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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Short

From Cèilidhs and the Closets: Dramatic subversion to maintain heritage

I recently fell down a rabbit hole with my research where I suddenly lost the thread of what drama and performance actually is. Currently, I am working on a chapter for my thesis about folk drama in 1970s Scotland following the folk revivalist movement in the 50-60s. Within this period of theatre history we can find the emergence of “cèilidh plays”, variety dramas that incorporate folk music, audience participation, and politically motivated dialogue/storytelling. This moment represents an evolution in our current understanding of what a cèilidh is, where many Highlanders lament the traditional cèilidh as having lost its way following the Great War. But were cèilidhs sites of dramatic performance, or just an opportunity to catch up and strengthen community ties? This got me investigating the role of the cèilidh in the 19th century, to understand just exactly what John McGrath was aiming for when he wrote The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil in 1973.

My analysis of the cèilidh comes from two main written sources, J. F. Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, vol. i. (1860) and Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, vol. i. (1900). These are folklore collections that were collected as part of a strong folkloric movement in this period, and of course, come with their own problems in critical heritage discourse, however, you can find their ethnographic descriptions of cèilidhs are often corroborated through descriptions given by Highland and Islanders themselves, many of which you can find recorded on Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches. What I was specifically looking for were descriptions that alluded towards dramatic performance within the event, but this is where I ended up falling down my rabbit hole.

The traditional cèilidh, as described in these sources, was an informal gathering within crofting communities where stories/narratives were shared. The stories were typically preceded by casual conversation, then more pressing political discussion (such as about the clearances or the government) and then succeeded by riddles, conundrums, and songs. The evenings would go on, sometimes it seemed, until “cock-crow”. The housemaster, typically an older community member who told the best stories, would take the storytelling until midnight, and then other guests could contribute after. These tales were often made up of histories, myths, and memories and of course each teller would have their own style. However, the adoption of imitating characters or animals in many stories, and the affective relationship between narrator and audience members indicates that there was a strong dramatic performance element within these moments.

The Gaelic literary system was predominantly an oral one which, unfortunately, many English thinkers of the 19th century (and until fairly recently) perceived to mean that it was a system “lacking” of drama and theatricality. Obviously, we need to shed ourselves of this western hegemonic thinking that defines our understanding of theatre/drama, and so the dramatic performances of the cèilidh could be seen as acts of subversion, ways of counter-circuiting the pressures of English-language dominance and thinking. Cèilidhs were an opportunity to practice Gaelic at a time when it was actively being suppressed. They were events where Highlandic cultures and memories were kept alive so as not to be literally written out of national histories. And ultimately they were moments where alternative forms of experiencing theatricality could be had, allowing Scottish theatre makers later in the 20th century to disrupt performance norms on Scottish stages and introduce old/new modes of presenting dramatic narratives.

South of the border, in England, during the 19th century, we can also find another, potentially subversive, form of dramatic “performance” occurring. The closet play is a dramatic narrative that by either circumstance or choice was not performed in traditional performance venues, but instead read/enacted within the private sphere of one’s home. As a performance genre, it has existed before the 19th century, however, it is interesting to me to assess what was occurring during this period specifically as society was dramatically changing.

At this time we have two distinctly different forms of the closet drama, those written by men, and those written by women. Male writers of this form did so as an act of rebellion against what they saw as the degradation of the literariness of theatre. They were under the impression that theatre was using low-brow popular forms, much like variety, comedy, or music hall, or were too caught up in modernist thinking that depicted reality more “accurately” and less romantically. Their writing of the closet play was hardly subversive and could be considered acts of conservatism, in my opinion. However, for women, the closet drama was an opportunity to explore womanhood and the role that they play within society in ways that would not have been as viable in theatres. This was a way that female writers could engage directly with other women to highlight inequalities in their lives and provide the space to imagine alternative ways of being. Whilst, on the one hand, this form still requires an education inaccessible to all women and a certain cultural capital to be able to fully participate in this subversion, it does, on the other hand, present ways in which female experiences, and subsequently non-domestic heritages could be shared, created, and disseminated.

The subversion of these two dramatic forms is two-fold. Firstly, they counter the hegemonic traditions of English language drama in the 19th century and create spaces for alterity to thrive and survive. Secondly, they disrupt our understanding of what dramatic performance actually is and where it can be found. Theorists typically define performance as an act of mimicry, as in someone has to literally take on the role of someone or something else either bodily or vocally. But does that mimicry have to exist physically within the speaker themselves, or is it activated within the imagination of the audience? We can perceive theatricality as some sort of direct social-contract where one person either orally or via writing submits a narrative to be received, experienced, and imagined by an audience (either singly or collectively). What separates this from, say, reading a book, is that therein lies an indirect social-contract, albeit to the same effect, that doesn’t require living bodies in living spaces actively imagining simultaneously (i.e. one narrator and one audience member).

From a heritage perspective this understanding of performance and drama can allow us to find hidden stories or neglected communities within western theatre history. By tracing these routes of subversion, it can also help us to perceive contemporary theatre practices as more heterogeneous and not necessarily a standardised norm that intangible cultural heritage discourse will have you believe. If 19th century audiences in cèilidh-houses and women’s private spaces allowed themselves to imagine their lives more freely then we too should be able to imagine our theatrical heritage free from the restrictions of normative structures. I, for one, would love to explore the role that the closet drama could play in contemporary queer drama since we have typically become intimately acquainted with the closet already…

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