Not in My Name
3:AM: Aside from exploring the poet’s life and works, Robert Burns: Not In My Name seems designed to counter the myths that have grown up around Burns (the noble savage/ploughman poet, the drink-sodden ladies-man, the embalmed heritage figure), to reveal a much more complex figure. Was that your intention and what prompted the project?
Kevin Williamson: Like many Scots I love Robert Burns but I can’t quite relate to the popular image of him. The couthy tourist Burns that has been packaged and sold for over two centuries, the one you describe, is well enough known, but essentially it’s a false construct. Wrapping Burns up in tartan and slapping his face on tea towels and shortbread tins, to my mind, is akin to the Irish dressing James Connolly in a wee green leprechaun suit and dangling him from a key fob. It’s more than a little insulting. The Burns that I love, and have chosen to present in this show, was a bit more complex and troublesome than the popular mythology suggests.
I’m not trying to rewrite history though. Burns’s famous love poems – such as ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ or ‘Red, Red Rose’ – are as beautiful, heartbreaking and tender as they come. His charisma and sociability was legendary. And he died at the tragically young age of just 37. These are integral aspects of the Burns story. However, with this project I dont feel the need to retread familiar ground.
What has been marginalised is the fact that Burns was an important 18thC political radical and thinker, a seditious revolutionary and a staunch republican. In the last four years of his life he came within a baw hair of being jailed or deported for anti-government activities. Therein lies a tale.
I’ve chosen to tell the story of Burns through twelve radical poems and songs. The common thread is that Burns considered it too risky to put his name to any of them during his lifetime. Hence the show’s title, Robert Burns: Not In My Name. I’ll perform the 12 pieces chronologically, in the order they were written, to give a sense of narrative structure, and to show that Burns’s radical edge wasn’t blunted by fame nor by the forces of government repression.
3:AM: You’ve spoken before about how dangerous Burns’ writing was, bearing in mind the French Revolution had just broken out and considering how some of his peers (Tom Paine for example) were treated. I’d no idea previously of this whole uncover side to Burns and the revolutionary verse he wrote anonymously. Do you think this work casts a different light on his more acceptable published works? And how much danger was Burns in by displaying his radical sympathies?
KW: That’s a difficult question. It’s a bit like asking if there is a relationship between the personal and the political songs of say Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Bob Marley or The Proclaimers. I think there is. I see a continuity between philosophical introspection, the ability to love, freely and honestly, and telling truth to power. I’m sceptical about political songwriters who can’t or don’t find it natural to express heartfelt sentiments of love and loss. So yes, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ and ‘A Man’s A Man’ are hewn from the same rockface.
Burnsian scholars – and there are many – are shedding new light on Burns’s political activities. For instance Robert Crawford recently published extracts from the diary of someone who spent an evening with Burns just seven weeks before his death in 1796. This ecclesiastical visitor described the convivial but dying poet as “a staunch republican”. These were not the sort of sentiments that could be expressed in public. But this sort of research does shed light on some of the poet’s later verse, such as ‘Ode (for General Washington’s Birthday)’, ‘Tree of Liberty’, and ‘A Man’s A Man’.
Burns’s revolutionary anthem ‘Scot’s Wha Hae’ – written in 1793 in response to the trial of the radical young lawyer Thomas Muir – is often dismissed as mere nationalist sentiment. It’s proper title is ‘Robert Bruce’s March To Bannockburn’. But we now know that the last line of the song – “Let us Do or Die!” – was in fact the tennis court oath of the French revolutionaries. In a private letter, Burns explicitly states the song deals with the ancient battle for Scottish independence, of course, but also “struggles not so ancient.”
Thomas Muir was tried in Edinburgh and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment and deportation to Botany Bay. Yet every charge he was indicted with – promoting the works of Thomas Paine, singing ‘Ca Ira’ in public, inciting anti-government feelings – Burns was equally guilty of.
The really interesting stuff is still being unearthed. Patrick Scott Hogg’s recent research suggests that Burns was an active member of the Dumfries branch of The Friends of the People. Formed in 1792, this was the first organisation in Scottish history to openly call for universal suffrage for all men, rich or poor. To think that Burns himself may have been a key activist is quite mindblowing. Operating in much more difficult political terrain, inside the very heart of the most powerful Empire in the world, this puts Burns on a par with Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin in my book. Not quite a combatant, but putting his pen at the service of liberty.
This early proto-democracy movement never really had mass support in Scotland, and was crushed by government forces by 1794, but Burns was right there among them. Letters survive describing his relationship, as a writer, with key radical journals and thinkers. Not long after his death, one of his closest friends told of how Burns was in correspondence with early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Rights of Women. Unfortunately none of that correspondence has survived. If it had, it may have painted a more complex picture of Burns’ attitudes towards women.
3:AM: Your past readings and performances of Burns’ verse have broken away from the traditional, or what we’re led to believe is the traditional Burns Supper interpretations, in contrast they’ve been stirring, lyrical, explicit, frequently hilarious and above all feel contemporary, which particular poems of his are you drawn to and which do you see as his poetic and polemic high points?
KW: It struck me that although most Scots think they are familiar with Burns’s poetry, it’s only really a few that get regularly performed, such as ‘Tam O’Shanter’, ‘To A Mouse’, and ‘Address To A Haggis’. These are all works I enjoy, and I can perform a suitably over the top interpretation of ‘Address To A Haggis’ when presented with a tumbler of whisky and said beast on a plate.
But the poetry that is rarely heard or performed in public, are the more seditious works, like ‘Address of Beelzebub’, ‘I Murder Hate’ or ‘Tree of Liberty’. The first of these, for my money, is one of the most brilliant and vicious satires written by any poet of the 18thC. Virulently anti-aristocratic yet a sophisticated poem nevertheless, with a clever rhetorical device at its heart. Instead of wading into the landlords for abusing the poor, Burns has the poem’s narrator, Auld Nick, patting them on the back, to begin with, but goes on to suggest they brutalise their tenants even more.
“And they, be Damned, what right hae they
To meat or sleep or light of day
Far less to riches, power or freedom
But what your Lordships like tae gie them.”
‘I Murder Hate’ is a subtle anti-war poem – with an ultra-modern title – and has the deliciously erotic underlying message of Make Love Not War. This is pre-Sixties stuff.
“The Deities that I adore
Are Social Peace and Plenty,
I’m better pleased to make one more
Than be the death of twenty.”
Interpreting Burns’s poetry, and making it sound both contemporary and authentic, is a challenge, which I think most sensible poets would back away from, but the verse lends itself to perfomance so the bulk of the work is done for me. I’ve tried to interpret these poems they way I believe Burns MAY have performed them if he was alive today. Burns was so streetwise I’m pretty sure he’d try and make his radical verse pack an explosive punch. More John Lydon than Harry Lauder.