Denis Johnston: A Life
By: Bernard Adams
‘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an enthusiastic archivist who left a wealth of secret diaries, autobiographical writings and recordings, scrapbooks and unpublished memoirs in his wake.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
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, 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.