Scottish National Players

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The Scottish National Players (SNP) were an amateur theatrical society which aimed to develop a Scottish national drama along the lines of what had been achieved in Ireland. Between 1921 and 1934 they staged plays of Scottish life and character and aimed to encourage a public taste for such drama.

It was an entirely 'self-supporting' organisation in which authors and players (or actors) were not paid and therefore could only be engaged on a part-time basis. Only their producer/director occupied a professional role.

However, by the end of the 1920s, their ideals were crumbing away as they faced increasing dissatisfaction from the public and the press. Their ultimate aim of founding permanent Scottish National Theatre building was not realised as there was never enough money to both produce plays and set aside money for the building fund. While the Players' failed to fulfil their stated aims, the training they gave to around 250 actors over the years made a valuable contribution to Scottish theatre and many of their plays were acted by amateur groups throughout Scotland.

Development

At the start of the twentieth century, Scotland had no indigenous dramatic tradition. From the Reformation onwards, the hostility of the kirk, the absence of Court patronage, and the poverty of the country in general, had stifled theatrical activity. By the time the stage became established in Scotland, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, it did so as an offshoot of the English theatre.

The idea behind the Scottish National Players (SNP) was first proposed in 1913 by the St Andrew Society: a patriotic organisation founded in Glasgow in 1907. The Society's objects were "the guarding of the honour and dignity of Scotland, and the vindication of Scottish rights in the British Union". Specifically, it believed that Scottish patriotism could be cultivated in "the encouragement of Scottish institutions, arts, letters and music".

Members of the Society were keenly aware that Scottish drama had lagged far behind other art forms such as literature and music "as a means of expressing the national genius of Scotland". They were directly influenced by the success enjoyed by the Irish National Players — most notably its creation of a national Irish drama and the establishment of a national theatre: the Abbey Theatre in Dublin — and felt that it was their patriotic duty to attempt something similar in Scotland. The project was, however, suspended at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

1921: First performance

On 13 January 1921 the SNP staged its first production, Chatelard, at the Royal Institute Hall in Glasgow.

1922: Scottish National Theatre Society

In February 1922, the Players' amicably broke away from the St Andrew Society and reconstituted themselves as the Scottish National Theatre Society (SNTS). The SNTS was responsible for all the activities of the Scottish National Players between January 1922 and February 1928, when a limited liability company was formed. The objects of the SNTS were as follows:

  1. To take over the assets and liabilities of the Scottish National Players Committee of the St Andrew Society (Glasgow).
  2. To develop Scottish National Drama through the production by the Scottish National Players of plays of Scottish Life and Character.
  3. To encourage in Scotland a public taste for good drama of any type.
  4. To found a Scottish National Theatre.

The Players believed they had done all they could to satisfy the second of these aims; as for the third, the onus was on the public to show their appreciation. As Wilson publicly declared, "they had the players. they were getting the plays, and it was up to the public to prove that they wanted Scottish drama".[1] It was a sentiment backed by the press. The Scots Pictorial, for example, called the lack of public support and the poor audiences "a national disgrace, and more especially a disgrace to Glasgow".[2]

Yet, at the second AGM of the SNTS in 1924, the chairman, David Glen MacKemmie, declared that although a large number of plays were being received by the Society, "there was a dearth of really good plays suitable for a body with the aims and objects of the Scottish National Players".[3]

1923: First London performance

In a bid to seek popular acceptance for their plays, the Scottish National Players often performed in London, the first such occasion being on 1 January 1923 when they performed A Valuable Rival at the Coliseum. London performances were seen as an important venture primarily because London was seen as the theatrical capital. It was hoped the London 'stamp of approval' would influence public opinion back in Scotland and help increase audiences for future performances.

1928: Limited company

Because the SNP operated during a major economic depression with a limited amount of capital available, the strategy adopted was for the players to earn enough cash to build a theatre through their productions. Not only did they fail in this endeavour, they barely managed to remain solvent. Some, including Bridie and Brandane, felt that the company should become professional, but few were prepared to take such a risky step. In 1928 therefore, a bolder step was taken by the creation of a joint-stock company with a desired capital of £10,000. In fact, only half of this sum was raised but this was sufficient for the renting of rehearsal rooms and workshops, and the hiring of staff including a producer, assistants, typists, and a stage-carpenter.

The board of the new company was, artistically at least, ominous in its established and rather distant opulence:

  • Honorary president: The Duke of Montrose;
  • Sir James Barrie: the phenomenally successful west-end playwright whose contribution to the national dramatic movement was nil;
  • Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson: the English actor and theatre manager;
  • NeiI Munro: novelist, journalist, and newspaper editor;
  • John Buchan, novelist and politician;
  • A retired colonel turned timber-merchant;
  • A managing director;
  • A chartered secretary;
  • A professor of medicine (Bridie);
  • David Cleghorn Thomson: northern area director of the BBC;
  • J. L. Waugh: author

More business-like in their attitude, the majority of the board were more prepared than the members of the SNTS to recognise defeat.

By 1934, most of the capital was exhausted. This was despite the tactic of financing the rest of the year's work by extending the annual Christmas run of a 'safe' favourite — normally a Barrie play. In the face of vigorous opposition from the Players, the board of directors put the company into liquidation.

Demise, 1935–1940

Refusing to abandon their aspirations, the PIayers elected from their number a small executive body and continued with production, covering their costs and even making profits, until the outbreak of war dispersed them. There were far fewer new plays put on during this period and much more stress was placed on established successes. Of the dramatists whose names recur in this period — Hal D. Stewart, James Bridie, and James Barrie — only Stewart made any real attempt to continue the 'Scottish Life and Character' strain, and then only occasionally. Between 1935 and 1940, out of 26 piays performed by the SNP, only five were new works. In the previous five years there had been three times that number of first performances. The remaining 21 reflected the tastes of the better English repertory companies at second hand — even Bridie's plays had become established elsewhere.

The initiative had clearly passed into other hands, to the Scottish Community Drama Association, where many dramatists who began with the SNP found a large market for their works, to the Scottish Region of the BBC, and to the Curtain Theatre, opened in GIasgow in 1933.[4]

Company wound-up, 1950

After the Second World Word, Moultrie Kelsall attempted to revive interest in the company and its aims, and secured a new play, The Walls of Jericho, by the rising Scots playwright Robert Kemp, which toured round Scotland for 30 performances in 1948. No further productions were mounted. In the midst of the war which had effectively destroyed the Scottish National Players, two new companies of exceptional vigour had been born, the left-wing amateur Unity Theatre, and the professional Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, and by 1948, two more repertory theatres in Scotland were devoting attention to Scottish drama. In 1950 hopes of further production were abandoned and the company was formally wound up.

Significance

The SNP were the first theatrical company to regard themselves as having a peculiarly nationalist mission which would affect all Scotland — the Glasgow Repertory Theatre which proceeded it had been much more local in its conception. Tours throughout Scotland, in both town and country, were initiated from the outset and continued untiI the very end.

There was much co-operation with Scottish Region of the BBC in broadcasting Scottish pi ays, using S. N. P. actors and frequently, adaptations of plays from the S. N.P . repertoire.

The policy of plays pursued over their twenty-year span of activity was quite blatantly nationalist — their secondary aim, "to encourage in Scotland a public taste for good drama of any type", received but scant attention: whereas Scottish Life and Character, drawn from an extremely wide range of cultures and influences from croft to city, were if anything over-exposed on SNP stages. [However] The necessary prerequisite of dramatic renaissance was the creation of a first-rate acting company, and there can be little doubt that in this the Scottish National Players were strikingly successful.[5]

Tyrone Guthrie's assessment of the work of the Scottish National Players was as follows:

Our main achievement, as I see it, was that we provided a valuable training ground for talent: the best in Scotland, and one of the best in Britain; and more important, that we were one of the Iinks in the chain that will ultimately result in some form of indigenous drama in Scotland[6]

It is significant that in the 1950s when the above was written, he still looks to the future for Scottish plays worthy of international recognition.

Cording wrote:

The Irish experience was not repeated in Scotland, for though several plays were written and produced which were more than merely competent, few were sufficiently durable to be of any lasting importance, and none achieved international stature. This is not to say that such work had no value; but its limitations were severe and must be recognised.

The deliberately national bias in choice of plays hovered rather dangerously on overt, uncritical nationalism, most especially in the early years of the SNP between 1921 and 1930. A demand for Scottish plays in the vernacular was not always for the best, as one observer wrote in 1930:

At the moment the younger dramatists have been writing more with the object of satisfying that demand than to express any original views. The result is that Scottish Drama, a true and national expression of Scottish Life has yet to be written.[7]

And Tyrone Guthrie was to complain:

Some of our Board considered it their duty to press for plays by Scottish authors, if possible in the vernacular, and advocated the presentation of even raw and amateurish scripts provided that their authors were Scots.

As a resuIt, the two pi aywri ghts whose influence was most strongl y fel t around the S. N. p. were, up to 1928, Brandane, and thereafter Bridie; one of whom portrayed a romantic city-dweller's view of the Highlands, whiIe the other - at Ieast with regard to the S.N.P. - rarely failed to escape the superficiality of his satirical whimsy.

Producers

The term 'producer' was then used in the way that the word 'director' is now used in the theatre. Many of the producers also acted in the plays. A producer did not always fill the gap immediately his predecessor left, in which case one of the more experienced SNP actors would occasionally produce plays.

  • 1921–1923: Andrew P. Wilson
  • 1924–1926: Frank D Clewlow
  • 1926–1929: Tyrone Guthrie
  • 1928–1930: Elliot Mason
  • 1930–1933: W G Fay
  • 1933–1934: Edward C MacRoberts

Actors

Approximately 249 people acted with the Scottish National Players between 1921 and 1934. Out of this number 113 people only appeared once.[8]

Actors had to be prepared to give-up most of their free time as rehearsals often ran from 6–11 pm most evenings in the weeks prior to a performance.

At the time there was no other place or theatre group within Scotland which could have provided the kind of training which was offered by the SNP.

Connection to the BBC

The first appearance of the Scottish National Players on the BBC probably came on Tuesday 8 April 1924, when they performed a night of plays for 5SC, with incidental music provided by the station orchestra, conducted by Herbert Carruthers:

  • A Valuable Rival by Neil F. Grant, a comedy in one act by Neil F. Grant, which had been played by Command before Their Majesties the King and Queen at Balmoral Castle in 1922;
  • A fragment of The Dawn by Naomi Jacob, set some years after the rising of the ’45;
  • The Philosopher of Butter-Biggins, the one-act play by Harold Chapin.

The Players believed that they played a vital role in the early years of the BBC. The BBC acknowledged how, in the early days of broadcasting, "the Scottish National Players became the nucleus of a team of semi-professional artists who have given splendid service throughout the years".[9] It also described how simple it was to arrange broadcast dramas in those days:

"A telephone call could muster the Scottish National Players, or the famous Ayrshire team from Ardrossan and Saltcoats, who'd show up at the studio with their current production and, without further rehearsal, put it on the air."[10]

Individual members of the Scottish National Players also performed for the BBC under the auspices of the stations' own 'repertory companies'.

Following the resignation of Frank Clewlow as SNP producer in 1926, and with the SNTS struggling to find a suitable replacement, Tyrone Guthrie was appointed as successor on the recommendation of the BBC's then Scottish Liaison Officer David Cleghorn Thomson. As part of his remit, Thomson also looked after the BBC's Belfast station, from where Guthrie was hired.[11]

As part of the SNP's three-week summer tour of 1927, Guthrie took the Players round the country and broadcasts were made from the BBC's Aberdeen and Dundee stations.

Tyrone Guthrie stated that during his time as producer to the SNP, his wages "paid my subsistence; pocket money was earned by the occasional engagement on the radio...".[12]

Several of the Players held positions at the BBC, including David Cleghorn Thomson, the Northern Area Director and later Scottish Regional Director; Andrew Stewart, who would later become Glasgow station representative; and Moultrie Kelsall.

Howard lockhart, W H D Joss, E J P Mace and Bryden Murdoch were all involved in radio broadcasting.

After the disbandment of the Scottish National Theatre Company, many actors associated with the BBC went on to perform with other groups. Moultrie Kelsall and Andrew Stewart acted with the Citizens' Theatre and Howard Lockart was involved in producing with the Park Theatre in Woodside Terrace, Glasgow.

The Crystal Set

On 24 June 1924, the Players' were invited to perform three one-act plays as part of a special Bannockburn Night on the BBC's Glasgow station, 5SC. The third and final performance that evening, at 10.15pm, was a wireless-themed play, The Crystal Set by John H. Bone.[13]

It was a short, lightweight and rather stereotyped Scots comedy. Wullie is trying desperately to make his mother and his wife keep quiet so that he can listen to the news and then a concert on his new wireless. His mother can't understand the attraction of it and his wife tries to defuse and control the situation. In the end Wullie himself knocks the set to the ground by accident having already had several problems making it work properly. The fact that the play revolved around the idea of listening to the radio was undoubtedly one of the reasons why it was chosen for the broadcast.[14] Within a week of the broadcast it was reported in the Glasgow Herald that "so cordial and encouraging" was the "appreciation of 'listeners-in' throughout the United Kingdom" that it was the hope of the SNTS to arrange "fairly frequent broadcasts for the future".[15]

Reasons behind its failure

The Irish movement's success was founded to a large extent on attaining financial benefactors and being able to construct a theatre building early on in its history; two things which never happened in Scotland.

A subsidy would have given the SNP a measure of independence from the box office. But even when the Scottish National Theatre Society became a limited liability company in 1928, it was, at best, only ever a semi-professional operation, relying on the public buying shares in the company to raise capital. With no outside funding, except for an occasional guarantee fund, it was a serious matter to lose money on a production, and the consequent importance of box office receipts had its eventual effect on the choice of plays performed.

Actors, writers and audiences had no permanent home with which they could identify, instead having to hire halls as venues. As Tyrone Guthrie wrote, the Abbey "was a building of the right type and size, which enabled the company to evolve a distinctive style of acting and production, and to play to full houses while yet drawing on quite a limited section of the public".[16]

Irish vs Scots renaissance

The SNP were not really influenced by or involved in the Scottish Renaissance, which was very much a literary and mainly a poetic movement. Nonetheless, they were directly influenced by the artistic renaissance that had been flowering in Ireland.

The Irish Renaissance was, to a great extent, focussed on the political aspirations for Home Rule for Ireland. The emphasis on the Gaelic language, on Irish tradition and culture, and on the difference between Irish and English, all served to give weight to the Home Rule lobby. In contrast there was never quite the same intensity to, or determination for Scottish Home Rule, as part of the Scottish Renaissance. The SNP were not nationalists in any real political sense. They saw themselves as a theatre movement whose aim was to provide a national drama for Scotland, rather than to use national drama for Home Rule propaganda purposes.[17]

The Irish Renaissance was involved with Irish Gaelic, a language which is totally different to English, and which was still a spoken tongue. The Scottish Renaissance was more interested in Scots than Scottish Gaelic. Scots has more definite and recognisable links with the English language, and was no longer really a spoken tongue. The Scots of the Scottish Renaissance was very much an artistic, poetic and therefore artificial language.

Disbandment

After the Scottish National Theatre Society Limited disbanded in 1932, a group of actors decided to carry on and continue to call themselves the Scottish National Players. However, they no longer held to the principles and aims of the original SNP and their work was more in the nature of any other amateur theatre company. The SNP produced 30 plays after the SNTS disbandment, but only eight of them were new works.[18] Moultrie Kelsall described the Players' decline from the beginning of the thirties:

The policy of mixing occasional international theatre with Scottish output, started by Frank Clewlow in 1924, was widened to include English repertory comedies. The result was increased box-office, but decreased prestige: in that field some of the better amateur companies In Scotland were no worse than the Scottish National Players. Loss of prestige meant increased difficulty In recruiting: old stalwarts died or went to London — the result was the same from the Scottish National Players' point of view: as BBC engagements increased, so did temporary defections. The war provided the coup de grâce.[19]

It was through Kelsall's enthusiasm that an attempt was made to revive the SNP after the war, but the time for such a group had passed and the attempt was unsuccessful. Jean Taylor Smith recalled: "[W]e found that the commercial theatre in Scotland could now do, with greater ease, what we were trying to do with divided energies, and we abandoned the project."[20]

Legacy

The Players failed to fulfil their stated aims, but the training they gave to around 250 actors over the years made a valuable contribution to Scottish theatre. Furthermore, many of their plays were acted throughout Scotland by amateur groups, sometimes competing as teams at festivals organised by the Scottish Community Drama Association. Tyrone Guthrie wrote in his 1953 history of the movement that "we were one of the links in the chain that will ultimately result in some form of indigenous drama in Scotland".

1970

While other areas of Scottish literature continued to enjoy a lively renaissance, by 1970 Scottish theatre had found itself in a hopeless state. In September of that year, when the Scottish Arts Council published a report on 'Theatre in Scotland', it seemed as if the whole movement to establish a national theatre for Scotland would have to begin again. After expressing concern with the state of theatre in the country, the Council recommended that "there should also be a major drama company, of the highest quality, based in Scotland undertake activities parallel with those of Scottish Opera and Scottish Theatre Ballet". It went on: "A company serving the major centres of Scotland would have to rival the artistic standards of such companies as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre which are receiving considerably higher subsidy."

Touring

Throughout their existence the Scottish National Players toured Scotland and parts of England from the early 1920s to the late 1940s. The highlight of their year was their touring productions. This usually meant camping, or sharing a small caravan. The company shared all the domestic duties as well as acting in productions. This type of company was in the tradition of the small groups of travelling troupes, known as Pennygeggies or Geggies, which existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

References

  1. Glasgow Herald, 28 December 1932.
  2. Scots Pictorial, 6 January 1923.
  3. The Scottish Player, Vol.1, no.1, 1923.
  4. Cording, 103.
  5. Cording, 104.
  6. Guthrie, ??.
  7. D. Sutherland, Scottish Stage, December 1930, 93.
  8. Karen Anne Marshalsay, The Scottish National Players: in the nature of an experiment 1913-1934, PhD thesis (Glasgow University, 1991), 241.
  9. The First Thirty Years Scottish Broadcasting, 1923-1953 (BBC, 1953)
  10. Early Days of Broadcasting in Scotland (BBC, 1973)
  11. Tyrone Guthrie, A Life In the Theatre (London: Hamilton, 1960), 41.
  12. Guthrie, 47.
  13. BBC Genome, Radio Times, 20 June 1924.
  14. Marshalsay, 118.
  15. 'Scottish National Players', Glasgow Herald, 3 July 1924, 7.
  16. Guthrie, SNTV, 15.
  17. Marshalsay, 101
  18. Marshalsay, 267.
  19. SNTV, 36.
  20. SNTV, 32.