… Pageant of Failure …

“The Scots are fond of blaming others for their own misfortunes, especially the English.” This maxim is well known to sophisticated and travelled Scots and holds a grain of truth; it is, almost verbatim, one of the more severe of the many self-mocking lines in this intriguing mixture, a staging of the tragedy of the 1698 Darien expedition by Scotland to colonize the isthmus of Panama. The dramatization raises two interesting issues: (a) what aspect do you concentrate on (politics, greed, human folly, texture of life) and (b) what theatrical register do you adopt (music-theatre, pageant, satire, searing personal drama with well-painted main characters? Caledonia is worth seeing and informative, but ultimately fails because it answers these questions with “a little bit of everything.”

Principles of investment and return have been known since Old Testament times, but that great social invention, the Joint Stock Company was fairly new in 1698, so its limitations were poorly understood. Explorers’ fantastical belief in Eldorado was paralleled with merchants’ and investors’ belief in the ability of these new companies, fuelled by some particular idea wth familiar or common-sense aspects, to multiply wealth indefinitely out of almost nothing. William Paterson, who had successfully established the Bank of England some years before, had patriotic as well as mercantile motives. He persuaded the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation enabling a state-backed but private venture analogous to the East India Company, so that Scotland too could get in on the burgeoning colonial activities of the seaboard nations of Western Europe. Half of the meagre national wealth was subscribed.

The particular idea was a road between the Atlantic and Pacific, analogous to the Panama Canal: it’s only 6 days’ walk, said the indigenous tribes, and common sense makes this compare well with a 2-3 months’ sail, particularly one round Cape Horn. The scheme was blocked by England (which had shared a monarch of Scottish lineage for almost a century) both at the investment and trade embargo stages. The very little and misleading information reaching home about the progress or otherwise of the scheme came via French and Dutch boats. Leaving aside this disappointing English self-interest and the inhospitable climate and terrain, the idea that Spain would have tolerated any continuing colony by a small nation on territory assigned by the Pope to Spain at the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1493, over 200 years before, was absurd from the start.

Given the successful Latin-American theme of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, the dismissal in a few lines of dialogue by Paterson of some expressed general doubts about risk with the demagogic assertion that Scots are undeniably hardy fighters seems an issue dodged not just by 1690s Scots, but by the author. Why was this not obvious, when the wealth and might of Spain were well-known and had a further century to run? After the inevitable failure (the US expedition of 1854 and the first attempt at the Panama Canal were not brilliant successes either), English guilt and intention to preclude further possibility of such ventures successful or otherwise, led to compensation of the main investors by England, and also to the loss of Scottish Independence (in 1707, when “Great Britain” became a reality.)  History shows that the lessons of prior history mostly go unlearned, and the collapse of the mainly English speculation known as the South Sea Bubble was only 2 decades later.

So with the main historical facts known, where does the dramatist begin? Even though the fiasco of Darien figures in outline standard Scottish histories, and is the subject of good recent books, audiences’ knowledge and concerns are parochial in time and space. Author Alistair Beaton adopts basically the pageant format, despite not having the resources (cruel parallel!) that the English National Theatre had for the successful and pageant-like Coram Boy, also with present-day temporary resonances (there’s child-abuse and sex-trafficking.)  Pageant can accommodate the other elements of music and satire but must inevitably sell short characterization and dramatic evolution. The unifying theme is the crowd unwillingness to evaluate the risks in get-rich-quick schemes. This opens up resonances between 1698 and 2008, particularly as the over-belief in the spreading of risk via a joint stock company has a close parallel in the over-belief in the spreading of risk via complex derivatives. Much of the slapstick and satire are well-executed and genuinely funny, as are the many jokes that exploit the financial resonances.

Resonances extend to jokes about trends in Scottish constitutional arrangements and the idea that votes of elected representative can be bought by providing a good meal, both topical. But this is all too obvious and laboured, being many versions of the same joke, leaving too little to the imagination. There is good acting, particularly by Paul Higgins as Paterson, but though some of Paddy Cunneen’s composition wittily combines the centuries, the singing is not good enough to swing it as musical theatre.

I found myself thinking at moments that the shades of Brecht and Weill were hovering in the wings and orchestra pit; but alienation was lacking, so I fear that this association could lead to more false expectations than ones that would be borne out for someone else. Regrettably, this is not another Black Watch.

A very pithy review by Brian Logan has to emphasize the financial resonances without the space for historical and  political context, and it does not comment on the musical aspect, but I agree with his 3 stars out of 5.

The lack of close or emotional treatment of bereaved families, ruined lives, and the lack of dramatic development are frustrating. The music-hall stereotype of the Presbyterian minister brings easy humor, but I missed any character embodying the counter-balancing moral virtues that Scots also have, and which enabled them from about 1750 to 1950 to be disproportionately making the British (ie mainly English) Empire work ? (see eg Niall Ferguson’s: Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Penguin, 2003). Are we meant to see the current trend to Scottish Independence as a return to a golden age where English shackles are shed, or a return to dangers of parochial folly? Some say that the current Libyan controversy has stopped that trend anyway.

It will be interesting to see whether this play has any wider effect on Scots’ idea of themselves. It is ironical (in the correct sense of Greek tragedy) that the foundation of the long respected Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was one direct consequence of Darien and the Act of Union. Other Scottish Banks had over-reached themselves in the recent unravelling of unregulated Reaganomics, but none so spectacularly as RBS.

Walking out into the night from the King’s Theatre, the theatregoer passes acres of unlettable office space that was to have accommodated the continuing spectacular growth of financial services in Edinburgh.

This is indeed a time for some national re-appraisal.

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