Great War Theatre

Wilson, Yuill and the Scottish National Players by Stuart Gibbs

The theatre of the Great War was designed to boost morale and raise funds for war time charities but the impact it had would spill over into the immediate post-war. Among the ventures pursued after the war was the creation of the Scottish National Players and two of the playwrights highlighted in the Great War Theatre Project, Andrew P. Wilson and Alexander Yuill would play a prominent role in the formation of the company. The idea for the Players was first muted by the amateur actor W. Ralph Purnell at a meeting of the Glasgow St Andrew’s Society on 17 November 1913.  The society’s minutes record that a School of National Drama should be founded in Scotland along the lines of the Irish Players of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. The outbreak of war however would see the project placed on the back burner, until more peaceful times.

The Scottish Repertory Theatre

Another body, the Scottish Repertory Theatre, had already come into being in 1909. Founded by Arthur Wareing, it saw the need to develop an indigenous theatre to counterbalance the over-reliance on touring productions from London and the south. The Repertory successfully staged European and English drama, including being the first UK company to stage Chekhov’s The Seagull, at Glasgow’s Royalty Theatre on 2 November 1909.  The Repertory also staged Scottish productions but its rejection of Graham Moffat’s Bunty Pulls the Strings seemed to be a bit of an own goal as it would go onto be a hit on London’s West End during 1911.

The Scottish Repertory had also been inspired by the Irish Players of the Abbey Theatre and their visit to Glasgow in 1907. Interestingly the Abbey’s manager was a Dundonian, Andrew P. Wilson (known sometimes as A. Patrick Wilson) and was born in the city in 1886.  His first major work in theatre came as producer for the Abbey and during his time as manager he performed in short comedies such as the Country Dressmaker (1912) and Red Turf (1914). Wilson was busy with engagements in London for a large part of 1915 but had time to write what was described as a new and original Scottish Comedy, Bauldy.  If a Scottish Theatre hadn’t quite come to pass, there was at least this new and original Scottish Comedy which would feature Glasgow-born players the Moffat brothers, Dickson, Watson Hume, and his wife Violet Kean Moffat.  Watson was also the brother of Graham Moffat, author of Bunty Pulls the Strings and played the role of ‘Weelum’ under the name William Moffat.  When it was performed in the autumn of 1915 at Arbroath’s Place Theatre, Bauldy was well received. At Her Majesty’s Theatre it was supported by a shorter work also by Wilson, The Herd’s Wife. Shortly after the run Dickson Moffat would be found dead in the bathroom of his flat on Clapham Road, London at the age of 51.

Alexander Yuill

A few months before Bauldy would begin its run, another Scottish writer, Alexander Yuill, was having work staged at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.  Yuill was born in Greenock on December 1861 and lived in Glasgow at 35 Blythswood Road working as a manufacturing chemist at Walter Paterson Naismith’s chemical manufactures.  His first foray into writing came with the publication of the novelette, Married by Proxy, in April 1892 by Sampson, Low, Marston & Co.  This was later adapted for the stage and first produced by Edward Compton’s comedy company on 19 January 1894 at the Greenock Theatre Royal before a tour took Proxy to Edinburgh, London, Sheffield and Glasgow with the play regularly staged until the turn of the nineteenth century.

Birds of Passage

Yuill was living in the Pollokshields district of Glasgow at 9 Fotheringay Road when he wrote his Great War production Birds of Passage.  It seems to have been born out of a visit to the East Coast when the Scottish Rep were still active and the regimented nature of the company seemed to have inspired much of the comedy.  The plot of Birds of Passage centred around one of the common themes of Great War Theatre: espionage, with the would-be spy Gottfried Markiwices formulating a plot for a German raid with the help of his wife and friend.  His efforts, however, would be frustrated by the efforts of a ne’er-do-well who wishes to prove his love for his country. The play was performed at the Theatre Royal on 15 April 1915 and was promoted heavily in the Daily Record as a Glasgow Man’s War Play. Esme Percy took the role of spy Markiwices with the other roles being taken by the members of the Esme Percy and Kirsteen Graeme Repertory Company . Percy had been born in London in 1887 and in later years would be a regular feature in the cinema of the 1930s and 40s. During the autumn of 1915 however Percy and Graeme made numerous appearances with their company in Glasgow’s theatres.  A prolonged residence at the King’s Theatre included a production of Leonidias Andreiev’s A Life of Man. During June 1916 the company moved over to Edinburgh where one of the highlights was Violet Pearn’s Hush, a satire on prudery: a topical subject as the moral fibre of the nation was increasingly becoming a major concern.

MacRae the Stoker 

In 1916 Andrew P. Wilson had his short comedy, Sonnie, performed at the Kirkcaldy Opera House and the following year one of his most celebrated sketches MacRae the Stoker made its first appearance.  Produced in the autumn of 1917 as a vehicle for the Greenock-born comedian, Neil Kenyon, the piece made its debut at the Glasgow Pavilion.  The sketch revolves around MacRae, as his ship is torpedoed and his act of unselfishness that was not without its reward. The situation also extracted a rare lot of humour as one write-up noted.  The piece was the highlight of Kenyon’s repertoire during a run at the Liverpool Hippodrome during June 1918 and attracted noteworthy, if not rave, reviews. Neil Kenyon would revive MacRae for runs at the Camberwell Palace and the London Coliseum during the autumn of 1921 and by this time Wilson’s Scottish Players project had finally gotten off the ground.

The Scottish Players

Wilson outlined a new proposal to set up a national company on 2 December 2 1920 at the Glasgow City Business club, with dates already pencilled in for the 13 and 14 January 1921 at the Royal Institute.  Three short Scottish plays would be performed for the first time at the event. Among the works performed was Glenforsa, which Alexander Yuill co-wrote with John Brandane and which was met with a moderate reception. After the national theatre, a national theatre society was formed on 16 January 1922 to manage the affairs of the National Players. Wilson was the company’s first producer and the players would engage in several country wide tours over the next few years.  Yuill’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s unfinished novel the Weir of Hermiston was staged at the Glasgow Athenaeum on 21 March 1922 and Yuill would reunite with John Brandane to write The Spanish Gallion which was first produced by the Scottish National Players in early 1923.

Radio

The Players were also involved in the burgeoning development of radio. In early March 1923 the British Broadcasting Company began transmitting from studios in Glasgow’s Bath Street as 5SC and the following year the Players would be on air with a production of Naomi Jacob’s The Dawn. On 24 June 1924 Glenforsa would be one of three short plays performed and later that autumn they would take to the airwaves again with Gruach. Yuill died at his abode on Fotheringay Road, on 18 February 1929 and a few months later, on 23 July 1929, a radio adaptation of the Spanish Galleon went out. Yuill’s adaptation of Weir of Hermiston was also broadcast from Glasgow on 7 December 1929.

During the 1930s Wilson would be involved in Broadcasting as part of the BBC’s drama section. This included one notable production, Sandy and Andra, which ran for over ten years from 1936 until 1947.  Wilson would continue with the National Players into the early 1940s but the company was steadily losing its relevance and in the immediate post-war new ventures such as the establishment of the Citizens’ Theatre took over (writer James Bridie, a contributor and board member of the National Players, was one of the main figures behind the Citizens’ establishment).  Another post-war innovation was the establishment of the Edinburgh International Festival, developed after the long years of conflict as a platform for the flowering of the human spirit but another primary intention was to develop the cultural life of Scotland.

The Edinburgh Festival

The first Edinburgh International Festival, was held from mid-August to early September 1947 and was titled the Edinburgh Festival of Music and Drama, although it did in effect revolve around music with the Glyndebourne Opera being the star attraction.  It would be another year before the drama really came into its own, with both the Dundee and Perth Reps giving creditable performances. The main hit, however, was a staging at the Assembly Hall of Sir David Lindsay’s sixteenth-century satire The Thrie Estaites.  Director, Tyrone Guthrie was reunited with another mainstay of the National Players, here, with Andrew Wilson taking on the role of Spiritualitie. Estaites had last been produced in Edinburgh in 1554 and many wondered how well such an ancient Scottish play would fair on a modern international stage. Yet brisk ticket sales made it one of the hits of the summer.  This however would be the last big performance Wilson would make. He died in 1950, a few years after the company he helped create had folded. That post Great War initiative, however would ensure that Scottish Theatre would grow and develop in the decade’s after 1945.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *