Theatre in Edinburgh

John Knox, in his book The Reformation in Scotland, wrote:

A Black Friar [Dominican order], called Friar Kyllour, set forth the history of Christ’s Passion in form of a Play, which he both preached and practised openly in Stirling, the King himself being present upon a Good Friday in the morning. In this, all things were so lively expressed that the very simple people understood and confessed…This plain speaking so enflamed the hearts of all that bare the Beast’s Mark, that they ceased not, till Friar Kyllour, and with him Friar Beveridge, Sir Duncan Symson, Robert Forrester, a Gentleman, and Dean Thomas Forrest, Canon Regular [in the Monastery of St. Colm’s Inch] and Vicar of Dollar, a man of upright life, all together were cruelly murdered in one fire, the last day of February, in the year of God 1538… upon the Castle Hill of Edinburgh.

(p.19, Banner of Truth Trust, © 2000)

Clearly theatre could be used effectively to communicate a message. Indeed the authorities had to stamp it out by burning the Passion Play culprits to death near Edinburgh Castle. The last day of February in 1638 was chosen by the Covenanters here to sign their National Covenant in order to coincide with the martyrdom of the seven involved in the Passion Play a hundred years before. This Covenanting movement, which acknowledged Christ as the Head of the church, led to the deaths of over 18,000 Covenanters, many of whom were killed because they were in prayer meetings and read their Bibles. Ultimately what began with a Christian play led to our democracy and the human rights movement.

However, during the Enlightenment theatre was regarded as worldly by many in the church and the plays by Shakespeare that were performed in the Canongate Concert Hall in the Royal Mile between 1747 and 1769 led to protests. Rev. John Home from Edinburgh wrote a play called Douglas, which was a tragedy about an illegitimate son of Lady Randolph. It was first performed in Edinburgh in 1756 and it caused an uproar amongst many of the clergy. Some of the supporters of drama hoped that Rev. John Home would pioneer a national Scottish theatre here but the persecution seems to have driven him off to Covent Garden, London, where he became popular as a playwright. He resigned his position as a church minister and was content to be a lay speaker instead.