A Word with Dr Johnson

Plays

In 1746 Samuel Johnson began to compile his famous Dictionary. Despite his famous antipathy to Scotland (“a very vile country to be sure”), five out of his six assistants were Scots. How did they help him and what was the process like? This new comedy celebrates the creation of a masterpiece that defined both the English language and Johnson’s own life.

First performed at Òran Mór, Glasgow and the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh in October 2015.

Part Two, Doctor Johnson goes to Scotland, will be performed in the same two theatres in October 2016.

A word with Dr Johnson

Gerda Stevenson as Tetty
Mark McDonnell as Johnson

A word with Dr Johnson

Gerda Stevenson as Tetty
Mark McDonnell as Johnson

Opening scene

A London Street. Midsummer, 1746.

A flighting cockney couple charge through the audience, mid argument. They could be throwing things at each other.

COCKNEY BARMAID
Skulking buck fitch

MAN
Bacon-faced hell-cat looby

Dr Johnson takes to the stage, observes.

BARMAID
Gammoning blubber cheeks

MAN
Squelch gutted dandiprat

JOHNSON
Our language is, at present, in a state of anarchy and hitherto, perhaps, it may not always have been the worse for it.

The couple continue to pursue each other.

BARMAID
I’ll dowse your dog-vane you skulking duck-fucker

MAN
Stubble it, you cork-brained bitch booby

JOHNSON
In our free and open trade, many words have been imported and adopted and naturalized from other languages, which have greatly enriched our own.

BARMAID
You shitten tarleather

MAN
Sucked the monkey, have you, you windy hoyden?

BARMAID
I’ll lend you a poke, you carbuncle-faced buggeranto.

JOHNSON
But the time for discrimination seems to have come. Toleration, adoption, and naturalisation have run their lengths. Good order and authority are necessary.

MAN
Have you a padlock on your arse that you shit through your teeth - you garlick-eating linseywoolsey trollop?

BARMAID
I’ll lump your nob, you cribbage-faced, gotch-gutted, bandy-legged, flat cocked, muck-ended bummaree.

Exit

JOHNSON
I therefore propose the first proper dictionary of the English language; a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, its purity preserved and its use ascertained.

Dr Johnson and Scotland

Dr. Johnson did not always make it easy for himself to attract readers north of the border. His famous dictionary definition of the word oats (“A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”) was only one of his many remarks that could be taken either as a witticism or as an insult. ‘His prejudice against Scotland was announced almost as soon as he began to appear in the world of letters,’ his biographer James Boswell explained, excusing partisanship by explaining that Johnson ‘allowed himself to look upon all nations but his own as barbarians.’ He was frequently up for a barb, no matter the nationality:

‘A Frenchman must always be talking whether he knows anything of the matter or not.’

‘The Irish are a fair people – they never speak well of one another.’

‘I am willing to love all mankind except an American.’

‘Seeing Scotland, Madam, is only seeing a worse England.’

So far, so English, one might think, and Boswell goes on to say that ‘if Johnson was particularly prejudiced against the Scots, it was because they were more in his way.’

“More in his way” implies that if Johnson had met, say, a larger number of Chinese people, he might have switched his prejudice, but I think there is more to it than this. It all stems from one fact: that when Johnson was compiling his dictionary over the nine years from 1746-1755, five out of six of his immediate helpers were Scots: Alexander and William Macbean from the Grampians, Robert Shiels from Roxburghshire, Francis Stewart from Edinburgh and a Mr Maitland from the Borders.

He surrounded himself with educated and enlightened Scots, with a specialist knowledge and a wide vocabulary who became instrumental in the production of one of the greatest works of “English” literature. Filled with extensive reference and quotation Johnson intended this work to transcend etymology. It was to be “the intellectual history of our nation”.

The production method was a chaotic form of enlightenment data-entry. Johnson went through his own library as well as those of many friends, marking up passages that might serve as exemplary quotations. These were then copied out by his assistants, cut into individual slips (think of them as eighteenth century post-it notes) and then placed in their appropriate alphabetical tray to await the final compilation and definition. The dictionary could only be complete when Johnson felt he had “finished reading” every substantial work of literature from Sir Philip Sidney to Samuel Richardson.

This meant that the process had no definite end and that if a word was not found in a book then it would have been less likely to meet Johnson’s approval. However we know that his helpers advised him on colloquial words and phrases, even providing him with their own definitions. It’s fun to think what the banter would have been like in the work room as his helpers argued about the inclusion of those great untranslatable Scots words like canty, crabbit, dreich, drulie, glaikit and gorkie. Such imaginary dialogue has inspired my new play ‘A Word with Dr. Johnson’ for Óran Mór in Glasgow and the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. At its heart is a discussion about who owns language, how it is used and why it defines us.

One technique is to test its robustness. In many cases, Johnson was trying it on, seeing how much he could get away with and how an audience might respond when challenged by that dubious English pastime of “Jock-baiting”. He did it because he knew it would get a rise; and he expected his listeners to argue back.

‘I never think I have hit hard,’ he wrote in a letter, ‘unless it rebounds.’ He was expecting a riposte to his more outrageous statements. He enjoyed teasing, and knew that the Scots have always been resilient enough to fight back. Johnson could not abide the polite snobbery of the English drawing room. He wanted ideas, argument, surprise; the intellectual equivalent of the sudden shock that he received on arriving in Edinburgh on his very first night to find himself under a shower of effluvia from a high window. Gardyloo!

This is the man whose greatest friend, travelling companion and biographer was a Scot. When at one point Boswell apologised for his nationality saying that he could hardly help his accident of birth, Johnson remonstrated ‘That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.’ But it’s my firm belief, made manifest in this play, that Johnson needed banter and that he loved and looked after his helpers, even encouraging them to work on one of the earliest Scots dictionaries. He may have had his prejudices and his provocations but he also had his patronage, always believing his charges were capable of great things and that “much may be made of a Scotsman if he be caught young.”

In the end, he was hardest on himself, battling to complete one of the most heroic achievements in English literature. Nine years, 42,773 words and 114,000 definitions – all with the help of those five great Scots who perhaps taught him more than we will ever know about the art of robust conversation.

A word with Dr Johnson - cast
A word with Dr Johnson - poster