Now that the less than enthusiastic reviews are trickling in for Caledonia at the King’s Theatre, we can get some idea of this production, if we haven’t yet experienced it at first hand.
I intend to give it a miss, based on the reviews, and I therefore run the risk of sounding like one of those fanatical critics of works they have not seen, but which nonetheless have deeply offended their sensibilities. Edinburgh and the Festival have been no stranger to such people over the years, and I don’t want to join their number.
Can I blame Alistair Beaton and Anthony Neilson for trying to stir up some controversy over their work? Of course not – it is their job to put bums on seats, and follow the great theatrical maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Alistair Beaton has a track record of satirising powerful politicians in his work, for example his Spitting Image scripts and notably The Trial Tony Blair on television, and my description of him of him as Gordon Brown’s former scriptwriter in my last blog seems in retrospect, more than a little unfair and limiting.
Drama, if is to be worth anything, must confront, must take a position, must challenge beliefs. If Caledonia had claims to be other than a musical entertainment, it should have done all of these things. Early indicators are that it has done none of them.
However, I come back to the quotes, both of Neil Cooper in the Herald and Beaton himself.
“Given the subject of the play, Caledonia is already shaping up to be the most contentious home-grown drama for some time.”
“Caledonia is potentially skating on very thin ice in terms of how a play funded by the Scottish Government is dealt with by some of the country’s more parochial historians.”
“I wouldn’t be at all be surprised if the keepers of the flame of Scottish history, if I could be so rude, take offence at some point.”
“The idea that a whole nation can be deluded fascinates me.”
The Darien disaster can be looked from three simplistic perspectives, none of which do justice to the event and its ramifications for Scotland.
1. Darien is evidence that Scotland had overweening and unrealistic ambitions as a small, poor nation, and succumbed to delusions of grandeur. Scotland’s 21st century ambitions to be independent and self-sufficient are equally deluded and run the same risks as Darien. Scotland was saved from utter ruin by the Act of Settlement in 1707. Scotland would be ruined by seceding form the UK in the 21st century.
2. Darien was a shining example of the Scottish entrepreneurial spirit and self-confidence, and would have been wholly successful if it hadn’t been for the English and the monarch, who coldly and deliberately destroyed its chances of success. Independence in the 21st century will instantly restore Scotland’s economy and eliminate poverty and social injustice overnight.
3. Darien is all old history and has no relevance to Scotland and the UK in the 21st century. A frothy, light-hearted little musical production in Edinburgh during the Festival should be seen as such and nothing more.
None of the above perspectives are accurate. Darien matters, because history matters, and history matters because if we don’t understand it, we are doomed to repeat our errors.
I am not a historian, and I have come very late to beginning to understand the lessons of history, especially the history of my own country and the British Isles.
I must therefore leave the analysis of Darien in the hands of historians like Tom Devine and Norman Davies – and many others. But I will be deeply uneasy if the interpretation of Darien comes only from historians such as Andrew Roberts or Niall Ferguson, especially if their historical interpretation, should they offer one, is seized upon and distorted by a Unionist Establishment running scared of the break-up of the UK, or through media channels with a Unionist agenda.
The respected British historian Linda Colley is quoted by Tom Devine in his book The Scottish Nation 1700 –2007, as follows -
“ --- even the rawest frontiers of the empire attracted men of first-rate ability from the Celtic fringe because they were usually poorer than their English counterparts with fewer prospects on the British mainland. Having more to win and less to lose, Celtic adventurers were more willing to venture themselves in primitive conditions.”
Unless the Darien venture, William Paterson and Scotland are seen in this context, and unless the brutal hostility of the English Crown and the English government and their contribution to the failure of the venture are taken into the reckoning, any analysis can only be seen as incomplete and perhaps biased.
A play in one of Scotland’s great cities during the greatest arts festival in the world could have made a contribution to this, and to a real understanding of this watershed event in Scotland’s – and the UK’s - history.
The evidence so far suggest that it has missed its chance.
I can speculate how Michael Gove might like the Darien story to be presented in the school curriculum, and what historians he might consult to assist him in this interpretation. I nevertheless hope that under his stewardship the students of this generation might get a more objective view of Scottish history than my generation did.