Faithful to the letter

As a celebrated national poet, Robert Burns has always invited appropriation as a symbol of this, that and the other; he indeed began his career as a published writer by presenting himself as “The Simple Bard, unbroke by rules of Art” of the then fashionable Sentimental mode. A decade ago the image of “Burns the Radical” became the latest iteration, turning Burns into the poster boy for left-wing nationalism; The poster in question was a pastiche of Jim Fitzpatrick’s 1968 red, black and white Che Guevara, familiar from student halls around the world, with Che’s features replaced by those of Burns and the star on his beret by the lion rampant. Such appropriations are always a mistake: in the last years of his life, in the politically polarized mid-1790s, Burns was certainly radical enough to have to take care of what he said, and to whom, but not like that. The poster for Alan Cumming’s one-man show at the King’s Theater in this year’s Edinburgh Festival looks as though it is making a similar mistake. The pastiche this time is of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 “Wanderer above the Sea of ​​Fog”, with the lonely figure posed above a recognisably Highland landscape and the head turned in profile (so we can see it is Cumming). If Burns came to Edinburgh in November 1786 to perform for a middle-class audience their preconceived idea of ​​what it is to be a poet, then this poster seems to indicate that in August 2022 he’s back to do it again.

Burn is, in fact, nothing like that. Indeed, it is the antidote to that: when the Friedrich scenario is briefly reproduced on stage, it is with a sly wink, not a Byronic scowl. It makes exuberant use of all the resources of the modern stage in lighting, special effects, sound, costume and set design, and especially dance. But grounding this creative superabundance is a strategy suggested (the program notes tell us) by Dr Moira Hansen and Professor Kirsteen McCue of the University of Glasgow, which is to draw the script almost exclusively from Burns’s letters. The reverse takes a back seat: apart from a few striking occasions, including a touching, intimate moment at the end, poems and songs are evoked rather than recited, woven into the theatrical texture as part of a recorded soundscape or as back projection. The words of Henry Mackenzie’s famous review of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) are accompanied by Cumming’s mime of both delight at its praise and perplexity at its qualifications and condescension (“this Heaven-taught plowman … his humble and unlettered station”). But the script generally ignores questions of what other people made of Burns to make a story instead of what Burns made of himself. It begins with a more-or-less coherent narrative built around an autobiographical letter that Burns sent to John Moore in August 1787, towards the end of that first, burst of celebrity and acclaim. But thereafter the modes of self-understanding provided by the letters become more various; The effect is to portray a mind unsure of itself, highlighting Burns’s periods of what we would now call clinical depression (though these certainly began before his fame), and the choreography shifts from the restless to the subdued. This gives the impression that the calamitous mental and physical decline of the last year of his life began a lot earlier, but it structures our hour effectively in the theater.

Perhaps the most striking consequence of basing the script on the letters is what it says about Burns’s relationships with women. A high proportion of the poems of 1786 are addressed to men, a continuation in a verse of the homosocial networks in which Burns delighted, and which made possible his career. But he also delighted in a number of extended epistolary exchanges with women. A caveat is necessary here: the women he wrote letters to and the women he had sex with did not overlap. Dramatizing the latter aspect of his life while sticking to the letters that have come down to us means resorting to a notorious piece of boasting (describing sex with his soon-to-be wife, Jean Armor) of doubtful provenance, although it reminds us that our hero could be brutally callous towards the lower-class girls he seduced. Otherwise his liaisons are represented by a row of fancy shoes, suspended at head height, that Cumming addresses in the sentimental hyperbole of Burns’s letters to a middle-class (married, but separated) Edinburgh woman, Agnes Maclehose (from “Sylvander” to” Clarinda”). On the other side of the stage a dress festooned with writing paper is drawn up to represent Mrs Frances Dunlop, a widowed gentlewoman with whom Burns enjoyed a richer and more rewarding correspondence than any he maintained with a man of her class. For members of the audience familiar with this element of Burns’s story, the point where she stops replying to his letters (his indifference to the fate of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was the final straw) is really affecting: the dress simply rises out of reach , to the poet’s bewilderment and despair. This reminder that Burns grasped at intellectual and aesthetic collaboration with women when he had the opportunity, and felt its loss deeply when it was withdrawn, is a useful corrective to the caricature of the man’s man, simply a reckless fornicator.

“I made an excellent English scholar, and against the years of ten or eleven, I was absolutely a Critic in substantives, verbs and particles”: Cumming’s fingers extrapolate from the word “particles” a universe of dancing atoms. Lines describing Burns’s songwriting practice, “swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow-chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my pen goes on” – are delivered from an elbow chair just as described, While a quill moves across the paper on a desk on the other side of the stage, apparently of its own volition. The visual and physical wit of Burn flies off in all directions from the Augustan cadences of Burns’s prose. From scenes like these, Cumming and his co-creator, the choreographer Steven Hoggett, have spun a captivating theatrical experience that met with a rapturous reception from a packed theater. It was good to have Burns back.

Robert P. Irvine is Reader in Scottish Literature at the University of Edinburgh

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