Liz Lochhead discusses her new play, Edwin Morgan's Dreams – and Other Nightmares
The new production will premiere at this year's Glasgay! festival
In a Glasgay! special, one makar is paying tribute to another. Liz Lochhead tells Mark Fisher why she loved Edwin Morgan
It’s a sprightly Liz Lochhead who comes into Edinburgh’s Urban Angel for a breakfast coffee – latte with an extra shot – in the midst of a typically whirlwind calendar of deadlines, poetry readings and confabs with theatre directors. This summer she had her knee done and, although it still takes her some doing to get from seated to upright, it’s going great guns. That’s just as well: anyone with a mind as active as Scotland’s makar needs to be fast on their pins.
And one of the things she’s been doing this autumn – in addition to overseeing the revival of Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum and Dundee Rep, signing up the Scottish government’s Scottish Studies Working Group and making sundry appearances on the book-reading circuit – is paying homage to Edwin Morgan, her predecessor as Scotland’s national poet.
A commission for Glasgay!, Edwin Morgan’s Dreams – and Other Nightmares is one poet’s tribute to another. ‘It’s one of those things that isn’t a play but is a theatrical event,’ says Lochhead, who was inspired by reading James McGonigal’s Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan. ‘Eddie had a set of dreams towards the end of his life. They were nightmares that brought up lots of themes of his life. The show is a poetic hour-and-15 minutes about Eddie and these bad dreams. Bits of the dreams can come alive on stage in Eddie’s poems.’
As director of Glasgay!, Steven Thomson wanted to find a way of reappraising Morgan’s work and framing it in its gay context, something that tends to get overlooked in the classroom. ‘His death made me go back and ask what lessons were there to be learned about his life that an older generation, particularly, might value,’ says Thomson. ‘I wanted to look at the hidden contexts of his work, the love stories and the homophobic violence that’s written into some of his poetry.’
He got the backing of Andy Arnold, artistic director of the Tron, and approached Lochhead who, last summer, was grieving both for Morgan, who died in August at the age of 90 after a long battle with cancer, and for her husband Tom Logan, who died suddenly two months before. By Christmas, Lochhead was back in touch with Thomson saying, ‘I have to write this.’
Morgan was a friend and inspiration to the young Lochhead as she ventured onto the poetry circuit as an eager Glasgow School of Art graduate. ‘Tom Leonard, me and other people met him in the 60s,’ she says. ‘He loved the 60s, he loved that liberation, The Beatles, all that stuff. He was so good to us all and so open. We all knew he was gay, although the word “gay” wasn’t used and we weren’t particularly interested in that fact, but we knew what his orientation was. I think we all thought of him as very repressed, whereas he wasn’t repressed, he was just secret.’
Her three-hander stars David McKay as Morgan, Lewis Howden as his biographer and Steven Duffy as the object of Morgan’s sexual attentions. ‘Eddie always fancied working-class, male, very macho kind of guys – bits of rough,’ says Lochhead. ‘That was his erotic type, sometimes to a dangerous extent, apparently.’
For many years – indeed, until as recently as 1990, when he came out as a 70th birthday present to himself – Morgan chose to keep his homosexuality quiet. His was not, however, a sad story of lost opportunity and it was important for Thomson that any tribute should acknowledge Morgan’s vigour and vitality, not to impose a formulaic tragic narrative. ‘He enjoyed these experiences, like a lot of gay men of his generation,’ says Thomson. ‘The secrecy and the flirtation with danger, the thug love, was really quite exciting. Liz quotes Edwin saying, “Glasgow is the great bisexual capital of Europe,” because he was picking up married men in places like the Horse Shoe bar.’
Morgan was discreet, but it is possible to read between the lines of his poetry and see the real story. Thomson refers to the graphic descriptions in ‘Glasgow Green’, a poem written in the 1960s about what could be a male rape. ‘He describes this liaison with this male thug, which sounds as if it is either very dark, dangerous and exciting or extremely violent,’ he says. ‘When you read it from an LGBT perspective, the references are sharp, barbed, biting and sometimes painful.’
It would be wrong to characterise Morgan as some kind of prophet of doom, however. There was a tremendous joy and sense of affirmation in his life and work, which is why Lochhead thinks it right not to cast an old actor in the part. ‘Eddie always seemed young even though his body was falling apart,’ she says, preparing to leave for her next meeting. ‘I loved him dearly.’
Edwin Morgan’s Dreams – and Other Nightmares, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Wed 2–Sat 5 Nov; Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Dundee Rep, Wed 19 Oct–Sat 5 Nov.