EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
It was the cry which symbolised changing times, as Scottish culture and identity began to grow and take its place alongside that of England in the recently united United Kingdom.
On 14 December 1756, audiences witnessed the first performance of a play which established Scotland's character and language as a thing of value and importance - Douglas was a verse tragedy which had been rejected by English theatre companies in London before receiving its staging at Edinburgh's first public theatre.
Edinburgh's original Playhouse was located just off the Royal Mile in the Canongate, on the lane which today is marked as Old Playhouse Close. It was here that a capacity crowd had gathered for what turned out to be a landmark production from Rev. John Home, a church minister-turned-playwright who had been inspired by the traditional romantic ballad Child Maurice, about a doomed relationship between a mother and the child she gave up for dead many years previously.
It had taken Home five years to finish the play, and upon its completion he took it to London hoping to interest audiences in England with this tale of Scots passion and tragedy. The play was turned down by a number of theatrical producers, and it was only upon showing the text to friends in Edinburgh did Home receive any degree of support for the work.
At this time, theatres were considered to be dubious dens of licentiousness and disrepute, and so it was more than a little controversial that Edinburgh's theatre should be staging a play written by a man of the church!
Home received much criticism for his association with the play, especially after it was later presented successfully in Covent Garden in London, a year after its Edinburgh premiere. Fearing that the work had made his position as a parish minister untenable, Home resigned his post at his church in East Lothian. In 1786, pressure from the Church of Scotland led to the Edinburgh playhouse being closed altogether.
Home would later enjoy a revival in his status, as private tutor to the Prince of Wales (later King George IV), and did write a number of theatrical pieces which never enjoyed the success of Douglas itself.
Critical acclaim for Douglas helped to make it something of a canonical text in both Scotland and England, and it continued to feature as a set text on the English Literature syllabus in Scotland until the Second World War. The philosopher David Hume, a close friend of John Home's, considered Douglas to be on a par with some of the works of Shakespeare, and in Edinburgh others also considered the play to exceed that of the writings of the Bard of Avon, when the infamous cry went up from the audience - "Whaur's yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?!"
In the interests of balance, Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first English dictionary and occasional (reluctant) visitor to Scotland described Home's work as having "not ten good lines in the whole play".
But such was the overall success of this stirring and inspirational production that Home hoped to establish a national theatre for Scotland to champion its plays, writers, themes and characters in a climate which still considered Scottish culture of inherently lesser value and interest than the English tradition.
Home remained in Edinburgh until his death in 1808. He is buried in the graveyard at the South Leith Parish Church, and is commemorated with a bust among his cultural and historical compatriots on the Scott Monument on Princes Street.
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