The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil

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  • Edition: Revised
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2015-04-23
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama

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Written during the 1970s, John McGrath's winding, furious, innovative play tracks the economic history and exploitation of the Scottish Highlands from the post-Rebellion suppression of the clans to the story of the Clearances: in the nineteenth century, aristocratic landowners discovered the profitability of sheep farming, and forced a mass emigration of rural Highlanders, burning their houses in order to make way for the Cheviot sheep. The play follows the thread of capitalist and repressive exploitation through the estates of the stag-hunting landed gentry, to the 1970s rush for profit in the name of North Sea Oil.

Described by the playwright as having a “ceilidh” format, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil draws on historical research alongside Gaelic song and the Scots' love of variety and popular entertainment to tell this epic story.

A totally distinctive cultural and theatrical phenomenon, the play championed several new approaches to theatre, raising its profile as a means of political intervention; proposing a collective, democratic, collaborative approach to creating theatre; offering a language of performance accessible to working-class people; producing theatre in non-purpose-built theatre spaces; breaking down the barrier between audience and performers through interaction; and taking theatre to people who otherwise would not access it.

The play received its premiere in 1973 by the agit-prop theatre group 7:84, of which John McGrath was founder and Artistic Director, and toured Scotland to great critical and audience acclaim.

Author Biography

John McGrath was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, in 1935. After national service and Oxford University, he wrote and directed for theatre and television, as well as writing for cinema. Early work included Z-Cars for BBC-TV (1962), Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun (1966) and the screenplay for Billion Dollar Brain (1976). In 1971, together with Elizabeth MacLennan, he co-founded the 7:84 Theatre Company, which divided into Scottish and English companies in 1973 with McGrath remaining as Artistic Director of both. During his career McGrath wrote over 60 plays, including Fish in the Sea (1972), The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1973), Blood Red Roses (1980), Border Warfare (1989), Watching for Dolphins (1992) and, most recently, HyperLynx (2001). He was twice Visiting Fellow in Theatre at Cambridge University. His previous books include A Good Night Out (1981), The Bone Won’t Break (1990) and Six Pack: Plays for Scotland (1996).

McGrath founded Freeway Films in 1982, for which he produced, amongst others, The Dressmaker (1985), Carrington (1995), Ma Vie en Rose (1997) and Aberdeen (2002). He also founded Moonstone International Screen Labs to support and promote independent European filmmaking. He received Lifetime Achievement Awards from both BAFTA (in 1993) and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (in 1997), as well as Honorary Doctorates from the University of Stirling and the University of London. He died in 2002.

Graeme Macdonald (editor) is based at the University of Warwick. Dr. Macdonald’s main research interests include the relationship between Literature and the Social Sciences from nineteenth century to the present; Resource Culture and Petrofiction; Modern and Contemporary Scottish and British Devolutionary Culture; He is the editor of Scottish Literature and Postcolonial Literature (EUP 2011) and Post Theory: New Directions in Criticism (EUP, 1999).

Table of Contents

John McGrath: Politics, Aesthetics and Biography; Plot; Commentary; Context: McGrath’s Theatre for Community; Influences: from Brecht to Music Hall; Theatre Without Walls: 7:84 to NTS; The Cheviot as a “World” Play; Issues: Land, Development and the Highlands; Imperialism, Nationalism and “Devolutionary-Britain”; Language and Clearance: Peripheralising Culture; The Cheviot: From Peasant to Petro-Drama; Structure; The Ceilidh as Dramatic Form: Reeling and Repetition; Comedy, Pantomime and Political Satire ; Production and Audience; “Live” History: Chronology and Capitalist; Modernity; Conclusion: A Play for Today?; References; Further Reading; The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil; Notes; Questions for Further Study.

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