'Nation, Community, Self, Female Voices in Scottish Theatre From The Late Sixties To The Present', by Gioia Angeletti (published by Mimesis International)
Dr Gioia Angeletti, who teaches at the University of Parma, is among a group of Italian women academics who in recent years have come to play a prominent part in Scottish literary studies. Other leading lights are Valentina Poggi at the University of Bologna, and Carla Sassi at the University of Verona, who has just been appointed Convenor of the International Association for the Study of Scottish Literatures for the period 2020-23. I came to know Gioia when she was a postgraduate student in Glasgow University's Scottish literature department gaining her PhD degree in 1998. Her thesis then was on 19th- and 20th-century Scottish poetry, but here she offers a challenging account of contemporary Scottish women dramatists.
Challenging, because the case she makes is that these writers have never received the critical recognition and respect they deserve. Who are they? Joan Ure, Anne Downie, Lara Jane Bunting, Catherine Lucy Czerkawska, Marcella Evaristi, Sue Glover, Liz Lochhead, Ann Marie di Mambro, Sharman Macdonald, Rona Munro, and Aileen Ritchie. (Ena Lamont Stewart, best known for Men Should Weep
is cited as a kind of 'mother' to this generation, and Jackie Kay is added to the list.)
Yet the list alone makes the author's point. How many of these names do readers recognise? What about the titles of their plays? I have to admit that my own score is a pretty low one. In her introductory chapter, Angeletti makes some of the familiar feminist critical points about the patriarchal dominance of men in the running of theatrical companies and the producing and directing of plays – as well as the more general second-class status of women artists, but that in no way is the main thrust of her book. On the contrary, the case she aims to make in succeeding chapters is that the quality of the selection of plays she goes on to analyse is extraordinarily high. She will argue that the fact that their authors have been denied the long-term recognition they merit in no way invalidates the scale of their success.
The playwrights focused on and the individual works discussed are as follows:
• Joan Ure and Seven Characters out of 'The Dream'
(1968) and Something in it for Ophelia
and Something in it for Cordelia
in Chapter 1.
• Liz Lochhead and The Magic Island
(1993) – a version of Shakespeare's The Tempest
performed for children from seven to 11, in Chapter 2.
• Sharman Macdonald and After Juliet
(1999) – also aimed at children – in Chapter 3.
• Ann Marie di Mambro and Tally's Blood
(1990) in Chapter 4.
• Sue Glover and Bondagers
(1991) in Chapter 5.
• Jackie Kay and The Lamplighter
(2007) in Chapter 6.
• Joan Ure and I See Myself As This Young Girl
(1967) and Take Your Old Rib Back, Then
(1974) in Chapter 7.
• Marcella Evaristi and Commedia
(1982) in Chapter 8.
• Liz Lochhead and Medea
(2000) in Chapter 9.
The history of each of these plays is itself significant:
• Ure's Ophelia
were performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1971.
• Lochhead's Magic Island
was performed at Glasgow's Mitchell Theatre during the 1995 Mayfest.
• Macdonald's 1999 After Juliet
was translated into Italian and performed in Italy in the same year.
• Di Mambro's Tally's Blood
was edited and printed for use in a Scottish schools' curriculum.
• Glover's Bondagers
was originally staged in the Tramway in Glasgow and the Traverse in Edinburgh. In 1993, it appeared in the Traverse again, and also in Canada. 1995 saw productions in Edinburgh, London, Budapest and Canada, and a printed text appeared in a Methuen drama series in 2005.
• Kay's The Lamplighter
, a radio play, broadcast in 2007, was shortlisted for the 2009 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year having been published (and accompanied by a CD of the radio version) in 2008.
• Ure's I See Myself As This Young Girl
was performed by the Glasgow Citizens Theatre Company in 1967, became a BBC Radio play in 1969, and is one of Two Plays by Joan Ure
, a book edited by Kenneth Roy in 1970. Take Your Old Rib Back, Then
was staged by the Pool Theatre Company at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1974. It appears in Joan Ure, Five Short Plays
, edited by Christopher Small.
• Evaristi's Commedia
was staged at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and then the Lyric Theatre in London in 1982. It gained for the author the Evening Standard
Award for Best Newcomer. It was published in 1983.
• Lochhead's Medea
was performed at the Old Fruitmarket Theatre in Glasgow in 2000 and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2001. Published in 2000, it won the 2001 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year in that year. Subsequently, it toured in England, Cyprus and India.
What emerges from this account is that the plays Angeletti has chosen to make her case for our contemporary culture's failure to recognise the true value of its women playwrights, is that all these works made a considerable impact at their moment of origin. Some, but by no means all, were subsequently published. However, not one of them has been performed in the last 20 years. Presumably, post-lockdown, a time will finally come when our theatres will open as usual. When that happens, will those running them consider for a moment staging any one of these plays? Absolutely not. The reality is that rather than establishing themselves as part of the national theatrical canon, they have been forgotten. In the following chapters of her book, Angeletti goes on to make the case for what today's audiences have been missing.
She has chosen to group her plays in terms of three categories. Thus Part 1 (the 'Nation' of the title) is Writing Back to the English National Bard
, Part 2 ('Community') is (Trans)national Communities,
while Part 3 ('Self') is Self and Society
. In her introductory section, Angeletti sets out her reasoning for this format, deploying and citing a remarkable range of recent academic theorising around the issues her titles suggest, while at the same time signalling what she plans to bring out from her analyses of individual texts. (My one complaint about the book is that she might well have cut back on this heralding of what is to come.)
What is to come is, of course, the heart of the matter – the proof of the pudding, as it were. She has to prove to the reader that these plays are as good and impressive as she believes them to be. An immediate problem comes to mind – and it is one she is aware of. Approaching Lochhead's Medea
, she writes that her focus will be 'on its textual rather than performative dimension'. In fact, that is inevitably the approach she takes in her discussion of all these plays. Their texts are what she has to work with. And just how well she does that, is by far the most impressive aspect of her book.
In chapter after chapter, these plays come alive as she discusses and analyses them. Speeches, dialogue and issues seem to jump off the page almost as though we are hearing them emerge in the theatre. No mean achievement. Readers may not always be persuaded to recognise the nuanced richness of meaning, the subtlety and insight, the profundity of experience that she over and over again identifies in her texts. But it is beyond question that a powerful case is made for all of them.
But a problem does remain. The reader of any one of the library of books about Shakespeare's plays has instant access to the texts in question. Here that is impossible. Trying to be fair as possible, I indicated if an individual title had ever been published. But the reality is that not one of these texts can be easily accessed today. If a modern reader – who has noted Joseph Farrell's view that Evaristi's Commedia
is 'one of the most ambitious, insightful and deftly crafted pieces of theatre produced in Scotland in recent decades', and Angeletti's conclusion that 'The immigrant experience is explored here with an intellectual depth and moving sensibility unmatched by any other piece of Scottish theatre' – decides to nip down to Waterstones to pick up the text, they will be disappointed. The 1983 edition was never reprinted and Salamander Press seems no longer to be in business.
I'd urge anyone involved in the Scottish theatrical world to read and think hard about this challenging book. But who will make these texts available?