Our Scottish friends were trying to explain the phenomenon of the television police, and we were trying to understand. Television sets are taxed yearly in Britain and require an annual sticker. But since the sticker buying is done on the honor system, the citizens of Great Britain enjoy an occasional visit from the television police, who come into the house to make sure the stickers are current. This year the postman had come up the glen sounding a warning that the sticker checker was just behind him. Our friends were in the clear but there was a lady up the glen, said Margaret, who’d had to make a quick run to the post office for a sticker for her black-and-white, and who’d simply hid her three color sets.

With a few exceptions the Scots seem resigned to the television tax, but the same cannot be said of the poll tax, which, they will remind you, Scotland had a year before the rest of the union. In Edinburgh, whose beauty is not generally marred by graffiti, what graffiti we did see was opposing that tax. In general the level of Scottish resentment against England goes largely unreported here, but the Scots National Party has a fair amount of sentimental support in Scotland, even among those who do not really want to break with England. (One strongly nationalistic lady of my friends’ acquaintance persists in calling the land below the Tweed “Englandshire.”)

We were in Perthshire to see our friends, but the main purpose of our trip had been to attend all we could at the Edinburgh Festival and its accompanying Fringe. By my count there were this past August sixteen Festival theater productions—the bigger, more ornate shows, where the companies have been invited—and something like 700 on the Fringe, where the quality ranges from good to awful, and where anyone who can rent a venue and snake his way through the British labor laws can mount a production. Given the sheer number of offerings and our limited time, we saw about one percent of what was playing—and that’s just counting the theater, not the music, and dance, and the poetry readings.

Edinburgh is very proud of a festival that has put it on the international map, brings in tourist dollars, and allows it to outshine London for a month. Fittingly enough, then, the best play we saw was a Scottish production: the Traverse Theatre’s production of The Hour of the Lynx. Edinburgh’s Traverse has a good reputation for Fringe shows and this year mounted (among eleven others) this excellent play by Per Olav Enquist. The Hour of the Lynx is really a Swedish Agnes of God, for those of you who remember John Pielmeier’s drama about a mother superior, a psychiatrist, and a novice charged with murdering her newborn baby, all in their various ways struggling for faith. Here in Enquist’s play there is a young man (charged with a seemingly purposeless murder), a psychiatrist, and a female pastor.

The boy, never named, has been given a cat as part of an empathy experiment, the results of which have been disastrous—and the play takes for its themes the psychiatrist in need of counseling, the pastor in need of faith, and a young man who with his broken family and broken mind needs death more than anything else. The loss of the cat and his return, his “conversations” with the boy, and his promise that he died and was risen in order to bring the boy home—to the only heaven he can imagine, his grandfather’s now destroyed house—unfold in a series of angry three-way conversations. The great power of Enquist’s play comes from the poignancy of these searches for God, for the need that even enlightened modern Sweden has for some rhyme and reason, and for a very personal Savior. I can’t tell how well Kim Dambaek’s translation follows the original, but it played beautifully, and Simon Donald was especially good as the boy.

Oddly enough, that was about it for a solid drama among the productions we saw. Everything else, however good, was spectacle. The production values were very high in an American show, Juan Darién, produced by the Music-Theatre Group of New York. Originally staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1988, Juan Darién won two Obies, no doubt for its sophisticated mix of music and masks and puppetry. Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga’s story is about a jaguar cub turned into a child by the love of his foster mother, and turned back into a jaguar by the cruelty of his neighbors. The puppets ranged from Balinese shadow puppets to huge facial masks to full-scale, larger-than-life human-powered dolls, including an evil schoolteacher with a long warning finger and an open, flapping book atop his head instead of hair. The lyrics were sung in Spanish; the music was modern with a heavy overlay of Asian and Australian instruments; and the cast self-consciously multiracial. Despite the youth of the show’s hero and the number of children in the audience, this is not a show for kids, and its needless coarseness was dismaying. But visually it was a success, and if the puppets were not completely original, reminiscent as they were of Coppelia and Nutcracker and Edvard Munch, they were wonderful all the same.

Also beautifully produced but again, not really a play in the old-fashioned sense was Daniel Reardon’s Spenser’s Laye, done by the Irish company Connaught. Here Edmund Spenser is an idealist in medieval garb, his patron Raleigh a bellowing Texan, his admirer Robert Devereux a Restoration fop, and his wife Elizabeth a Gork housewife who reappears (it’s the same actress) as his patroness Elizabeth Gloriana. Spenser’s Laye is a play about playing with language—an Elizabethan past-time if there ever was one—but the mix of periods is confusing and seemingly purposeless, except as part of the joke.

The drama turns on the paternity of Edmund Spenser’s beloved son, the intrigues of Raleigh and Devereux and Cecil in a fight for the favors of the Queen, a poetical contest, and Spenser’s pension. The set and costumes were beautiful in black and white, with a huge round mirror centerstage that served variously as bed and step and, when Gloriana stood upon it, the world at her feet. Equally wonderful were the period songs, among them “Musing,” Raleigh’s “Now What Is Love,” and “Tobacco is Like Love.”

In the disappointing category falls Britain’s National Youth Music Theatre (not to be confused with Britain’s National Youth Theatre), which mounted an original production called October’s Children. The story is based loosely on the life of Gogol but is essentially about the street children that wandered the countryside following the October Revolution in 1917. The father of our heroine, Natasha, is a nobleman, but after his death this little child of privilege finds herself left to her own devices on the streets of St. Petersburg, finally joining up with a gang of likewise lost or abandoned children. There were some good moments: one clear boy soprano, and a good Baba Yaga number done by three young girls as the witch’s three heads, dramatic and funny and tuneful all at once. But most of the rest of the music was entirely modern, which is to say tune-free, and quite difficult, and young Natasha did not quite have the voice for it. The book was terrible. “Did your mother sing you that song?” asks the hero at one point. “Then she was a Russian!” Similarly the politics would have gone over better three years ago when Jeremy James Taylor and Frank Whateley and David Nield started putting the show together. Gogol is not perhaps the man of the moment, caught as that country is now between perestroika and the crackdown in the Baltic states.

Leaving the Western world altogether was the Ninagawa Company’s double bill of a traditional Noh play, Sekidera Komachi, and Yukio Mishima’s reworking and modernizing of the same story, Sotoba Komachi. In some ways Yukio Yoshimura, performing the traditional Noh, was the less disconcerting, though his performance of an old woman remembering the conquests of her youth contained no action, little drama, and almost no movement. We were watching the play of her thoughts across her painted face, a piece of theatrical haiku that was very strange for a Westerner. But the Mishima, with its mix of East and West, its magic and overblown emotions, and its typically Mishimesque finish (love = death), in its effort to blend two traditions failed to encompass either. Again, the production values were very high; the wonderful falling hibiscus flowers made for an excellent effect, but the play was disturbing in a way that was only creepy and brought no emotional release, and so as a tragedy it failed.

Finally, what seemed to be the hit among the invited Festival shows, and something I did not see, was the French company Archaos’ Bouinax, which was generally described as a postmodern. Mad Max circus. But there are some things I cannot manage, and these include productions that open with an intended-to-be-humorous dwarf in a wheelchair and finish with a staged beheading complete with the drinking of the “dead” man’s blood. It seems inevitable that this should come to New York and you will just have to read the Times for a more complete description.

With the possible exception of the Enquist play, the best night we spent out was not at the theater at all but at Edinburgh’s Acoustic Music Centre. Every year during the Festival the Centre sets aside one room for a sing-along. Anybody with enough courage and a song to sing can come up and perform, and almost anybody does; the night we were there the crowd ranged from some moderately successful Scottish folksingers (such as Robin Laing) to visiting American and English tourists, and the songs varied from the Beatles to “The Soldier Maid”—happily more of the latter. It occurred to me, sitting there, that this haphazard and very Scottish singalong, which cost the bar nothing and the patrons only the price of a few pints, was more appealing and in a deeper sense a real “cultural experience” than Festival productions such as the Japanese Noh or the French circus, which probably each cost thousands of pounds to bring over. In other words, between the Centre and the Traverse, what was truly best about this International Festival was its most Scottish parts. And I hope that one of the benefits of English/Scottish tensions and Scotland’s relative poverty is that both have encouraged a very deeply felt Scottish pride, so that the Scots know this.