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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Drama, Burns and the

Burns never wrote a play, the cantata 'The Jolly Beggars' being his nearest approach to the stage. It, of course, could hardly have been meant to be acted, although Cedric Thorpe Davie's stylised version for four singers and a chamber group of instrumentalists (made in 1953 for the Scottish Festival at Braemar, and subsequently broadcast, televised, recorded in part, and played all over Scotland) provides one solution to the problem inherent in a piece where each character is allowed only one major utterance.

Burns did, however, have in mind, from 1787 onwards, the idea of writing a play. He told Graham of Fintry on 10th September 1788, that if he were in the Excise service "...it would be likewise favor my Poetical schemes. I am thinking of something in the rural way of the Drama kind. Originality of character is, I think, the most striking beauty in that Species of Composition, and my wanderings in the way of my business would be vastly favorable to my picking up original traits of Human nature.'

The poet discussed a Highland folksubject with Ramsay of Ochtertyre, and came away with a letter of introduction to an expert in Highland music, the Rev Walter Young of Erskine.

The tale which, Ramsay claimed, had impressed Burns hardly seems promising dramatic material:

'Its hero was a Highlander named Omeron Cameron, who received the Earl of Mar in his humble cottage, when the earl had to skulk from his enemies. Being himself forced into exile on this account by his own clan, he went to Kildrummy Castle with his wife and children, to claim a requital from the earl, who had bidden him to do so if ever misfortune should befall him. Upon hearing who it was, the earl started from his seat with a joyful exclamation, and caused Omeron to be conducted with all possible respect into the hall. He afterwards conferred on him a four merk land, near the castle.'

Even more unpromising is the subject possibly referred to in January 1789, when he told Lady Cunningham that he had: '... a hundred different Poetic plans, pastoral, georgic, dramatic and etc. floating in the regions of fancy, somewhere between purpose and resolve.'

Currie is our only authority for the story that Burns had actually resolved on a plot and title for a play, Rob MacQuetchan's Elshon, based on the almost certainly apocryphal incident in which MacQuetchan, Bruce's cobbler, accidentally drove his awl into that leader's foot while repairing a shoe damaged in a lost battle.

Henry Mackenzie, who had urged the poet to write a pastoral play, regretted that Burns had never fulfilled his plans to write a drama, and many commentators have echoed his regrets. Yet the only sort of drama Burns appears to have contemplated writing seems to have been of the parochial genre kind which later appeared as Scots kitchen comedy.

Burns was undoubtedly a brilliant master of the dramatic monologue. But as Professor de Lancey Ferguson says in his splendid and perceptive study, Pride and Passion, '... his triumph in the dramatic monologue is the best reason for believing that the attempt would have failed. His numerous references to the drama and dramatic writing never so much as hint that Burns had grasped the elements of theatrical technique. For him a play was merely a vehicle for declamatory speeches and the expression of 'sentiments' which would make neat quotations; a cobbling together of purple patches and scattered episodes supposed to depict 'originality of character'. If it ever occurred to him that a good play is a unified structure in which a single impression is built up through a series of artfully contrived climaxes, he never put the idea on paper.'

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Complete Burns Songs

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