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Friday June 29 2018

Looking Back: Satire of the Three Estates

Robert Kemp, a son of the manse, adapted Sir David Lindsay's Ane Satyre of The Thrie Estaitis for Tyrone Guthrie's legendary production at the Edinburgh Festival in 1948. Writing in Life and Work in June that year, he argues that the play was an important influence on the Scottish Reformation and the foundation of the Church of Scotland.


ROBERT KEMP, Scottish dramatist and son of the manse, tells why it has been worth-while to revive Sir David Lindsay’s “Satire” for the Edinburgh Festival.

THERE is a peculiar irony in the fact that the Church of Scotland, which used to be known for its hostility to the theatre, to some extent owes its very existence to a play.

If anyone feels disposed to question whether this is in truth a fact, let him ask himself whether in the barrage that prepared the way for the victory of the Reformers in 1560 there was any other piece of artillery half so effective as Sir David Lindsay’s Satire of the Three Estates, which will be the Scottish dramatic contribution to the Edinburgh Festival this autumn.

Our forefathers would not have questioned for, apart from the public performances of the Satire, Lindsay was the one Scottish poet before Burns who reached every class of the people. The repeated publication of his poems proves this, and Allan Ramsay testified that Sir David gave Rome an even sairer dunt than did John Knox himself.

This was dynamite

Let us try to look back to the days when the Satire was new and must have caused a fever of excitement by the outspoken way in which it pilloried the lazy, immoral and greedy clergy, whose lives, according to Sir David, were the cause of the growth of “heresies” which to so many of us in Scotland to-day count as orthodoxy.

The very first performance took place in the Banqueting Hall of Linlithgow Palace on January 6, 1540, before King James the Fifth and his Queen, Marie de Lorraine. On the very same day the King’s English uncle, Henry VIII, was marrying Ann of Cleves. Some years before Henry had broken the power of Rome in England. Tyndale’s New Testament in English had been in circulation for fourteen years, Coverdale’s Bible for five. The references to the “English Buik” – as the Scots called any translation – and the knowledge that Lindsay secretly possessed one are indications of their importance.

Martin Luther had been excommunicated nearly twenty years before, but John Knox had not yet turned Reformer, served in the galleys, or heard Calvin preach. Twenty years after the first performance of the Satire, and six years after the Edinburgh performance, the Reformation was established in Scotland.

If ever, then, there was a work which deserved the name of dynamite, it was the Satire. To-day some of us are reluctant to stir up the memory of old religious feuds, feeling perhaps that there has been excess of disagreement between Christians. The Satire does recall such a memory, but we should not be members of the Church of Scotland if we did not believe that Sir David contributed to a right, though perhaps a ruthless, decision which the nation was called upon to make in ecclesiastical affairs.

A glimpse of the old kingdom

At the same time, let us not look at the revival of the Satire in a narrow spirit. Let us enjoy the glimpses it affords us of Scottish life four hundred years ago, the contact with the remarkable man who wrote it and the tang of his biting humour. If we can also see the play against its historical background, it becomes doubly interesting.

Every Scottish schoolboy has heard how David I was called a “sair sanct for the Croun” because he founded so many abbeys and endowed them with Crown lands. That in itself was enough to bring upon the Roman Church the jealous hostility of the nobles, but in addition it attracted to the ranks of the clergy those less interested in religion than in the rich livings the Church could offer. Lindsay’s charges against them are heavy. He called upon the Bishops to become once again preachers of the Gospel and teachers of men. He accused the parish clergy of robbing the poor through death-dues. He assailed the friars with blistering scorn, but everywhere he found ignorance hand in hand with looseness of morals.

I have had to shorten and in some places to modernise the language of this Scottish classic for performance at the Edinburgh Festival. I do not see that it could ever have played for the nine hours which one member of the sixteenth century audience reported, but it was still too long and repetitive for modern taste. Other passages were of a coarseness not tolerable on the stage to-day, but despite my cutting a good deal of lusty horseplay remains.

The remarkable author of this piece lived from roughly 1490 to 1555. He served the young King James V for many years, first as tutor and later as the envoy entrusted with his marriage negotiations. He was also the chief herald, the Lyon King of Arms, an onerous and really important quasi-diplomatic post. As a poet he does not run to the lush or lyric. He has a wiry, athletic, argumentative style which suits the drama. It is strange to think that, in that old Pre-Reformation Scotland, he was able to call upon actors enough to play more than forty speaking parts. I have cut the number down to thirty, and in them a new generation of Scottish actors – the first really flourishing brood since Sir David’s day - will be able to show their paces.

The 1948 production of The Three Estates, at the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall, is notable for resurrecting the 'thrust' or 'apron' stage, an innovation that had a lasting influence on theatre design. Among the company was a young Jamie Stuart, who many years later would find fame as the author of A Glasgow Gospel. Robert Kemp, son of an Orkney minister, is also credited with coining the phrase 'Edinburgh Festival Fringe'.

The 70th anniversary of the production is being marked during this year's Festival with a workshop presentation and discussion.

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