Robert Kemp – 50 Years After the Death of a Scots Playwright, a Memoir

This month marks 50 years since the death of the playwright Robert Kemp. To commemorate this, I have created a memoir which is downloadable here as a PDF, readable on Kindle or any other device. This is a work in progress - a corrected and finalised version will appear soon. Comments and contributions welcome via Facebook or Twitter @jackiekemp.

Robert Kemp was a playwright who spoke and often wrote in the Scots tongue. His plays reflect his ease in the language and a deep knowledge of Scotland’s literature and history.  Many of the characters and stories are drawn from Scotland’s past and its rich folklore. He wrote upwards of 120 plays, for radio and theatre, in English and Scots, but is remembered chiefly for his adaptation of Sir David Lyndsay’s the Three Estates for the Edinburgh Festival in 1948, and for two Moliere adaptations into Scots, Let Wives Tak Tent, and the Laird O Grippy.

One of his own plays, “The Asset”, was criticised by the Church of Scotland, which led to Robert leaving the Church for a year. Another play, a Trump for Jericho, dramatises the row which split the Kirk after the Disruption of 1844. There were many other history plays: about Robert Burns “The Other Dear Charmer”, Robert the Bruce “The King of Scots”, “Rob Roy Macgregor”, Queen Margaret – “The Saxon Saint”, “Master John Knox”.

Robert’s plays are still occasionally performed by amateur dramatic societies looking for Scots texts. His text of the Three Estates, which skillfully united excerpts from the original with his own lines, was revived several times and was performed in Poland in the 1980s.

Robert also wrote nine novels, of which “the Malacca Cane” and “Gretna Green” were the most successful. A fluent speaker of French and German, Robert was also a journalist, who worked for the BBC in the Second World War.

Writing about Robert in “Scotland’s books; A History of Scottish Literature”, Robert Crawford wrote: “In a period when little Scottish literature or history was part of the school curriculum and when Scots or Gaelic was still frowned on in many classrooms, imaginative writing played its traditional, substantial part in keeping national narratives familiar.”

Robert’s son, Arnold, who was himself a newspaper editor, wrote: “I do not think it is simply filial piety which persuades me that his work is neglected and misunderstood. For about 15 years after the war his work in the theatre achieved a consistent popular success in Scotland and he left behind a body of writing and comment about the Scottish condition which was passionate and sometimes agonised.”

Robert’s playscripts, his letters and diaries are held in the Robert Kemp archive in the National Library of Scotland. The programmes and posters and other theatrical memorabilia of the post- Second World War period are in the Scottish Theatre Archive at Glasgow University.

This memoir quotes extensively from Robert’s writings and from Arnold’s journalism and an unpublished travelogue and memoir; “The Sentimental Tourist”.