Robert Kemp on the Edinburgh Festival

Twice before in my life I have seen Europe go dark and watched the doves of peace having their necks wrung. …”

Robert Kemp on the 21st Edinburgh Festival, from the Scottish Field 1967

Festivals are not like people. They never “grow up”. So perhaps it would be a mistake to make too much of the 21st Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama (to bestow upon it the full title which leaves out a lot of what happens), except that to say that its continuance for all of those years proves that the original idea was a durable one.

All those years…I , who happen to have seen something of them all, find it difficult to believe that among this years’ audience there will be those who were not born when the early Festivals took place. For them it may seem a venerable institution this Edinburgh Festival Society which some at first predicted would not last for more than a few years.




I find myself tempted, not to recall some of the great performers the mere mention of whom would be sufficient to strike a chord in the memory of people of my won age but to address those for whom names like Schnabel, Szigeti, Jouvet can mean very little, if anything at all.

First of all, I ask these younger people if they can imagine the atmosphere in which the Edinburgh festival was begun.

Those who did not live through the Second World War can appreciate something of its military history through reading books or seeing films and television programmes. They may even gain some impression of the lives of civilians. But the books and films may make it seem that battle was one continuous excitement, some of which spilled over to those on the home front’ as it used to be called. For the vast majority of people, it was a dull, anxious time, during which even the prospect of an ultimate Allied victory often seemed very slender. Living was by ration book and coupon, the black-out made one glad to reach home and stay there. Many cities were regularly bombed and night after night had to be spent in shelters of varying degrees of discomfort. As a period it, it deserved the adjective ‘soul-destroying”.

Then, when the last cheers of the victory celebrations died away, the whole world seemed exhausted. Much of Europe was in ruins. Take France, Germany and Italy out of the world of international music and how much is left? If war stimulated men of action, it left most of humanity in the condition of a patient who has all but succumbed after a long illness. The doctors know it will take a long time to set him on his feet again, and they know too, that they cannot succeed unless the patient is capable of an effort on his own behalf.

I like to think of the Edinburgh Festival as part of the effort which mankind made to throw off the inertia that followed upon the war. There were those who remembered the glories of the opera house, the concert hall and the theatre from the thirties and were determined to restore them – not in the struggling way in which the arts had preserved their continuity for five years, but sumptuously, with an expenditure of money which would have been unthinkable when guns not butt, much less Mozart, were the priority.

The Edinburgh festival was not an Edinburgh or even a Scottish idea . So far as I can gather it originated in a suggestion by Audrey Mildmay, the singer, whose husband Mr John Christie founded the Glyndebourne Opera. At a very early stage, Mr Rudolf Bing, an outstanding impresario who is now administrator of the New York Metropolitan Opera House, was brought in, and to him is due the solid ground-work of the early Festivals, which has remained more or les unchanged. Mr Harvey Wood, an Edinburgh man, who ahs only recently retired from a distinguished career on the British Council may also be reckoned one of the founders.

The first need was for a beautiful city in which the Festival could be held, and Edinburgh was a natural first choice. The Lord Provost was in those days a much beloved Writer to the Signet, Sir John Falconer. I am told that he at first rejected the idea of establishing the Festival but later changed his mind. Certainly, he became it most devout advocate and this quiet man of culture seemed to be the right man to lead such a venture.

Looking back, I doubt if anyone realised what was happening. There must have been scepticism in many quarters, if there was also unlimited enthusiasm amongst those who were fired with the idea of renewing the youth of the arts and adding to Edinburgh’s fame by making it a centre where the greatest performers of the world could assemble. Let us remember that for these virtuosi the war had been a dreadful time. Many of them were Jewish and had been compelled to leave their homes.

For me, the chief delight of the first Festival in 1947, was to see and hear again two men who had been among my idols before war brought down its curtain. These were Schabel, the great interpreter of Beethoven, and the French actor Louis Jouvet. Schnabel I had first heard playing at a concert when I was still at school and later on, when a young reporter, I had enjoyed an hour of his company, for the great musician evidently did not think it a waste of his time to talk to me for an hour at his hotel after a concert. I had seen Jouvet playing in Paris and also on the screen. I had also the privilege of meeting him before the war, when a friend in the French theatre rook me round to his dressing room at the Athenee, that vast dressing room with one wall covered by a picture of Moliere’s company, in which he died just after leaving the stage, just as Moliere himself did.

I mention these two, because this illustrates what was very much on everyone’s mind at the time of the first Festival – the idea of taking up the threads again, of restoring the broken continuity and the international friendship of art. Jouvet brought two of his great successes to the Lyceum, Giraudoux’s “Ondone” which  I had already seen in Paris, and Moliere’s L’Ecole des Femmes. This second had such a  stimulating effect on me that I immediately set about translating it into Scots. My version ‘Let Wives Tak Tent” was performed at the Gateway early in the following year. It was the first thing of mine in which Duncan Macrae appeared, so it was altogether an important experience for me. Macrae played the part many times, in Glasgow, London. For Henry Sherek in a revival and finally, only a few years ago, at the Gateway again as part of the official Festival.

When attending the first Festival I did not dream that I should be employed in the second and in several subsequent ones. James Bridie, who was a member of the Festival Committee, had determined that there should be a Scottish contribution to the second Festival and had sent to Tyrone Guthrie some old Scottish plays, among them iSr David Lyndsay’s ‘Ane Pleasand Satire of the Thrie Estaitis” It fell to me to adapt this remarkable work for the stage.

But which stage? The work demanded an open stage. I can well remember the day spent with Guthrie, Bridie and William Grahame of the Festival Society, inspecting every available hall. Late in the day, I thought “Why not the Assembly Hall?” As soon as he saw it, Guthrie knew it was the place. It gave him the first major opportunity to put into practice ideas of stagecraft which hade had immense effect first in Stratford, Ontario and then in Chichester, England, where stages deriving form ideas he was able to develop in t he Assembly Hall are now in being.

To everyone engaged in the venture it seems a huge adventure although up to the opening night the rest of the world seemed indifferent. Miss Molly MacEwen designed costumes of wonderful richness, Cedric Thorpe Davie wrote one of his most sonorous, pulsing music and a large cast of Scottish actors and actresses responded to inspired and inspiring direction. It was the first time the “Scottish Theatre” had ever worked as a single body and the experience gave a sense of identity which those who took part have never lost, however far their subsequent careers may have taken the from the Assembly Hall and Edinburgh.

I must apologise for having shot off at this personal tangent, yet how is one to recall past Festivals and their atmosphere except in this personal way? They are made up of personal experience whether one is engaged as an artist or wrote or is a member of the audience. Once remembers certain occasions, certain works, certain artists – and that is the Edinburgh Festival. Over the years, it has become a regular meeting place of talent, sometimes of genius and to go through the yearly brochures, singling out a name here and a name there, would be an arduous process, for surely the majority of great artists and companies have visited Edinburgh during the annual three weeks.

An important, and totally unforeseen development was the growth of  “the Fringe “ – those companies which came to Edinburgh at their own risk and set up shop in all sorts of little halls too small for the uses of the official Festival. I am not sure that they have always received cordial approval, for a good deal of money is spent on sponsoring the event and there are a lot of impudent youngsters competing for the money. And sometimes, it is true, one may come across, perhaps in an English town, a company billing its play as “straight from the Edinburgh Festival” when what is meant is that it has been part of “the Fringe”. It may be that its standards are not those of the kind on which the Festival organisers try to insist.

Yet all things considered, “the Fringe” has brought experiment, liveliness and adventure into what could easily become a stodgy mixture. If a great deal of its charm is simply that it gives young people, possibly from University dramatic societies, a chance to show what they can do, it has on several occasions uncovered work of real merit…

It so happens that I write these words on the very day when when fighting has broken out between Israel and the Arab nations,. It is impossible for me to tell whether the war will be confined and stopped by the intervention of the United Nations or whether the worst will happen. I find myself thinking, “Here I am writing of the 21st Edinburgh Festival as if I were sure that it would occur”. Suddenly everything seems again on the point of being thrown into the melting pot. And it is a melting point in which the temperatures will be higher than anything thought of heretofore.

Suddenly it is brought home to me that the Edinburgh Festival is the creation of peace and the symbol of it. Even a severe threat of war could bring about its cancellation. Nothing is certain in this vale of tears and I suppose that there are times when a huge international occasion, backed by public money and depending for its success on free intercourse between nations, is very vulnerable.

I ask myself “Have we been grateful enough for the Edinburgh Festival?” At first, I think, we undoubtedly were. We had crossed one desert and our throats were parched. But as the years passed, people seemed to be more critical. There was more girning of one kind or another. Something of the simple gaiety and enthusiasm wore off. Foolish and meaningless stunts seems to be stealing attention from performances sometomes so close to the ideal that there was little to say about them.

Twice before in my life I have seen Europe go dark and watched the doves of peace having their necks wrung. I must still have faith that mankind has not gone entirely mad and that somehow a general war will be averted. If that is so, we shall have our 21st Festival. The old city will be floodlit, in her streets strange tongues will be heard. Great artists will weave their spells, and we shall gladly submit to their enchantment. We will be able to share again, in some of the most glorious creations of the human spirit.

That is what the Festival really brings to us. It may not be a great creative occasion, in the sense that new works naturally spring to life at a Festival. The object is primarily to secure the most heady performances of acknowledged masterpieces, which may be likened to fountains at which mankind is never weary of drinking.

The Festival is essentially a practical convenience for lovers of the arts. It is true that by travelling widely and continuously one might see the artists and orchestras that visit Edinburgh, but at a cost to one’s time and purse that make such a luxury a fairy-tale one. Those who have visited Edinburgh for the past 20 years have achieved the same object more simply. The artists, orchestras and companies have come to them. What has the effect on Scotland been?

It was a landmark in the Scottish National Orchestra’s history when it was asked to play at the opening concert, always an occasion of honour. And now, after only a few years existence Scottish Opera is playing its part. Both these bodies, of course, perform a European repertoire and there is little sign so far of any marked encouragement to Scottish composers. Let us hope that will be the next step.

When he approaches Edinburgh by road, the motorist reads a sign “Edinburgh, the Festival City”. I have never cared for that sign. Edinburgh is so much more than its three weeks’ period of playing host to artists and audiences. Its proudest boast should be that it is the Capital of Scotland. That said, I must concede that by giving a home to the Festival, it has played a part worthy of the Capital, an on the whole I should agree that it has played the part better than well.

FOOTNOTE: Robert did experience the 21st EIF, but it was to be his alst as he died in November 1967 aged 59.