The History of Leith

November 23, 2011

John Home, Patriot, Minister, Dramatist-Part 3

He had then an ambition which might almost be called overweening. It must have been the spur of it which drove him to dramatise the story contained in the old ballad of ” Gil Morrice.” His friends, as before, were consulted at every point. Eventually in 1755 he set out for London once more to try his stage fortune. Garrick was adamant a second time. When Home returned his friends were furious,
ascribing the rejection to English jealousy. Have the Southerners not had some cause to be jealous of our invasion of their coasts ? From the throne downwards, by way of archbishoprics and the first position in the State, in business and in Society, they have been exploited by the adaptable and persevering Scot. You may be wondering what attention his cure of souls had been receiving during this absorbing literary decade. He wrote many sermons which have not been published. On the back of many of these spiritual productions copies of verses, parts of his various dramas, were scribbled down. This shows the strength of the ruling dramatic passion. He was, and could hardly have escaped being, very popular with his parishioners. Copious tears attended the delivery of his farewell sermon after his resignation of the living in 1757. When he built his house of Kilduff after his return from London about fourteen years from that date, his former parishioners insisted on carting and providing much of the stone and other material employed in its -construction. It was quite on the borders of Athelstaneford. If clever men are often distant and cold. Home’s geniality proved the exception, and won him liking among the simple country folks. On the other side of the account we must reckon that saintly men often do not succeed in preventing their self-discipline revealing its painfulness in a certain sourness of expression. Happy are they who can cover it over and conceal it beneath a gracious manner ! But to return to Douglas, for that was the play which had flashed before the mind of the poet when he heard ” Gil Morrice ” sung. Theatres were not looked on with favour in Scotland. There was one in the Canongate, tolerated in a shamefaced sort of a way. By the company of English actors who were there Douglas was played before crowded houses. Even some of the ministers were present, some in inconspicuous corners, others, like Jupiter Carlyle, where everybody could see them. The first thunders of applause were soon followed by the inevitable downpour of the storm. Church people generally were against the theatre. They do not seem to have thought that it might be elevated. Only short-sighted critics will refuse to understand and allow for their attitude. The Killing Times were not far distant in the past. Charles II., the unworthy persecutor of the Covenanters, patronised a licentious and corrupt stage, and one at least of his mistresses was an actress.
Could the Restoration stage find favour with the descendants of men who had suffered so severely at the hands of the tyrannical, the pleasure-loving, the licentious ? Simplicity of faith and form tends to austerity, just as ornateness and ritual tend to an easier dealing with the vital things of character. Until the last fifty years or so, the theatre has never been so much in favour with the churches of simpler form as it has been with those whose worship itself is dramatic in form and intention. Several of the ministers who dared to be present at the first performances of Douglas were dealt with by their Presbyteries. Evea the bold Carlyle had to bend before the storm. In the end Home thought it best to resign his charge. By this time he had made the acquaintance, through the Duke of Argyle, the virtual Secretary for Scotland, and his factotum, Lord Milton, of the Earl of Bute, who appointed him tutor to the Prince of Wales. So Douglas, after its successful run
in Edinburgh, was produced in London, though by the actor Rich, and not by Garrick. It became the ” rage.” Gray, the author of the Elegy, was so carried away that he said of Home,
” The author seems to have retrieved the true language of the stage, which has been lost for a hundred years, and there is one scene (between Lady Randolph and the stranger) so masterly that it strikes one blind to all its defects.” We may therefore almost forgive the enthusiastic Scot who, when the curtain had fallen after a London performance, exclaimed—” Where is your Wullie Shakespere noo ? ” Home never scored success with any of his other plays. Some of them are quite interesting to read, especially Agis, if the student knows anything about the history of Greece. The Fatal Discovery might have been included in the category, if Home had not been carried off his feet at the close of the first successful performance, thus defeating the strategy of Garrick, who put it on
the stage and acted the leading part himself. Knowing how the Soots were disliked in London after the Prime Ministership of Bute, he gave out that the Fatal Discovery was by ” em Oxford student.” But Home unfortunately could not remain behind the scenes

Source-South Leith Records

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