Although Graham Moffat, his wife Maggie (Margaret Liddell Linck), daughter Winifred, sister Kate, and brothers Dickson, Sanderson, and Watson were ideologically and economically far removed from the high modernists, say, the avant-garde inner circle of London’s Bloomsbury,[ii] in their working relationships during the first half of the twentieth century, they nevertheless rubbed elbows with many theatre movers and entertainment shakers of the day.
Kate Moffat, a great friend of “Jimmy” Barrie, with whom Graham was often compared in reviews, had many friends in London’s artistic and society circles; while Graham, friend of Scottish ballad singer and music-hall performer Harry Lauder, sat on more than one political committee with playwright George Bernard Shaw and once exchanged criticisms of Barrie’s What Every Woman Knows with actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Beerbohm Tree and Moffat agreed that Barrie’s play, at which they were sharing a box, was “quite all right for a repertory week but hardly good enough for a run at a London Theatre.”
Focused on the Moffats’ theatre life, Graham’s memoir Join Me in Remembering is full of anecdotes of early stage comedy, music hall, variety house, and working-class-theatre actors, musicians, and playwrights. But it is also revealing of personal character for what it does not say. Attesting to a wonderfully positive outlook on life fortified by a great sense of humour, Graham glosses over the early financial hardships and losses of his family in the mid-eighteen-nineties, at the time of his father’s and then his elder brother Dickson’s deaths. Little is said, too, of his brother Sanderson, who took a Moffat theatre company to New York in 1911 to perform on Broadway, but then signed up at the beginning and lost his life at the end of the devastating Great War.
After their father’s death, Nell, having served a long apprenticeship in Glasgow, took work as a milliner, and the family still at home—Graham, Kate, and their mother Helen—moved with Nell to Dundee.[iii] Fifteen-year-old Graham helped support the family with work as an office boy; a landscape photographer, during the summers (the first in Scotland, he says); and then as a part-time teacher of elocution at St. Andrews University. Much later, in a 1914 press report, Sanderson embellishes the truth regarding the Moffats' background, and I imagine him having a wee sly laugh at the expense of the earnest genealogical reader: Did their abstaining Presbyterian mother really allow her son Graham to work for a spirit merchant? Was Nell really the best-known milliner in all of Scotland, employing forty people in her millinery business? Had their father William really escaped taking a train in which all were killed, but then die six months later, leaving a widow with eight young children to care for? The embellishments make, I think, for a pawky bit of storytelling (Sylvius).
Graham Moffat was a left-leaning Socialist, a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), who once raised a small scandal throughout the British Commonwealth for having donated to his local ILP the one piece of furniture—a piano—that the newly-wed Graham and Maggie had purchased on installments. Not only active politically, the Moffats were involved in fundraising for various “humanistic interests.” They performed at Sunday benefits for the Infant Welfare Centres and, at the request of Queen Mary, charity matinees for Toc H, a post-WWI fellowship organization promoting friendship and community service. They also supported The Scottish Musical Artistes Benevolent Fund (instituted in 1895), with Graham serving for a time as both Vice-President and President. This fraternal institution helped struggling professionals financially, but also secretly assisted economically stranded non-member actors and music-hall artistes. The Moffats were also both culturally and politically active in the fight for women’s suffrage (subject of my next post).
In his twenties, Graham gathered together his three younger siblings, all in their teens, to start the Glasgow Junior Dramatic Club, but the two younger boys, Sanderson and Watson, left theatre and, for a time, got “lost” to melodrama, which was easier to get work in but, Graham notes, ruined the voice and wasted the skills of fine actors. Following their marriage, Maggie and Graham made their first appearance together as the first iteration of the Scottish National Players (SNP) in "Till the Bells Ring," performed at the Athenaeum Theatre in Glasgow in 1908.[iv] Graham later made this play into an experimental film, which should have been, but for a timing issue with the second reel, the first talky film produced.
The Moffats worked the variety theatres and music hall stages, sharing the bill with acrobats, musicians, dancers, troupes of circus people, travelling zoos, and, at least once, an elephant, until Graham and Maggie made enough money to produce and tour their own plays. Along with their acting, they worked in photography, taking photographs for “fancy picture post-cards” and, then, with the passing of that fad, photos of themselves in costume for illustrators working on popular sheet music covers.
Graham was inspired by the general decentralization of drama, as the British Empire began to collapse, specifically by the success of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He set out to organize a similar movement in Glasgow, but “failing to find a budding Barrie, unstaged Yeats, or a potential Lady Gregory,” he was encouraged to take up the pen himself. And just as Yeats rooted his work in Irish culture, Moffat, influenced by the Scottish historical novels of John Galt and Walter Scott, drew for inspiration from the working-class folk and village customs of his childhood.
In 1911, Bunty changed the struggling family’s fortune. After its first London performance at the Playhouse Theatre, for which the company took countless curtain calls, the Morning Post declared, “[t]his is the real thing.” The following day, five London theatres offered to show it. The run of the play at the Haymarket (1911-1914) broke all previous records of that theatre by filling the house to capacity for more than six hundred performances, with the exception of one night when a fire broke out in the Carleton Hotel across the street. Following its first U.S. performance, The Times declared that Bunty provided an evening of rare joy. For the next few decades, Moffat’s plays toured internationally, thereby securing the family’s finances.
Graham’s major plays are categorized by current theatre compendiums as “kailyard”[vi] comedy, that is, as sentimental romance with comedic, two-dimensional lowland characters. While one recent study determines his work to be “mawkish,” another more nuanced assessment determines it to be only mildly sentimental, yet progressive. Sentimental or not, the Moffats’ work was, for a time, wildly popular in the playhouses of London and New York and around the British Commonwealth.
In 1912, for example, The New York Times raved about Bunty’s “gorgeously amusing reflection of dour Scotch life, its delicious bits of satire on customs and manners grown into disuse, its appealing touches of sentiment—all displayed through a series of naturally moving characters each of whom appears to have suddenly stepped out of the very life of an oldtime Scotch village.” The Academy and Literature also thought it ”absolutely natural,” rising “phoenix-like upon the ashes of the utterly mechanical,” Saron’s dull and boring “Above Suspicion,” which Bunty followed. The Academy continued, “it is Barrie without any of his fantasy: Barrie in a simple mood. It is Robert Burns—sober.”
Graham himself was fully aware of the kailyard criticism and, although his comedies work within that tradition, they also challenge it. He set out, he says, to modify sentimentality, adding more humour and "the frank disclosure of faults and vices":
Too bad so many kailyard writers were ministers, for a parson can never see the life of his parish as it is really lived, the minister being regarded as a being apart. At his approach angry passions are subdued and voices hushed. It is not altogether to be wondered at that Ian Maclaren should have given it out as his opinion that the Scot has no sense of humour, for none but the laird, the schoolmaster and the doctor would ever dare to a make a joke in the semi-sacred presence. . . . Thus, we are presented with a community of saints.
strongly attached to a kirk—indeed the various branches of the family actually ran a kirk.The Congregational Church at Innerleithen had a Dobson for its minister; a Dobson for its leading elder; a Dobson led the singing and another Dobson carried the books into the pulpit. It seems odd—some will say a lamentable fall from grace—that a generation of their descendents should combine to run a theatre, for ‘the prevailing idea among respectable kirk-going folk is that theatres should be classed with public-house, gambling dens, dance-halls, etc., as among the attractions on "the broad road that leadeth to destruction."
Moffat honed an aesthetic founded on simple homely plots and working-class humour. Having keenly observed the village characters of his boyhood, he specialized in characterization and learned at some point in his career from Harry Lauder’s extraordinary London success on the stage, that his work would succeed outside Scotland not by writing in Scottish or Glaswegian dialect, but in a Scots-accented English, placing “one braid Scots word purposely” in each act, “as we put a touch of mustard on a steak to help the flavour.” As Ian Brown’s analysis suggests, Graham’s plays, initially performed in Scots dialect, may eventually have been performed to some audiences in Glaswegian Scots and to others in a “Scots-inflected English,” and despite Graham’s observation regarding the piquancy of a well-place foreign word, his writing slips in considerably more than one braid (broad) Scots word per act.
The Moffats initially had no dream of playing London, but attesting to the popularity of regional authenticity, they soon began filling the Scottish playhouses to capacity and ended up in London’s West End to great popular and critical acclaim. While Moffat’s plays were generally received enthusiastically by the London critics, the odd accusation of parochialism underscores the class-based gulf between metropolitan tastes and regional authenticity. Although he was at the beginning of a Scottish vernacular revival, Moffat is not generally recognized, or deemed important enough to be counted, as having participated in the post-1914 Scottish literary and cultural Renaissance.
Yet, Scottish modernism did not arrive fully formed on the cultural scene, and Graham’s comedies can be seen as providing a bridge between kailyard and more serious Scottish drama.
Proud of his working-class heritage, Graham had little use for those “highbrow” enthusiasts of the drama who had much book-learning, but little actual experience of the theatre. His views on drama differed greatly from the rather serious newly-formed Glasgow Stage Society (1908-1910), for instance, to which, oddly, he had been invited to join as president. Intending to elevate Scottish theatre against “the prevailing tendency to frivolity in matters theatrical,” the Society “affected a lofty disdain of everything connected with what they called commercial theatre” (Cameron). And despite its faults, Graham loved the commercial theatre. The problem for Graham was that the Society regarded “certain specified modern playwrights as definitely fixed in the ranks of the great immortals, high above all adverse criticism, and perfect in all their works—even as the gods!” While Graham admired some of Ibsen’s plays, for example, with “probably as great an admiration as [the Society’s] own," when he dared to deliver a paper analyzing Ibsen’s The Master Builder critically, he was labelled “The Philistine.”
Yet current Isben reception supports Moffat's analysis. With The Master Builder's 2016 revival at London’s Old Vic, starring Ralph Fiennes and Sarah Snook, adjectives such as “peculiar,” “wacky,” “preposterous,” and “bonkers” liberally slant the reviews. Little wonder that, adhering to realist working-class aesthetics in his comedies on rural mannerisms, modelled on decidedly straight-laced Presbyterian lowland villagers, Moffat did not receive Ibsen’s play, a mixture of “cloudy mythology” and psychological angst, uncritically.
The very short-lived Glasgow Stage Society refused to give its patronage to Graham's favourite of his plays, A Scrape o’ the Pen, stating bluntly that Moffat’s plays were not literature. As Graham notes candidly in a New York Times interview, "They wouldn't have anything to do with it or with my Scotch players. They wanted English plays, with players from the West End of London, for their theatre." But with characteristic pawky humour,[viii] Graham admits "the truth of the charge." His plays "are not literature. . . . Can a comedy of middle-class or peasant life possibly be literature, if true to life?”
He distinguishes between the ample scope of a novel to develop a character’s emotions in a literary manner and the drama which, if true to its cultural roots, is based on dialogue as people actually spoke it: “Only once in my long life," he muses, "have I met a man who actually spoke literature in his ordinary conversation. At least, I think it was literature, for he spoke, as we say, ‘like a book.’ . . . It is true that there are some modern society comedies that rank as literature but in these the characters are far too clever to be real. I admire these plays tremendously.”
[ii] Virginia Woolf marks 1910 as the arrival of modernism with its high-modernist, post-impressionist experimentation.
[iii] Nell was the model for the character of Teenie in Bunty Pulls the Strings.
[iv] The second manifestation of the Scottish National Players performed its first play Chatelard on January 13, 1921. According to Marshalsay, during the 1920s their work was often compared to Moffat’s; the Evening News and Manchester Despatch, for instance, claimed the (second) SNP was working “in the Moffat tradition.”
[v] Graham wrote at least two plays, Don’t Tell and the Maid and the Magistrate, promoting Women’s Suffrage. He donated The Maid and the Magistrate: A Duologue in One Act to the cause. It was published by the Actresses’ Franchise League and first performed by Graham and Kate in 1912.
[vi] Kailyard literature represents a late-nineteenth-century sub-nationalist culture.
[vii] As one review in The Toronto World (21 Sept 1920) described it, Graham’s writing was “full of clever dialog and pawky Scotch humor.”
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