John McGrath’s 1973 play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil is one of the great works of modern Scottish theatre.
It was revived last summer in Dundee and will play again in theatres across Scotland from the end of this month through to late October.
The original play was 7:84 Theatre Company’s first production. It marked a new beginning for drama in Scotland, and the way the work was staged is still influential to this day.
Offshore oil exploration was then a new industry just starting up. Despite promises of high pay, working conditions were terrible.
The play put this in a historical context.
It looked at how Highland crofters fought back against the big Scottish landowners who were throwing them off the land to make way for sheep.
Young left wing theatre workers John McGrath and his partner Elizabeth MacLennan set up 7:84 to produce work that was meaningful to their fellow workers.
It took its name from a statistic published in The Economist magazine that 7 percent of the population owned 84 percent of the wealth in Britain.
At that time workers in Britain were engaged in waves of local strikes and much bigger confrontations such as the miner’s strike of 1972.
McGrath had also visited Paris in 1968 and saw the factories closed by striking workers, the gates draped with red flags.
He believed that revolution was not only about economics but also creative and spiritual freedom. In this atmosphere a new left wing movement grew up in the theatre.
7:84 wanted to tell these stories in a way that was relevant and meaningful.
It staged the show not in traditional theatres but in local halls throughout Scotland on a format based on the ceilidh—Scottish dance entertainment.
It was performed with music and songs in Gaelic and English. There were jokes, dances and the actors often spoke directly to the audience.
At the end everyone was invited to dance, drink and discuss the play.
McGrath and MacLennan wanted their work to be a dialogue between the audience and the performers—and be part of building a movement for socialism.
They raised an awareness of popular and radical traditions of Scottish theatre that continue today.
Powerful recent works such as Gregory Burke’s The Black Watch and Rona Munro’s The James Plays have used the radical techniques pioneered by 7:84 and others.
Dundee Rep’s new production of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil raises questions.
It has been widely praised but is also said to be much slicker than the original. Is this a gain or a loss?
And touring established theatres, not local halls, changes the way the audience can interact with the performance.
This is partly to do with the economics of the present theatrical system but also the loss of the movement that existed in the 1970s.
Thousands of ordinary working class people were looking for change and hungry for ideas as to how to bring it about.
Theatre workers were consciously part of that.
That movement for a better kind of society revived around the Scottish independence referendum and now around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
It is timely, then, to see this revival of McGrath’s play. Perhaps it can be part of building a new movement for socialism.
Part of that would be a new theatrical movement for working class people with young people writing and devising new plays that help us discuss how we fight.