While waiting innocently in a queue for tea at the 2010 annual conference of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, I overheard the indefatigable Ian Brown speaking to Carla Sassi about the volume he was then editing about drama in Scotland. I asked him if he had any entries about Gaelic drama – folk drama in particular – and before I could finish my tea and biscuits, he had somehow pressed me into service for a chapter in his book (reference here).
Before the 20th century, Gaelic society was far more complex, multi-layered, and multi-textured than most people expect – including modern Gaelic speakers. There were a variety of cultural expressions and literary genres that have since dwindled out of existence, one of these being folk drama. I quickly gathered together materials on this topic for Ian’s volume – having squeezed myself in at the last moment – but given more time, much more could be said.
For example, the following is an interesting note about this genre that I came across recently (too late for inclusion in my chapter) in the book Co-chruinneachadh de dh’Oranan Taoghta, published in 1836:
The author of the humourous dialogue between Raghal agus Caristine is not known; but the piece was frequently performed in character, by two packmen, who travelled in the Highlands: one of them performing the part of Carastine, in women’s clothes, to the great delight of the audience.
The dialogue contains ribaldry, like we might expect from many other medieval performance pieces.
Gaelic Drama in Nova Scotia
In the course of the last five years of Gaelic research in Nova Scotia, I’ve also come across references to quite a number of Gaelic dramas performed in the eastern mainland and Cape Breton from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century. Most of these, it seems, were written by Nova Scotian Gaels (although there may be some influence from Scotland, especially via Donald Sinclair of Barra). They were often performed at social events organized by religious societies.
This is a ripe area for research which has never been touched (like so many others regarding Gaelic Nova Scotia). What was the purposes of these dramas? How popular were they? Are there elements of continuity from Gaelic folk drama, or are they Gaelicizations of contemporary popular dramas? What themes and morals are expressed in their content? Do they contain social commentary and critique?
This is yet another topic which I’ll never be able to look into in my lifetime, and there are many questions of this nature waiting to be answered by the scholar of Gaelic Nova Scotia willing to delve into this material and question contemporary assumptions and stereotypes.