece of theatre in Scotland, it made recent waves and was, once again, in the spotlight due to its numerous performances and tours, in recent years, with Dundee Repertory Theatre. This provides an opportunity to investigate the play when it is once again a point of interest in the Scottish theatre industry. It has also always been relevant within Scotland and even more so now. The Scottish people, at this moment in time, feel as though they are being treated unfairly by a power that they cannot stop and are having decisions made for them, where they feel as though their opinion, livelihood and wellbeing does not matter. There has been rising political unsettlement within Scotland due the recent Brexit vote to leave the European Union and the possibility of a second Independence Referendum, which has caused the play to stir up a large following. This provides another chance to investigate the play in a climate where it is not only feels more relevant to the Scottish people again, but also when it is possibly the most popular it has been in years within the industry. It is a unique opportunity to have both these reasons cross over and supports the study even more. The play has several social and political issues weaved in and out the work and is mainly formed from interviews, family stories, statistical information and historical research which makes it an important play to look at from this era when asking this question.

The Bevellers

The Bevellers (1974) was written by Roddy McMillan and first published in 1974. Set in 1973 this play looks at the life of a young man from a poor background who is starting a job in the glassworks. It follows the lives of working-class men, their working conditions and their hopes for better opportunities elsewhere. The Bevellers being set in the 1970s brings to light the specific problems of the time and makes obvious the problems that the working class faced every day and the suffering they endure from the political changes. This play has been known to represent some of McMillan’s own experiences in working-class life. It is a realistic and poignant play that shines a light onto the real lives of the working-class man in a delicate and humbling manner. This is why it is an important play to consider during this time period. The play itself tries to depict a real life, working-class situation, however, this needs to be analysed to see whether it does or does not do this.

Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968

Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968 (1986) by Catherin Izten is an extremely important influence throughout the research. By linking the plays to the radicalisation of theatre that had been happening at the same time we are able to understand more what both McGrath and McMillan were trying to achieve. We are introduced very much into McGrath’s work, more so than McMillan’s, and get an insight into his thought process for his company and writing works. This is also one of the first opportunities where we get introduced into the idea of Marxism and have the opportunity to see how it effects theatre and those involved with it. It has some unpublished quotes and discussions which have never been seen before and this adds extra weight to the chosen research topic as it has an underlying knowledge of previously unseen and unheard work. 

Scottish Theatre Since the Seventies

Scottish Theatre Since the Seventies (Stevenson et al. 1996) looks at not just playwrights, theatre companies and plays themselves but also considers the historical background of the time and shows how the situations of the times effected the work that came about. It looks at the seventies and the 25 years that followed that. It has first-hand accounts from many playwrights who offer personal insights on specific topics throughout the 25 years. It looks at everything from political issues through to the social issues of society throughout the years. This book is extremely useful to the research as it has detailed notes on the plays chosen for a textual analysis, their influences and importance in theatre and extensive knowledge of historical background. It also has a whole chapter written by John McGrath, one of the chosen playwrights, giving his own account of the work of the time and also his own experiences throughout the decade and view on his influences at the time.

A History of Scottish Theatre

A History of Scottish Theatre (1998) written by Bill Findlay, is an extensive history of Scottish theatre beginning from the Middle Ages right through until the end of the 20th Century. It spans over five different periods and sheds light on the key changes when it comes to influential plays and playwrights. It takes its time to focus on specific plays throughout the entirety of the book. It features a whole chapter dedicated to Scottish theatre in the 1970s, which details not just historical background but also influences of the time. This book will be useful for the research as it gives a wide range of detailed information on theatre in the 1970s and takes time to make sure no stone is left unturned. It also takes the time to focus on the specific plays that are being used for the research and this will help find more relations to these plays and the historical considerations of the decade.

A People’s History of Scotland

A People’s History of Scotland (2014) by Chris Bambery is an important influence in the historical analysis of the time periods in both plays and the times they were written. It is a clear timeline through Scottish history it gives first-hand accounts which help influence the historical successes and downfalls of the plays. By using this to support the research, it will be clear to see what is an accurate account of social and political history within the work. It gives a wide range a specific detail of the Scottish people. By having first hand interviews it instantly becomes an extraordinarily reliable source for the research. The first-hand accounts will provide the research with a sturdier through line of history and will provide a clear agreement or disagreement with the events presented in both McMillan and McGrath’s work.

The plays chosen are both important plays from the 1970s, which are written to reflect the problems and suffering the working-class faced in their everyday lives. These texts are all able to support the research and help in uncovering the relations between the social and political issues of the time and the way in which the impacted the plays in a historical sense. The use of these theoretical texts further assist in the detail of the research by providing not only first-hand accounts of events, but also the ideas and thoughts of the playwrights being investigated. 

Chapter 1 – History of Scottish Theatre in the 1960s and 1970s

After the Second World War, there was a huge boom in optimism for Scotland as people were returning home, they had a government who wanted to provide change and stable future for the population of Scotland. The Labour government had made extremely bold and outlandish pledges to the people. There was big promises made around having healthcare for everyone and not just the wealthy, but the took years to be able to come in to fruition due to the high demands of the pledges politicians had made. However, as the years went on many people began to lose faith in the promises they made. Scotland’s economic income had been mainly based on its steel, shipbuilding and coal mining industries, however, they had old-fashioned production methods and this slowly began to catch up on them. People were living in cramped housing conditions even though new estates had been built for them and many relied much upon community spirit to help them through the days. The value of the pound had dropped under the rule of Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (1964 – 1970). By the middle of the 1970s unemployment had risen drastically due to the choices made during the rule of the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath (1970 – 1974), and the Scottish people suffered drastically. The working-class were being treated unfairly by powers that they could not stop. During this Government rule, there were constant economic crises and a revolutionary action coming from the working-class people in Scotland. This was due to the cuts of their hours and the treatment of the Scottish people under the Conservatives.

The 1960s was an extremely important and progressive era for theatre in Scotland. In the 1950s, in England, working-class, kitchen sink style dramas were very much the rage, however, Scotland had fallen behind. They never followed in England’s footsteps straight away. The industry in Scotland slowly began to shift and people became more radicalised in their views when it came to society and politics and Scottish theatres were described as being “exceptionally ill prepared for this climate of social revolution” (Hutchison 1998, p. 263). The 1960s could be seen as one of the most revolutionary times in the history of Scottish theatre. As time passed through the 1960s new theatres, writers, plays and theatre companies were emerging, people began viewing theatre as a way of making their voices heard. Theatre’s in Scotland began to produce work that was pushing the boundaries that people had grown accustomed to in the industry. The 1960s in Scotland was an era that promoted liberation and progressive attitudes, and this shone through in much of the work that was written and performed, right through the decade leading into the 1970s. Throughout the years, it was obvious that, in both life and within the industry, that there was a social hierarchy present. A social class system was what ruled over society and the upper-class were seen as being the powerful and had most of the theatre industry’s focus. Plays revolved very much around stories that appealed to the wealthy, as they were seen as the more important people in society.

Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, presents to us his idea of cultural hegemony. It discusses the idea that society can be controlled by one of the social classes and that only one class is in charge. It is described as:

Dominant groups in society, including fundamentally but not exclusively the ruling class, maintain their dominance by securing the ‘spontaneous consent’ of subordinate groups, including the working class, through the negotiated construction of a political and ideological consensus which incorporates both dominant and dominated groups. (Strinati 2004, p. 165)

As time passed through the 1960s into the 1970s, it is obvious that cultural hegemony was extremely prevalent in Scottish society, as many working-class people felt they were being taken advantage of by the government and the upper classes.

People began to believe that theatre had become obsolete due to the rising popularity of television. Many theatres in Scotland began closing their doors for the final time. From 1950 to 1970 open theatres dropped from 5 down to 3 in Edinburgh and in Glasgow there was an even more dramatic drop from 10 to 4 (Hutchison 1977, p. 110). However, this was another one of the reasons that drove a social and political shift within theatre. People within the Scottish theatre industry began to realise that there was no hope for change with the Labour government and they were not getting what they wanted. This led to plays becoming more socially and politically orientated. New theatre groups began to form, they were very left-wing for the time and wanted to represent the working class. They wanted to help give people a voice and grasp people’s attention in a way that had not really been tried before. People within the industry had grown tired of the way they were treated. The Labour and Conservative governments “finally crushed those hopes on the left, and fuelled the fire of political theatre” (Itzen 1986, p. 7). This was when AgitProp Theatre became extremely popular within Scottish society.

AgitProp theatre is a form of political theatre which was born in the 1920s in Russia. It is used a way of presenting left wing views to the people watching. The stories are usually presented in a stripped back manner to highlight the message or views that the plays are trying to put across. AgitProp theatre “seeks to deliberately change people’s beliefs through well-planned strategies of persuasion, transformations of spectators into (spect)actors, and their subsequent mobilisation into agitating communities” (Swati 2010). Many left-wing theatre groups began to form and used this as their starting point for the type of theatre they wanted to present. Many used it as a way of representing the working class.

McGrath was passionate about creating theatre for the working-class people and believed that theatre was not appealing to them due to the stories revolving around the wealthy. In an interview with McGrath, he stated ““The point is they are excluded because the culture that is presented in the average theatre, almost every theatre in the country, is a middle-class culture and working-class people don’t like it” (2nd House 1974). One if the most influential political theatre groups that emerged from this era was 7:84 Scotland, founded by John McGrath. The name of the company itself does in fact make its own statement. It takes its name from a statistic that the company had seen about how “7 per cent of the population of Britain owned 84 percent of the wealth” (Stevenson et al. 1996, p. 65). McGrath had grown tired of the current political climate and he wanted to help people make a change, he focussed on work that would specifically affect the working-class people. In an unpublished discussion with Arnold Wesker in June 1970 McGrath stated, “we have to oppose the bourgeois theatre by creating a truly revolutionary theatre in order to help bring about change in society and our own art” (McGrath 1970). 7:84 Scotland’s main intention was to create work which stirred a need for change within the people that watched it. McGrath believed that theatre was being made for only those who were of specific classes and groups and he wanted to change this. McGrath’s beliefs could be linked to those of the Situationist Internationale. There was a huge movement in the art world and the Situationist Internationale played a huge role in this change. They were a group of social revolutionaries spread around the globe, the group consisted of political theorists, artists and others. They were influenced mainly by Marxist beliefs and the progressions of 20th Century avant-garde art. They supported the idea that theatre should not be made for only one group or class and that in needs to be for everybody. In their manifesto, they state:

Against unilateral art, situationist culture will be an art of dialogue, an art of interaction. Today artists — with all culture visible — have been completely separated from society, just as they are separated from each other by competition. But faced with this impasse of capitalism, art has remained essentially unilateral in response. This enclosed era of primitivism must be superseded by complete communication. (Situationist International and Thompsett 1960)

McGrath wanted everyone to be able to have their voices heard and believed that theatre should be for the people, not just the wealthy and upper classes. 7:84 Scotland specifically sought after an audience of working-class people as they were aware that they were restricted in their abilities in going to the theatre and wanted them to realise that it was for everyone and that people did care enough to try and help them make a change within society. Much of McGrath’s work with 7:84 Scotland revolved around the “…plays that explored different aspects of Scottish working-class history and contemporary experience, drawing on a range of popular cultural forms.” (Stevenson et al. 1996, p. 67). Along with educating the masses, he also wanted to do one other important thing, and the was to entertain his audiences. In an ArtWorks Scotland documentary made after his death he is described as a “Committed socialist never afraid of tackling the big issues, John never forgot that his primary responsibility was to entertain and, in his own words, ‘to give the audience a good night out’.” (ArtWorks Scotland 2002). This is exactly what he was able to do with much of his work and most, importantly The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (McGrath 1974). It was one of the most influential plays in Scottish history, however, what needs to be brought into question with this play is was it a true representation of Scotland’s social and political history and its people.

Around the same time of the rise of 7:84, Roddy McMillan, who had always been a prominent figure in the Scottish theatre industry, presented the first play he had written in several years. He had previously worked with Glasgow Unity Theatre and Glasgow Citizen’s company.  Glasgow Unity theatre company were a socialist theatre company who played a vital role in keeping theatre alive during the war. The company was run by working-class artists, in their own magazine they published for a short while, they described themselves as “…the most vital native cultural influence in Scotland. Its actors, playwrights and technicians have been drawn from the ranks of ordinary working people, whose background and everyday life is identical with the masses who form its audiences.” (Hutchison 1974, p. 106). Both theatre companies believed that theatre should be for the people and had to some extent political undertones. McMillan’s work had slowly continued to progress into working-class dramas, more than it previously had since he started his career. It is clear in much of McMillan’s work that Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony is present. There was always a class hierarchy, social issues and political undertones in his work. His portrayal of the working-class is presented in an extremely truthful light as it does not try to sugar coat the hardships they face, particularly in his play The Bevellers (McMillan 1974). It is stated that McMillan’s “obvious humanity and concern to do little to lighten the gloom” (Hutchison 1977, p. 141) is what made his work appealing to the masses. McMillan’s honesty in his work is what drew people to his plays and what made yet another iconic step in revolutionary, community theatre within Scotland.

It is clear to see that playwrights and theatre companies in the 1960s into the 1970s made extremely revolutionary moves within Scottish theatre. Decisions being made by the government and the problems within society, were what led to these changes being made. Playwrights began to focus more on stories that represented the working-class and that had a solid truth and honesty behind them. Although, these plays seem to have attracted attention for their political and social standpoints, what now needs to be brought into question is how accurately they represented the people of Scotland, their history and their stories. 

Chapter 2 – John McGrath and The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil

John McGrath and his theatre company 7:84 clearly made a huge impact within Scottish theatre in the 1970s. One of the most prominent plays that the company produced was The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (McGrath 1974).The play was produced in a collaborative manner with the whole company, each person working on different parts, some the text, some the music and some the performance. By presenting the stories of the Scottish people in the structure of a timeline through history, it gives people a chance to connect with the story on many levels, as they will most likely have ancestors which have suffered through the hardships that were presented to the audience and are most likely suffering their own hardships in life. It is suggested that The Cheviot “stirred memories and sensibilities concerning injustices both past and present, using the format of the traditional ceilidh in a manner that struck a vital chord with the people’s sense of their own cultural identity” (1977, p. 65). It is clear throughout the play that social and political issues are a main focal point within the stories, however, because of the truth that people felt within this play it must be brought into light if we can truly rely on the representation that we are given of the issues within the play.

In the preface of the play, McGrath gives us an in depth look into how the play came to be and how they researched the stories to present to the audience. One way in which McGrath gained knowledge, was by holding interviews with many people who lived in the highlands to get the stories of their ancestors that had never been heard before and toured all over Scotland to get the necessary information he could to make sure the play was truthful. Sandy Craig, a former member of 7:84, spoke about the history of the play stating “The Cheviot uncovered a hidden history.” (Craig 1980, p. 43) which gives life to the idea that the audience are being told stories that have never been given an opportunity to be told. Hidden histories were a significant part of the play and were what drew people to the performance and made it so popular. They were telling untold stories and experiences of people that played a huge part in Scotland’s history. It was revealing something to the people that made them feel angry and injustice was brought home to them, the hidden histories were what caused an unsettlement and passion within the audience. It is easy to assume the stories of the present day were relatively accurate in the issues presented in the plays, however, when it comes to the stories of The Highland Clearances and the invasion of the Victorian gentry for Stag hunting, it can be suggested that this secret history is not entirely accurate and is to some extent fictional.

Due to the way the historical information for the play was researched it is easy to assume that all the stories within the play are completely factual and well -rounded views of all parties involved, however, if we look at Fredric Jameson’s idea of metacommentary we can see that this may use a narrative, which points the audience to the texts specific views and intentions. Jameson is a Marxist, political theorist who focuses much of his theories on the exploration of trends within modern culture and he believed there are direct links between postmodern culture and modern culture. Jameson’s notion of metacommentary is the concept that they are theories and ideologies from the writers, throughout work which are presented to the audience. Metacommentary is described as “…an approach that traces which interpretations are contained and which are excluded in the process of focussing on certain issues in the text” (Petterson 2016, p. 49). This idea can be helpful in looking at historical accuracy in work, as the audience are able to try and separate the facts from what is possibly a personal view and look try to think about the events from both sides, instead of from only the point of view they are presented with. It gives them the opportunity to form true representations of the time in terms of culture, religion and beliefs of individuals. If we are to investigate the play with Jameson’s theory in mind, we can see that it is possible that the play is not entirely historically accurate as it is likely that the play itself is very much has the personal views and opinions of McGrath threaded throughout the play, although it may not be in an extremely obvious manner. The play is so heavily set on the accounts of people’s experiences within their communities that lived at the times and the stories passed down through generations, however, McGrath himself was passionate socialist and about the repression of the working class, so this could have very much directed the storyline and point of view of the play. Due to this it would be difficult to get a completely perfect account of the circumstances.

The Highland Clearances was a major part of Scottish history. It is a subject that within Scotland, especially the highlands, still causes a great wave of emotion in the Scottish people. The Clearances were when powerful landowners forcefully removed the working-class families from their homes in the areas they owned to make way for sheep. This led to mass emigration, people had lost homes, jobs all for the wealth of the upper classes. The upper class view those lower than them almost as their property and that they could do whatever they see fit to them. Many believed that the working class were significantly inferior to them and wanted to be rid of them and have only the elite prevalent in society. Their views on the working-class. Ethnic cleansing.

The idea of gender equality has always been an issue that is very present throughout Scottish history. At one point in this part of the play, McGrath looks at the role of women within Scottish society. He highlights the idea that many people thought that women just did what they were told, however, that was not the case as he presents within his play. Women have consistently been seen throughout history as the weaker sex and this idea has been presented to us in many ways through film, theatre or literature. However, during the Clearances women bore the brunt of much of the physical violence during the stand offs with the politicians, landowners and law enforcement which made them one of the most powerful forces to be reckoned with. In the play one of the characters says “When they came with evictions orders, it was always the women that fought back” (McGrath 1974, p. 11). The play presents to us, what seems to be real news articles or first-hand accounts from these stand offs. It needs to be noted that it is extremely likely this is an accurate depiction of the women and the events at the time. This is due to the fact that were involved as we are given names, ages, dates, places. It is stated in A People’s History of Scotland that “Reports noted that women were at the forefront of the resistance despite official claims that they were men dressed as women.” (Bambery 2014, p. 112). This shows that there was an accurate portrayal of women and gender roles within society at the time and that it had been an issue that had been relatively untouched. One thing that is important to note was that although gender roles was a social issue back during the Highland Clearances it was also still a relevant issue when the play was first published back in 1974 and was, to some extent, a more prominent issue within society then than it was before. The Equal Pay Act 1970 was an important moment in Scottish history as it is clear women had been fighting back for a long time but now were clearly taking even bigger steps forward than they had in the previous centuries.  It is clear from the evidence given, that McGrath did successfully bring to light an accurate and possibly previously hidden portrayal of women and gender during the highland clearances.

As the play moves further along the timeline of Scottish history, the find themselves in Victorian times, around the mid-nineteenth century. This section of The Cheviot heavily features class hierarchy and we are once again inclined to think about Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony. This is about the way in which he believes that one class has all the power. It revolves very much around the power of politics, land and wealth families had. Tourist capitalism and exploitation of the Scottish people was an important role in this part of the play. Although money and politics had always been a main issue in Scotland, it was in the 19th Century where it became more prominent and clear how much the wealthy took advantage of the crofter living in the highlands. By the mid to late 19th Century around 68 families owned half the land in the highlands (Moody 1988). Near the start of this section, it is there is a song sung between the characters of Lord Crask and Lady Phosphate, who are two of the main antagonists here, in which its lyrics state:

“BOTH:   Oh it’s awfully, frightfull, ni-i-ice,

Shooting stags, my dear, and grice –

And there’s nothing quite so righ-it-it

As a fortnight catching trite:

and if the locals should complain,

well we can clear them off again.

LADY PH: We’ll clear the straths

LORD CRASK: We’ll clear the paths

LADY PH: We’ll clear the bens

LORD CRASK: We’ll clear the glens

BOTH: We’ll show them we’re the ruling class.”

(McGrath, 1974, p. 41)

McGrath presents the issues of cultural hegemony in this section in a very noticeable manner. The ruthlessness and carefree attitudes of the upper class thinking they can take whatever they want from the lower class is extremely obvious. Economic power was the main force controlling the politics of the land. It was very much the idea that if you had money you were in charge. It has been said that “the Scottish upper classes were not ‘junior partners’ in Empire, they were the centre of it.” (Bambery 2014, p. 119). However, one thing that McGrath has done in this section is have two of the prominent characters as fictional and extremely satirical. This does bring into question the reliability of some of the issues presented. It gives the idea that if these characters are exaggerated and over the top, could it be that the rest of the stories and accounts are too. It is easy to see from this that McGrath successfully brings to light the issues within the politics of wealth and class hierarchy, however, he fails to give a thoroughly honest story and it does leave the audience with some doubt as to whether or not the events are completely true due to the overexaggerated and fictional characters, compared to the true depictions of real life people in other parts of the play. Although, this could be seen as a tool in bringing a light to heavy and emotional situations to keep the audience entertained. In an ArtWorks Scotland documentary after his death, McGrath’s wife, Elizabeth MacLennan, said that:

“He believed in action, in struggle, in the fact that things don’t happen unless people take responsibility for making them happen. And that writers in particular have a huge responsibility which they should shoulder lightly and with humour to reflect the society they’re part of.” (ArtWorks Scotland 2002.)

It is clear from this that McGrath went to extreme lengths to add comic value within the weight of the stories he was telling to entertain his audience, along with educating them.

In the final section of the play we are presented with the North Sea Oil Crisis, which at the time it was performed, was present day. It looks at the British Government selling out the Highlands, once again, for money. The highlands were being run by the wealthy once again and had no say in what was being done with their lands. This section is filled with statistics, names and companies to thoroughly emphasise McGrath’s point. The men in charge of these powerful decisions were ruthless and only wanted one thing – money. We are then introduced to an American character called Texas Jim, who is another over the top merciless, money grabber and cares for only his profits. Texas Jim states at one point “Screw your landscape, screw your bays, I’ll screw you in a hundred ways” (McGrath 1974, p. 59). At this time in history in Scotland, the SNP took full advantage of the discovery of the North Sea Oil, and tried to slowly convince the people it was the right thing to do, to clear the lands, destroy the landscape and move the people to make way for more money making. “The Scottish National Party proclaiming it a travesty that Scotland could suffer such hardship when the country had the newly found riches of North Sea Oil just off its coastline.” (BBC, 2014). McGrath then brings in the character of an SNP worker who states that the Scottish people need to stop their “Bolshevik haverings” (McGrath 1974, p. 66). It shows that the Scottish people were fighting back, however, he says it in an extremely belittling tone, as in no matter what they do they Government will just do whatever they see fit. It is clear that in this section, although the shortest of the three, has the most evidence to back up the story being told. This could be due to it being the most prominent issue in Scotland at the time and there was more access to the information. McGrath successfully shows once again the exploitation of the highlanders by the Scottish Government. However, we are once again present with an extremely exaggerated fictional character, so it does bring into question the dependency of the story.

How relevant it was to the politics of the time and the way people felt about their situations.

Westminster is the meta narrative.

Taking plays out of the theatres and to the communities

How did this affect people and what did it lead to – cultural phenomenon, only 2 channels

Guy DiBorge – decomposition of the old ways and how it got stuck until it got rid of capitalism

Overall, it is clear to see that The Cheviot (McGrath 1974) presented us with accurate depictions of the highlanders’ lives. McGrath cleverly intertwines his ways of storytelling with interesting facts, truthful statistics and honest accounts. However, it is clear that there are times when the exaggerated and satirical characters are presented to the audience and it does bring into question the historical reliability of the social and political issues present within his work. He gives statistical evidence to back up his boldest statements throughout the play, which makes people have more belief in the play. It also needs to be kept in mind that, Jameson’s theory of ‘nostalgia for the present’ could very well be present in McGraths work as there is little to no solid evidence that we are presented with to back up people’s family stories. It could well be that people are remembering these stories for what they wish they were rather than what they truly were.

SNP politics of the time, and how this influenced the work

Chapter 3 – Roddy McMillan and The Bevellers

Roddy McMillan’s presence within the Scottish theatre industry had always been important. He was one of the main Scottish writers who happily presents real life, honest plays. They appealed to people due to the way everyday life was portrayed in them, they were relatable stories which people felt invested in due to the truth that shone through. These types of plays “appealed to an urban public which rejoiced to see and hear a degree of realism (at times melodramatic, at times nostalgic, but mainly honest and down-to-earth) applied to recognizable situations and settings (a shipyard, a glass-works, a prison, a public wash-house, a massage parlour, a carpet factory) and unfolded with both comedy and pathos.” (Morgan 1993). McMillan’s play The Bevellers (McMillan 1974) does just that. It is an honest and truthful portrayal of the working-class life. It is set in the basement of a glass bevelling firm in Glasgow and follows the trials and tribulations of the people that work there. The play itself is filled with realistic issues that resonated with the working-class at the time, this is very much one of the reasons the play was so popular. The play is cleverly tied together with the social and political issues that people were facing at the time, but what needs to be investigated is whether or not these issues were a true representation of the time.

The play begins with the introduction of a character called Norrie, a fifteen-year-old boy who is starting his first day at his new job in the glass bevellers. Shortly after our first introduction to him, and several of the other characters, we find out the Norrie’s mother had died when he was only thirteen years old. We discover that his mother was relatively young, at the age of forty-four, when she died. Norrie tells his fellow workers how it happened saying “Aye, it wis during the school holidays it wis. I wakened up wan morning, an’ there wis this noise in the kitchen. A lot o voices. I went through an’ they widnae let me in. I jist saw her lyin in a chair. That wis it.” (McMillan 1974, p. 14). Norrie is completely unfazed at the fact he saw his own mother’s dead body. This implies to us that it was a common thing to happen to people at the time as even the other workers mildly brush off what has happened. This is a painfully accurate depiction of life and death in the 1970s. The Glasgow Effect is something that has been referred to over many years and is all about the higher mortality rate in Glasgow than anywhere else in Scotland and the UK. It discusses the gap in life expectancy in the rich and the poor and believes that in the 1960s and 70s there were several factors which could have led to premature death. It is believed that the living conditions, depression, lack of vitamin D and poverty were a few of the main reasons as to why the mortality rate was so high. It was stated that “they have a higher chance of dying prematurely if they are poor, deaths across all ages and social classes are 15% greater.” (Goodwin 2016). In the 1970s, the government were trying several different ways to tackle the problem, however, the Glasgow effect is still a problem within today’s society and over the last, almost 50 years, there has been no real way to resolve the issue. The fact that McMillan chose to have the other characters slightly sympathetic before they just continued about their work, shows to the audience that this was an extremely common occurrence within Scottish society at the time. By having both Norrie and the other characters in the scene brush it off, it brings to light that they feel like there is nothing they can do so just have to get on with it. This was a very typical attitude for the working-class to have at this time. It is a heart breaking and extremely honest moment within the play and opens the audience up to the fact that the working-class suffered greatly but felt almost hopeless, as they did not feel they were able to change their ways of life and break free from the doom and gloom of their everyday lives. It is clear here that McMillan successfully brings to light the social issue of high premature mortality rates within the play, by presenting it in a true and honest manner.

Although it is set in the 1970s McMillan has presented us with a play that has an extremely nostalgic feel about it. Further on in Act One of the play, the character of Bob starts talking about the old days. He is reminiscing about when he was younger and first started working in the trade. He brings up the family lines and explains to Norrie that people he was working with had family who were also bevellers. Towards the end of his speech he starts to seem a little deflated, as he is talking about the things people he knew went on to achieve for their families as if he was never able to do that. He says:

Some o them could cut a design wi a wheel that wis merr like somethin’ ye’d see in Art Galleries. Ah wis never a’ that good at figure-work masel’. But some o them raised families an’ even put them tae the University. (McMillan 1974, p. 35)

One is then inclined to relate this back to Frederic Jameson’s idea of ‘nostalgia for the present’. It brings into question, whether or not McMillan believed working-class life was more of a hardship than it truly was. It is possible McMillan is believing the struggles of the working-class in a way that he wants to see it rather than for what it truly was. This bring into question the reliability for the true life representations in the play, as he is wanting to present to us an accurate portrayal of working-class life in 1970s Glasgow. However, if McMillan is exaggerating the circumstances, in the same way Jameson’s theory of ‘nostalgia for the present’ insists he is, it does not prove to be a successfully accurate representation of the struggles of working class life. Our lives become more like representations through industrialisation (Jameson). What is the bevellers saying about society? Does it highlight the social issues? Relationship between workers, 3-day week, what is there in the bevellers that resonantes with society, it satirises the working-class. Look at steve review

McMillan very gently offers the audience a look into the way the class system at the time in 1970s Glasgow. The character of Bob, once again offers us another long speech a few moments later in the same scene. This time he is talking about the groups of people he has come across in his day. He talks about the upper class who have more money than him he describes them as “Other kind’s the wan wi a bit o education. The run businesses, buy a hoose, an’ never seem tae be short o a few nicker. They might be dumplins, but that bit o education makes the difference.” (McMillan 1974, p. 35). Between the 1950s and early 1970s it is suggested that social mobility was something that everyone was capable of being part of. It is indicated that people had the choice to make a difference in their own lives and that noting really stopped them but themselves. However, it can be argued that people with a working-class background found it difficult to seek and secure professional employment as “the higher professions remained very successful at self-recruitment: that is, finding opportunities for the sons of professionals to work as professionals.” (Iannelli and Paterson 2005). McMillan presents the idea of class hierarchy in such a way that it barely even dawns on the audience to begin with. Bob delivers his speech with what seems a slight bitterness in his tone, almost as if he has had the very same opportunity taken away from him. It is a this point that Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony comes into fruition within the play. Gramsci gives us the theory that there is one ruling class that presides over all others and it is clear the this is the way Bob feels. McMillan gives the audience a subconscious feeling that if there were no social class system based solely on wealth would it be that people would have no barriers and be free to achieve their highest potential. McMillan makes the spectators pity the working-class at this moment, as it gives the impression that they are all stuck and will never be able to escape their class divide. McMillan is clearly successful here in bring forward the idea of social class in 1970s Glasgow and it is obvious that it is a rather fitting and correct representation of it.  Expose the class system in the 1970s slightly more.

Overall it is clear to see in this chapter that The Bevellers (McMillan 1974) by McMillan was able to successfully bring to light several social issues but within the play there was lacking in many of the political issues. He does it in a way without forcing the knowledge and statistics of the time period on the audience but instead through the heartfelt stories of the characters he created. By having such open and honest characters it makes it easier for the spectators to have much more faith in the accuracy of the issues highlighted within the play. His depiction of social class neatly ties into Gramsci’s perception of cultural hegemony which if obviously extremely prevalent in 1970 society. He was able to accurately depict the social issues that the working-class people had to endure. However, there is, again, Jameson’s notion of ‘nostalgia for the present’ which needs to be brought into consideration, as McMillan’s writing could be exaggerated to an extent without him being fully aware, as everyone tends to remember things in a way in they want to see it which is often differently from the facts. 


It is clear to see that both playwrights were successful at accurately highlighting the social and political issues within Scotland in their plays to some extent, however, it is also obvious that there were times in which the work did not always achieve this. It would have been too easy to assume that of both plays in their entirety were completely successful. There were limits to what could be researched and fully understood from a historical point a view and this in turn effected the outcome of both the plays accuracy. Part of movement within theatre and the social demographic project.

Chapter one, on the historical background within theatre during the 1960s and 70s gave the opportunity to understand the reasons why radicalisation within theatre was such a massive turning point within the Scottish theatre industry. It presented the study with a way of comparing Marxist theories to what was happening within theatre, which, in turn, allowed a greater understanding of the mindset of the industry at the time and, more importantly, McGrath and McMillan. By helping us understand what both playwrights’ beliefs and thought processes were, it allows for a greater and more in-depth understanding of the text. The historical analysis of this chapter, provided the chance to understood the world in which these plays were coming from and comprehend the political and social climate that had been created from. Overall, this chapter helped fully understand the background and thought processes of both the playwrights and the time period which they were creating their work in.

When it comes to the plays themselves, the main aim was to work out whether or not they were truly successful in accurately highlighting Scottish social and political issues. It can be assumed from the in-depth evaluations in chapters two and three that this aim was, to an extent, achieved. Both chapters provided strong evidence of both the successes and the downfalls within the work, which is exactly what needed to be assessed. By showing both evidence of the play and also comparing it to the theories of Jameson and Gramsci, it can be noted how these events within the play were affected by the Marxist beliefs that were prevalent in society in the 1960s and 1970s. This is a crucial factor when looking at the accuracy of the plays as it brings into question the state of mind of the playwrights and presents the idea that nothing was what it entirely seemed at face value. Both plays had their successes but it is important to note that they had their failures in giving accurate representation of the social and political issues brought into question. These failures bring into question not only the dependency the audience can have on them for historical accuracy, but also whether or not emotional impact of the work as a whole is lessened due to this or is still the same. Marixist beliefs were mainly in independent theatre.

There were limits on the study, this is brought up in the opening paragraph, when E.H. Carr is quoted, discussing on who decides what is truly the accurate depiction of history. He states that “Our picture has been preselected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which supported that worth preserving.” (Carr 1972, p. 13). When analysing the historical aspect of the play, each account of the events and issues did slightly differ in some way, which did prove problematic to some extent. However, the main events were always the same, it was mostly minor details, in different first-hand accounts that differed. There was also a limit on how much can truly be understand about another persons’ views and through processes. It was easy to grasp main concepts, however, minor details that were missing did at times leave the research slightly unfulfilled. 


Overall, the study was able to present an in-depth insight into the importance of radicalism within theatre and how this changed the landscape of Scottish theatre and presents to readers and audiences, the work produced due the changes. The study managed to give a textual and historical analysis of the plays which, in turn, helped the research develop an answer to its main question. It has helped highlight deeper meanings to the work from a critical theory sense as well as a historical sense that people may have not noticed before. It has been able to understand the need for historical accuracy within theatre when the intentions of the writer are to give honest and truthful accounts of events and depictions of characters. It has certainly been able to give the opportunity to open the topic up to several discussions around the question, regarding the critical theory concepts, the historical discussion from both the content of the plays and in Scottish theatre in general, along with the plays themselves.

In conclusion, Roddy McMillan and John McGrath were successful, to an extent, in accurately highlighting social and political issues in Scotland within their plays. The study makes clear the much of the reasoning behind their work was due to the social and political unrest of the 1970s but also in the lead up to the 1970s too. It presents to us not only where the playwrights are successful but also where they do not quite achieve the historical accuracy within the stories. It is important to note that the realisation that these plays were not always entirely accurate could to some extent, have an effect on the emotional impact of the stories. This is because much of the effect they had was based around the honesty and truth behind the stories. Although, it could be suggested that the exaggeration and twisted truths could be to cause more of a stir within the audience, however, it could be seen as a way to just grab people’s attention. Overall, we can see that although mostly successful the playwrights did have their downfalls when it came to historical accuracy of social and political issues within Scotland in their plays.


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