A review of Performing Scottish identity: From the rise of the Stage Scot to the National Theatre of Scotland, by Lynn Ramert
Ramert introduces her work by pointing out that, though there exist studies on Scottish drama, comparatively few studies exist which focus on dramatic depictions of Scots by non-Scottish dramatists. The purpose of her study is to fill this void, supplementing analyses of dramatic texts by those of performances more broadly conceived. Her overarching goal, she explains, is to focus “temperament and character traits, with the primary focus being the perceived militaristic nature of Scots and Scotland” (p. 4). She contextualizes her project through references to the negatively charged discourses of “Inferiorism” (p. 5) found in some Scottish cultural studies. She compares the perpetuation of Celtic stereotypes in Scotland with those in Ireland, her goal being “to provide a new perspective on Scotland’s ‘fake’ culture by analyzing the reasons why the Scottish people would be so willing to accept this invented form of themselves” (p. 11). She cites Homi Bhabha’s “metaphor of nomadism” (p. 7), as well as Joseph Roach’s assertion in Cities of the Dead that “the provocative spectacle of the theatrical audience summons the idea of nationhood in the poignancy of its absence,” (p. 14, citing Roach p. 74) arguing that it is this summoning that is performed by the National Theatre of Scotland and its ethos of Theatre Without Walls.
In her first chapter, “Tracing a Stage Scot,” Ramert traces the development of the stereotyped Scottish character (in both its male and female manifestations) through examinations of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century plays written both by Scots and non-Scots. She begins with that most famous of Scottish depictions, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, highlighting the play’s historical inaccuracies as well as its depiction of several stereotypes which would be seen repeatedly in later works. She notes several eighteenth-century plays which perpetuated the notion of Scots as militaristic, following this with an analysis of such plays as Charles Macklin’s Love à la Mode and The Man of the World; Joanna Baillie’s The Family Legend; and stage adaptations of Scott’s Rob Roy, highlighting each of this work’s characters as representing versions of the Stage Scot. Ramert sees the proliferations of militarized Scottish characters as demonstrating the worth of the Scots as a whole: “Repeated depictions of Scots soldiers’ heroism and loyalty to Britain, as well as displays of the awe-inspiring warrior might that Scots brought to the union, assured both the English and the Scots that the Scots brought something of value to the union” (p. 63).
Ramert focuses in her second chapter, “History and Histrionics: George IV’s Royal Visit to Edinburgh,” on the theatrical nature of the monarch’s 1822 visit. She sees the city itself as the theatrical setting for the event, its citizens the actors, and Sir Walter Scott the director: “Both the city itself and its people were dressed up to be presented to the King as both quaint and uniquely Scottish as well as civilized and devoutly British” (p. 74). She contextualizes her examination with reference to Joseph Roach’s concept of “surrogation” and Eric Hobsbawm’s study of “invented traditions,” (p. 74) arguing that the inventions manifested during George’s visit have persisted to the present day. She utilizes John Galt’s satirical The Gathering of the West as evidence that not all Scots embraced Scott’s vision of a romanticized, homogeneous, tartaned Scotland. Scott appropriated and simultaneously invented the notion of tartanry, resulting in a phenomenon in which, “once Highland culture was appropriately and safely preserved by the metropolitan elite, real Highlanders were no longer needed” (p. 95). Having described in detail the theatrical aspects of the visit, she then points to its lasting effects, citing such contemporary films as 1997’s Mrs. Brown and 2006’s The Queen, and the 2009 Scottish government-supported Gathering of the clans.
In Ramert’s third chapter, “Legacies: Scottish Military Identity in the Twenty-First Century,” she considers the contemporary reverberations of the militarized Scottish identity described in the previous chapters: The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch. The Tattoo, the bagpipe-laden annual event where military bands from around the world perform for thousands in the Royal Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, “delivers a packaged vision of Scottishness for both Scots and the wider international community that reiterates a Highland vision of the nation while emphasizing the importance of its place within the British Union” (p. 133). Black Watch, meanwhile, offers a foil to the non-critical, Tattoo vision of militarized Scotland. This 2006 production, examining the experiences of members of the Scottish military regiment both in Iraq and upon their return home, displays the overt masculinism inherent in both the military specifically and Scottish culture more generally. Yet Ramert also sees examples of “rituals of homosociality” (p. 164) in the production’s choreographed sequences. In her discussion of both the Tattoo and Black Watch, Ramert makes connections with extra-theatrical media, whether that is Idi Amin’s near obsession with Scottish culture as seen through the film The Last King of Scotland, or the conflation of military and entertainment through video games.
In her final chapter, “The Present and New Scottish Drama: Examining Urban Life in Glasgow,” Ramert cites the city’s characteristics of poverty, poor physical and mental health, connecting these to the notion of “Caledonian antisyzygy” that is prevalent in Scottish literature. For Ramert, this “antisyzygy” points not to the duality of mental illness, but to a productive sense of “multipleness,” echoing Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of “being singular plural” (p. 189). She examines football culture, centering on Scottish football fans who are known collectively as the Tartan Army. The sectarianism and gang violence she sees in contemporary Glasgow is then connected to Tom McGrath’s 1977 play The Hard Man. She then discusses the National Theatre of Scotland’s productions of Federico Garcia Lorca The House of Bernarda Alba (adapted by Rona Munro) and Bryony Lavery’s Beautiful Burnout, both of which designate (masculinized) spaces for women within the context of Scottish masculinity. She then turns to Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, in which the historical characters of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are forced to face off by consequence of being women. She closes the chapter with a discussion of the 2012 NTS “queer interpretation” (p. 226) of Macbeth, a production whose setting was a sanatorium and featured actor Alan Cumming in each of the play’s roles. Citing José Muñoz, she sees in the production “a queer temporality of potential” (p. 236).
Ramert’s study is certainly timely, as interest in Scottish theatre is today becoming more prominent a topic in scholarship. Her study offers a wide range of perspectives, incorporating as it does both theatre and performance more broadly writ, as well as a wide temporal lens. It will be particularly helpful for those who have little knowledge of Scottish theatre or the questions of Scottish identity, as well as those who are more generally interested in the ways in which theatre and everyday performance inform one another.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 2004.
Burke, Gregory. Black Watch. London: Faber, 2007.
Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.
Muñoz, José. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York UP, 2009.
Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.
Indiana University. 2013. 273 pp. Primary advisor: Stephen Watt.
Image: Reinactment of the Battle of Culloden by Curtis Welsh. Used under creative commons licensing https://flic.kr/p/DJgzU