Professor Minty Donald’s speech at the award of an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters to critic Mary Brennan at Glasgow University’s Bute Hall on Tuesday June 25.

Vice-Chancellor, I invite you to confer the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters on Mary Brennan.

Mary is an award-winning, internationally-respected theatre, performance and dance critic, and a passionate and potent advocate for the arts. As a theatre artist myself and beneficiary of Mary’s support over many years, I have immense pleasure in presenting her for this honour. This pleasure is shared, I know, by the performance and dance community throughout Scotland and beyond. 

I am also delighted to welcome Mary back to her alma mater. 

Mary was among the first students to graduate from the recently-established Drama Department of the University of Glasgow in the early 1970s. Mary attributes the Drama Department with giving her a deep appreciation of a broad spectrum of theatre and performance: from the popular traditions of music hall and pantomime in Scotland, to the work of European dramatists who were at that time relatively unknown on the British stage. Through studying Drama at Glasgow,the process of theatre making was, in Mary’s own words: ‘demystified without taking away the magic’. Her unique and exemplary qualities as a critic owe something, perhaps, to these foundations.  

Journalism was not Mary’s initial career path. On graduating, she trained as a secondary school teacher. Mary taught English at Knightswood Academy inGlasgow for a year but decided that this was not her vocation. A move to work in the cuttings library at The Glasgow Herald newspaper, however, opened uppreviously unconsidered possibilities. Colleagues at The Herald encouraged Mary to write, and anappointment soon followed, as the first woman journalist at The Johnstone Advertiser. Meanwhile, she began to build a reputation as an arts critic through freelance commissions from The Herald. In 1982 Mary took on the role of theatre critic at The Glasgow Herald. Over time, her remit and interests as a critic haveformed into the distinctive and diverse portfolio thattoday marks her as such an exceptional arts writer. 

Mary’s critical expertise is, I believe, unique in covering dance, children’s theatre, live art, and pantomime. She is, I am almost certain, the only critic who is equally at home reviewing the more esoteric fringes of experimental performance and the hugelypopular form of entertainment that is Christmas pantomime. Mary is as likely to be found among a small, select audience watching the work of emerging artists in a makeshift theatre space, as she is reviewing a world-renowned dance company in Edinburgh’sFestival Theatre. She approaches all this work with thesame combination of wit, passion, intelligence, generosity, and incisiveness. Her criticism is greatly enriched by the diversity of her focus. 

Mary was the first critic to give serious attention to pantomime as an artform that underpins Scotland’s theatrical traditions, and which continues to influence its theatre culture. Since 1988 she has undertaken to review every professional panto staged in Scotland, inventing an ‘official’ regulatory body to monitor itsquality. Her pantomime watchdog, mirroring Ofcom or Ofgem, is called, of course, Ofpants. This playful incarnation, however, also demonstrates Mary’s commitment to popular culture and her belief that it deserves diligent, but supportive, scrutiny. UnderOfpants’ watchful eye, panto in Scotland continues to evolve and thrive. 

In 2018, Mary’s contribution to dance was recognised in her receipt of the prestigious Jane Attenborough One Dance UK Industry Award. This award is given, not by fellow critics, but by dance practitioners and producers. It is a mark of the respect and warmth in which she is held by the dance community across the UK. As former Head of Dance at Creative Scotland, Anita Clark, stated: ‘she has championed many artists and companies, and will fearlessly defend their right to experiment and take risks’.

Among those nurtured by Mary’s support, critical engagement and unwavering defence of the experimental, are many graduates and staff from the University of Glasgow, myself included. Without Mary’s sensitivity, commitment, humour, and bravery as a critic, the theatre and performance scene in Scotland would be much diminished. Thank you, Mary.  

Vice-Chancellor, I invite you to confer the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters on Mary Brennan.