Liz Lochhead’s tribute to Edwin Morgan is a Glasgay! highlight
By Mark Brown
A new play by Liz Lochhead is always an exciting prospect. Our “Makar” (national poet), whose superb play Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off is currently being revived at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, has long exemplified the contention that poetry and theatre are the closest of artistic cousins.
There is a particular frisson surrounding her latest stage work, which is entitled Edwin Morgan’s Dreams – And Other Nightmares. The drama is, she tells me when we meet in a cafe in the West End of Glasgow, very much a labour of love. Coming in the year after the death of Morgan – a close friend of hers, and her predecessor as Makar – it promises to be an affecting combination of biography, personal remembrance and poetry.
It was, she remembers, a little over a month after Morgan’s death, in August of last year, that she was approached by Steven Thomson, producer of Glasgow’s annual gay arts festival Glasgay!, who asked her if she was aware of any play or theatre piece about Morgan.
She wasn’t, and so her new play was born.
Not that it was an easy birth. Thomson’s idea was, she says, an excellent one, but it didn’t come at the best of moments. Lochhead’s beloved husband, Tom Logan (a splendid, much missed man, who is, it is clear, ever-present as the poet talks with me), had died a few months before, in June of last year. “At that point in my life, I didn’t think I would write anything ever again”, she says.
It is typical of Lochhead, a writer to her bones, that the catalyst in her decision to take Thomson up on his proposal was the publication of a book. The volume in question is by James McGonigal, poet-turned-biographer; who had been a student, close friend and, latterly, carer to Morgan, and whom Lochhead describes as “one of Eddie’s two surrogate sons”. She then produces a copy of the book, Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan, from within her bag. “It’s a wonderful book”, she says of the hefty hardback. “I carry it about everywhere. It’s probably why I’ve got a sore back just now.”
The biography impressed her deeply. “I found I couldn’t put it down. It was the first book that I’d been able to concentrate on for a while. I read it, and I didn’t think of it as a theatre piece in any way, but I was very moved by the first chapter, in particular.”
That opening chapter took her back to April 27 of last year, Morgan’s 90th, and last, birthday. At the birthday celebration, Lochhead read the poems from Morgan’s recently published short collection Dreams And Other Nightmares. “They’re incredibly evocative and mysterious poems”, Lochhead comments. “They released pictures in my head.”
Those pictures came back with a vengeance when she started reading McGonigal’s book, which opens with an account of the creation of the dream poems. “It’s the story of a man at the end of his creative life. Physical infirmity is robbing him of the ability to work anymore. So, the dreams that he has now are a great trouble to him. It’s about how getting those dreams out kept him creative. It’s very moving when you read Jim [McGonigal] saying that, at the very end of his life, Eddie still had lines of poetry in his head. That struck me as a wonderful thing.”
These contemplations, inevitably, bring Lochhead onto her thoughts on Morgan’s death. “This might sound callous”, she suggests, “but I wasn’t sad that Eddie died. I thought it was time. I loved him and I miss him.” It doesn’t sound callous in the least, of course. Many, if not most, of us can associate utterly with her relief that a loved one has been released from the tribulations of pain or infirmity at the end of their life.
Lochhead remembers that, reading McGonigal’s book, the imagery and mystery of the late Morgan poems came flooding back to her, followed, quickly, by a theatrical scene. As a process, it is almost identical to that described by Harold Pinter in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2005. In that lecture, Pinter said: “Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. [Lines]… came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.”
The image which, prompted by McGonigal’s biography, came into Lochhead’s mind was of “The Biographer, The Poet; it wasn’t James [McGonigal]. This person is telling dreams.” From there, the image “just went off as a dramatic scene in my head”, she remembers. “So, I wrote it down, in a very rough form. I phoned Steven Thomson and said, ‘it’ll be too late now, you’ll have used that commission elsewhere’; I thought he must have a commission. It turns out he didn’t have a commission”, she says, with a wry laugh.
In fact, Thomson, by necessity, had to establish the proposal concretely before generating the funding for it. This, the Makar comments, and with good reason, raises important issues about funding in Scottish theatre. She is, she says, “very grateful” for the money which Creative Scotland (which incorporates the old Scottish Arts Council) has made available for the production. However, getting the play onstage also required massive amounts of goodwill from all sorts of people, ranging from McGonigal himself, to the Tron’s artistic director Andy Arnold (who is directing the piece, with Lochhead as co-director), and the actors. The production will be running, she says, “on a bit of money, and a lot of goodwill.”
Lochhead is also grateful for the tremendous goodwill which Glasgay! shows towards what the festival calls the heterosexual “friends” of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “It’s a celebration of Eddie’s life”, she says. So, inevitably, her play focuses to no small degree on what she calls Morgan’s “gayness”.
To that end, she is delighted that actor Steven Duffy will be playing the various men in Morgan’s life (opposite David McKay, who plays both Morgan as a young man and the “Life Force” within the poet, and Lewis Howden as The Biographer). “There are various men in Eddie’s life”, she comments, and Duffy is the perfect actor to play Morgan’s lovers. “They were all the same physical type; handsome, good looking, working-class, could’ve been straight. That was his type.”
It’s a consequence of the somewhat seat-of-the-pants process by which the play is being created that Lochhead is still completing the final draft. Unusually for her, it’s a play created more of vignettes and images than a strong, central narrative. “It’s interesting for me writing something that isn’t narrative driven”, she says. “It’s kind of fluid. But I’ve got to find a story, a very simple story, and the very simple dramatic conflict that’s going on. The play has two sources [McGonigal’s book and Morgan’s dream poems], and the story lies somewhere between the two.”
Edwin Morgan’s Dreams – And Other Nightmares is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, November 2-5. For further information, visit: www.glasgay.co.uk
This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 9, 2011
© Mark Brown