How Glasgow Started the Edinburgh Fringe

The story of how Glasgow Unity Theatre turned a snub to Scottish drama into the first Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Feature by Ben Venables | 12 Apr 2018
  • How Glasgow Started the Edinburgh Fringe

January, 1947: Eveline Garratt was angry. Angry enough to write a letter to the Glasgow Herald

As assistant director of Glasgow Unity Theatre, Garratt had been enthusiastic about the new festival planned in Edinburgh for late summer. The group met with Rudolf Bing – the Edinburgh Festival founder – to ask about his plans for Scottish theatre. They were hopeful their season at Edinburgh's Little Theatre could feature in the inaugural Festival's programme.

But the meeting did not go well. As Garratt's letter put it, Bing said: "No Scottish theatre was up to standard."

The letter started a back-and-forth about Scottish representation at the Festival in the Herald's correspondence column. And the paper published a further 18 letters on the subject in February. 

Glasgow Unity were one of the eight theatre groups – without any invitation – to perform alongside the first Festival. And it is this group, more than any other, that can claim to have started what later became called the Edinburgh Fringe.

The 'fringe' before the Fringe

Unity even attracted the word 'fringe' before the first festival started. On 12 July, a column in The Scotsman reported: "Scots plays will be seen on the fringe of the festival... [Glasgow Unity Theatre] is to have a three weeks season in the Little Theatre."

This usage is over a year before playwright Robert Kemp used the term in the Edinburgh Evening News – the time from which the Fringe name is usually attributed (though it took a few years to catch on). But it is also ahead of other uses of 'fringe' picked up by historians: one describing Little Theatre's location in September 1947, again in the Evening News, and another in a review of Everyman Theatre's production out at Dunfermline Cathedral. 

Curiously, 'fringe' is also used some months earlier when debate around Scottish representation is mentioned in a Scotsman editorial. This was only days before Garratt's letter to The Herald. Both pieces refer to discussions already taking place and the editorial may have had Unity in mind when dismissing certain criticisms of the Festival: "But occasional mutterings on the fringe of the band of enthusiasts, mutterings about high prices and about the lack of this or that Scottish contribution, might, if allowed to go unanswered, assume importance out of all proportion to their true value."

But, why was Scottish drama such a contentious issue to the point Rudolf Bing deemed it not up to scratch?

The Origins of Edinburgh International Festival

While the Fringe has origins in Glasgow, the Festival had its own start with Bing in East Sussex.

Bing had escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s and brought his talents as an opera manager to England, founding the Glyndebourne Festival near Lewes in 1934. He wanted to energise this festival and secure its finances after the war; so he searched for a city that could accommodate his vision.

The legend goes that Bing visited Edinburgh in the early 1940s and, on seeing the Castle, was so awed that he conceived the festival idea. Bing's programming and international outlook made the first Edinburgh Festival a success. But, when it came to Scotland, his mind was swamped in clichés about regimental dances and bagpipes.

It is said he considered Bath, Cambridge, Canterbury and Chester before Edinburgh. And in the case of his favoured choice – Oxford – it went as far as formal discussions and committees. Bing once suggested the first Edinburgh Festival start with a High Mass, forgetting it'd be in a Calvinistic city. With all this in mind, a pointed question in Garratt's letter may have been a fair one: "To Mr Rudolf Bing we issue a challenge: Has he ever seen any Scottish theatre...?"

Theatre politics turns nasty

Despite the debate about Scottish drama, James Bridie – the most successful Scottish playwright of the era – was actually on the Festival committee. And his new play was initially advertised as part of the first programme. Surely, in Bridie, Unity had an ally?

It happened there was an ongoing Glasgow rivalry between Unity and Bridie's Citizens Theatre. What's more, Bridie was first to respond to Garratt's letter. He wrote Unity's inclusion in an exalted programme "would be rendering a poor service to Scottish drama."

If this wasn't overbearing enough, Bridie then adopted the tone of a PE teacher speaking to a motivated but wheezy pupil: "Juniors become internationalists in time, and in a year or two Scottish drama may astonish the world; but just not yet..."

Bridie's letter provoked a backlash from the Scottish renaissance poet Hugh MacDiarmid. He replied, rather enigmatically: "If a bantam hen is... only laying the small eggs appropriate to its kind – it does not help matters to set an ostrich egg down beside it, with the label, 'Keep your eye on this, and do your best.'" MacDiarmid added the whole Festival was a "horrible, wind-egg of a misconceived enterprise."

By the end of February's heated correspondence, Bridie sounded more like a wounded aunt who hasn't received a thank you letter: "The Lord Provost of Edinburgh and his committee have conceived and organised a Festival of the arts the like of which has never been seen in Scotland... It would be pleasant to find a little comely gratitude on the part of persons interested in such matters."

Bridie did have his own struggles to contend with in trying to place Scottish drama in the programme. The Old Vic in London led the theatrical front at the Festival but dropped Bridie's play in favour of Richard II, with Alec Guinness playing the king. Yet sympathy for Bridie can only extend so far – the quarrel between him and Unity soon intensified.

Just as the Festival was about to start, Unity were stripped of Arts Council funding. It is suspected Bridie had a hand in this. As The Scotsman recorded: "The council's decision regarding the festival was intimated to Unity Theatre by Mr James Welsh, chairman of the Scottish section of the council, and Mr James Bridie."

The reasons offered to Unity for this sudden funding cut do smack of bunk. The first reason given was that they'd struggle to make a financial success while competing with the International Festival. The second accused Unity of "deteriorating artistic standards." Neither of which chimes with Unity's popularity at the time. A possible alternative reason is that the Arts Council – who'd put £20,000 into the Festival pot – considered Unity a financial threat to the official offerings.

Unity's Legacy

What no-one banked on was Unity's adeptness when it came to publicity. They turned the tables by holding a press conference and issued an appeal for funds. The Scotsman reported: "When Glasgow Unity Theatre present two plays in Edinburgh during the period of the Festival they should have no financial worries, owing to the generous action of two Glasgow business men guaranteeing sums of £800 and £100."

Had Glasgow Unity arrived in Edinburgh without any of this preamble, and staged both of their plays – The Lower Depths and The Laird O’ Torwatletie – their contribution to the Fringe should still be a major part of theatre histories. But perhaps because the group folded a few years later, the achievements of the Glasgow players seem to have been overlooked by all but a handful of scholars.

The original eight companies at the Fringe do not seem to have performed in Edinburgh in any co-ordinated sense. But the intense debate about Scottish representation, and Unity's successful funding campaign, show there may have been some common cause independently followed by the groups in the local dramatic community. Five of the other originals, like Unity, were also Scottish. 

The Scotsman column immediately before the first Festival uses the word 'fringe' a second time: "[Little Theatre] may be regarded by some visitors as exploring the remote fringe of the festival city, but though it is off the main thoroughfare... it is familiar to the Unity Players, who have already had successful seasons there."

These days, the Little Theatre is considered a touch more central to the Fringe. It is better known in August now as Pleasance One.

With thanks to the staff at Edinburgh Central Library, Scottish Collection

Sources: Glasgow Herald and The Scotsman digital archives; Angela Bartie: Edinburgh Festivals; Colin Chambers: The Story of Unity Theatre; George Bruce: Festival in the North; Iain Crawford: Banquo on Thursdays; Bill Findlay (Ed.): Scottish People's Theatre; Eileen Miller: The Edinburgh International Festival 1947-1996. Alistair Moffat: The Edinburgh Fringe. Article: Adrienne Scullion: Scenes like these: new writing from Glasgow Unity Theatre

How Comedy Captured the Edinburgh Fringe
Part 1: The remarkable rise of stand-up comedy
Part 2: 1981 – the year that comedy breaks through at the Fringe
Part 3: Two forgotten venues – McNally's and The Comedy Boom – put comedy first
Part 4: Comedy finally rules the Fringe programme in the 2000s, amid ticket chaos and public fallouts