Given recent events, it is no surprise to learn that Alistair Beaton, satirist and political dramatist, has written a new play that features bankers, speculation, “greed, euphoria and mass delusion”. What is remarkable is the century in which it is set. Caledonia, which opens at the Edinburgh International Festival next week, begins in 1698 and tells the story of the Darien scheme, a pivotal chapter in Scottish history.
If you draw a blank on the Darien scheme, then you are in good company. “Most people have either not heard of it at all or a faint bell rings,” says Beaton. “And that applies to most Scots as well … I don’t think Scotland comes out of the story terribly well.”
“It’s very odd that the story has been virtually forgotten because it is an absolutely crucial phase in Scottish history,” he goes on, adding that he dimly recalls lessons on it during his Glasgow schooldays. “It was right at the beginning of capitalism and the blossoming of the banks: the Bank of England was founded in 1694, the Bank of Scotland in 1695. And suddenly the joint stock company had arrived. It was really the beginning of the modern system.”
The Darien scheme was dreamed up by the Scottish businessman William Paterson. He planned to found a Scottish colony at Darien on the narrow isthmus of Panama in Central America, to control trade between the two great oceans and so transform impoverished Scotland into a great trading nation. Thousands of ordinary people invested in the scheme; thousands elected to make the tough sea voyage and settle there as pioneers. But the plans ended in disaster.
“It’s generally thought it absorbed more than half of the national wealth of Scotland,” says Beaton. “They sent 14 ships in total and only one came back. Two thousand people died. Three huge factors were ignored. One was that the English could really put a spoke in it by putting an embargo on trade. Second, the climate was much, much worse than they had squared up to: conditions were terrible and 12 people were dying a day. Third, Paterson had wagered that the Spanish empire was waning and they had lost their chutzpah. And he was wrong.”
The downfall of the scheme crippled the Scottish economy and left the country demoralised, bankrupted and struggling to go forward as an independent nation. “The really significant thing about it in terms of British history is that it was a straight line from there to the Treaty of Union [leading to the joining in 1707 of Scotland to England in the single kingdom of Great Britain].”
But although the scheme ended in catastrophe, Beaton admires Paterson’s “bold and daring vision” and sees in him the sort of restless entrepreneurial spirit that we associate with someone like Richard Branson. His play, staged by the Festival and the National Theatre of Scotland, is peopled with vigorous characters who have hope, national ambition and a dream. And he is keen to explore the impetus behind the story.
“I’m trying to investigate two things. One is the spirit of a small nation and how it copes with its self-image. The other is how a whole society can buy into a mad idea. The euphoria was extraordinary – even people who had nothing to gain were cheering the ships off and lighting bonfires. That kind of national fervour I find very interesting: how a whole society can buy into a belief that is just pregnant with disaster.”
Clearly, with the recent financial crisis still looming in our rear-view mirrors, the story has resonance for a 21st-century audience. Beaton suggests that the perspective offered by history can allow us to see patterns and similarities.
“It’s a story in its own right. But it’s also full of echoes for now. The idea that Scotland would overnight become a rich nation is a bit like what happened to Iceland … [The economist] JK Galbraith wrote that one of the things that fuels every bubble is the belief that there’s a new device that makes everything safe. And the new device in the late 17th century was the joint stock company. It’s a very loose shorthand, but I think of it as the credit default swap of the era. People thought it had taken the risk away.”
The contemporary parallels make for plenty of irony. “How could they not put their money in the hands of a man who once ran a bank?” remarks a character at one point.
“There’s a bit of bank-bashing in the play, let’s be honest,” says Beaton. “But it’s kind of offered up. I don’t think the audience is clubbed to death with the message. The story is a distancing device that lets you look at how things happen in society.”
This is his first historical play (“a big new departure for me”) and he spent months researching it in the National Library of Scotland and the University of Glasgow, consulting records, journals and ballads of the period. He confesses that he loved “being a student again”. Beaton read Russian and German at the University of Edinburgh and he translates plays, holding Gogol and Brecht in particular affection.
But he is best known for satirical contemporary comedy. He wrote the television films A Very Social Secretary and The Trial of Tony Blair, as well as for satires such as Spitting Image and Not the Nine O’Clock News. Feelgood, his comedy about New Labour spin, won an Evening Standard Best Comedy Award. As you might expect, he brings a satirical streak to the Caledonia story. But it is only a streak, he insists.
For the future, he says there are now “some good subjects popping up” in the new coalition government in Britain (he is particularly eyeing the “big society” initiative). Satire can, of course, be a great outlet for writer and audience alike. But looking back over the three decades in which he has been nipping at the ankles of authority, I wonder whether he thinks it changes anything?
“I’m very cautious about making claims for it,” he says. “Partly I do it because I think it’s really important to give people heart. I’m not sure I’m in the business of changing anyone’s mind. I find that a bit arrogant as a thought. But I think The Emperor’s New Clothes is the wisest fairytale ever written. What satire does, if it’s done well, is shock you back into a childlike view of the world, where you say, ‘Oh, the emperor does have no clothes.’
“I think satire starts from outrage,” he adds, “which is different from anger. Anger is thought-through and outrage has something childlike about it, when you just think, ‘What?!’ And I have to say the outrage is quickly building over the coalition. So I think I will be back to a contemporary play after this one. I’m already cooking one. I have a commission from the Old Vic … I don’t think I’ll be at a loss as to what to write about.”
‘Caledonia’, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Aug 21-26, www.eif.co.uk. It is currently previewing at the Eden Court Theatre, Inverness. Tel: +44 (0)1463 234234