Denis Johnston

A Life

By: Bernard Adams

Publication Date: 26 February 2002

(1 customer review)


This is the first biography of Denis Johnston, barrister, theatre director, film-maker, pioneering television producer, war correspondent, essayist and celebrated playwright. Johnston was of Ulster Presbyterian stock, born into Edwardian Dublin, where he was briefly held hostage in his family home at Lansdowne Road during the 1916 Rising. Son of a Supreme Court judge, he was schooled at St Andrew’s in Dublin, in Edinburgh and Christ’s College, Cambridge, and at Harvard University. He made the name of the Gate Theatre in 1929 with his astonishing first play The Old Lady Says ‘No!’, created the radio epic ‘Lillibulero’ for the BBC in Belfast, and earned an OBE for his war reporting from North Africa, Yugoslavia and Buchenwald. In 1950 he decamped to New York and taught for many years at colleges in Massachusetts, founding the Poets’ Theatre in Boston.

An Irishman of wide horizons and wit, and a prodigal dissenter, his multi-faceted life illuminates the cultural history of the past century. He was turbulently married to the actresses Shelah Richards and Betty Chancellor, and had four children, among them the novelist Jennifer Johnston. In this masterly biography, Adams draws upon Johnston’s copious and intimate diaries, letters and uncompleted autobiography deposited in Trinity College, Dublin, cataloguing the ‘untidy museum’ of his subject’s past. The result is an enthralling narrative of the extraordinary secret life of a complex, self-doubting individual, which brings new light to bear on one of the twentieth century’s most original Irish writers.

‘Bernard Adams has produced a terrific biography of a truclent maverick.’Neil Donnelly, Irish Independent

‘This excellent biography will undoubtedly stimulate further interest in the work while providing fitting tribute to a remarkable Irishman.’ P.J. Mathews, Irish Times

‘A masterly biography. Rarely was a biographer better served by his subject. Johnston was an enthusiastic archivist who left a wealth of secret diaries, autobiographical writings and recordings, scrapbooks and unpublished memoirs in his wake. These sources are judiciously used and amplified by the author’s keen sense of Johnston’s milieu to provide an intriguing narrative of a fascinating life.’P.J. Mathews, Irish Times

‘Bernard Adams sets out from a secure base and he tells his story of Johnston’s life fluently.’ – W.J. McCormack, Sunday Business Post

‘Denis Johnston: A Life is clearly a labour of love. It is also a thoroughly good read.’Emer O’Kelly, Sunday Independent


BERNARD ADAMS, a Dubliner with Ulster roots similar to Johnston’s, went to school at Portora in Enniskillen and read English at Trinity College, Dublin. He became a journalist in Belfast and had a long career as a BBC television producer in London. He is now a full-time writer.


1 review for Denis Johnston

  1. Lilliput Press

    “This workmanlike but satisfactory biography efficiently draws together what’s known of this Dublin playwright, who also delved into experimental non-fiction but not quite autobiographical work. Since Johnston and Adams share much in their background, schooling, and BBC work, this makes for a good match of subject and scrutinizer. Most usefully as a needed addition, Adams shows carefully how Johnston’s BBC productions in television and radio took these then-emerging media in directions that perhaps only an innovative stagehand and dramatist could have combined with fresh technology and unfailingly eclectic imagination.

    While Johnston’s drama, and especially his astounding “Nine Rivers from Jordan” autobiographical novel of sorts, gain far less thorough scrutiny than I would have wished, the results here, appended to and correcting Johnston’s own posthumously published but necessarily incomplete attempt at autobiography–sort of!–emerging as “Orders & Desecrations”–complete what’s known from the diaries, thousands of letters, journals and primary research Adams has unearthed from the heretofore barely examined Trinity College Dublin archives. Since scholars have analyzed Johnston’s dramas, Adams sensibly digs into less-familiar sources to provide a deeper examination of Johnston himself. I would have preferred more a “critical biography” that looked at the texts longer and the life a bit less, but Adams gives us for the first time a full picture of the man.

    Outside of his wartime adventures, Johnston did not lead that exciting a life, so Adams takes his time sifting through rather his numerous dalliances, his two marriages to actresses, and his gradual decline amidst comfortable jobs teaching coeds in New England’s Seven Sisters schools. Although this book on a figure now barely remembered–although in his time he was hailed as the new voice of Irish theatre–will never reach an extensive audience, but if you are interested in Johnston at all, it’s obviously necessary reading.

    The last paragraph calls for a reassessment and a renewal of attention to this bold dramatist, and I can only hope this book incites such reactions among those who know that before their own generation there were texts and dramas that remain today, at their best moments, truly radical, iconoclastic, and entertainingly or self-referentially provocative.” JOHN L MURPHY

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Weight 1 kg
Dimensions 156 × 234 mm
Publication Date

26 February 2002


Hardback, 370pp