Coulter, John (William) (1888–1980), playwright, was born 12 February 1888 in Naples St., Belfast, the son of Francis Coulter, a member of the RIC, and Annie Coulter (née Clements). At an early age he was interested primarily in art, and his particular enthusiasm for textiles led him to work in Ewart's textile factory in Belfast. He attended the Belfast Schools of Art and Technology, and, having won a research scholarship, studied at the University of Manchester in 1911. On his return to Ireland in 1912 he taught textile design at the School of Technology, and art and English at the Coleraine Academical Institute.
While still a student he became fascinated by the theatre. With a view to being near the Abbey Theatre, he moved in 1914 to Dublin, where he taught at Wesley College, and, more significantly, began to write. During this period he became well acquainted with many of the leading Abbey players, and met W. B. Yeats (qv), whom he greatly admired. His first play, Conochar, based on the Ulster cycle of ancient legends and tales, was published in 1917. He abandoned teaching in 1919 and moved back to Belfast, where he attempted to organise a local repertory company. A resurgence of political strife prevented the success of this project, and in the early 1920s he moved to London, where he wrote for the BBC and worked as managing editor of John Middleton Murry's renamed and reorganised journal, The New Adelphi (1927–30). From London he still maintained his links with Northern Ireland, editing the Ulster Review and contributing to the Belfast Telegraph, the Northern Whig, and Ireland's Saturday Night. His first play to be professionally produced, ‘Sally's chance’, was directed by Tyrone Guthrie (qv) in 1925 for BBC radio in Belfast. Renamed ‘The house in the quiet glen’, it won all but one of the awards at the Canadian Dominion Drama Festival in 1937. Its sequel, ‘Family portrait’, was produced by BBC radio in 1935, having been originally written for and rejected by the Abbey. It was regularly performed in Ireland and Canada in the years that followed. While in London he met the Canadian writer Olive Clare Primrose (d. 1971), whom he married in July 1936 shortly after he had settled in Toronto; they had two daughters.
After three years in New York, during which he wrote for the Living history series on CBS-WABC radio and for various magazines and journals, he returned to Toronto in 1941, where ‘Holy Manhattan’ (1940) and ‘Oblomov’ (1946) were performed by the city's Arts and Letters Club. ‘Deirdre of the sorrows’, an opera by the Canadian composer Healey Willan and one of three works by him for which Coulter wrote librettos, was broadcast by CBS radio in 1946. Coulter returned to depicting his native Ulster in ‘The drums are out’, in which he focused on a family divided by religious and political issues; turned down by the Dominion Drama Festival for which it was written, it began a very successful five-week run at the Abbey Theatre on 12 July 1948. His most significant contribution to Canadian drama was undoubtedly his trilogy representing the leader of the métis, Louis Riel, and the Red River rebellion of 1885. ‘Riel’, premiered in Toronto in 1950, was subsequently produced on both CBC radio and television. It was triumphantly revived in 1975, under the direction of Jean Gascon, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. ‘The crime of Louis Riel’ (1967) and ‘The trial of Louis Riel’ (1967) completed the trilogy.
Among Coulter's other plays are ‘Sleep my pretty one’ (1954), ‘A capful of pennies’ (1967), ‘François Bigot and the fall of Quebec’ (1978), and his two-part tragedy ‘God's Ulsterman’ (1974), comprising ‘Dark days of ancient hate’ and ‘The red hand’, in which he examined the legacy of the Cromwellian plantation. He also produced a biography of Churchill (1944), a novella, Turf smoke (1945), based on his earlier work Holy Manhattan, and a collection of poems entitled The blossoming thorn (1946). His theatrical memoir In my day was published in 1980.
Coulter played an important part in the cultural life of Canada; a founder of the Canadian Arts Festival, he was a member of the editorial board of the Canada Review. In 1944 he was a member of a delegation that presented an arts brief to the Turgeon committee of the Canadian house of commons, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the Canada Council. He returned to London with his family in 1951, where he remained for seven years, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s made extended visits to Ireland. He died in Toronto on 1 December 1980 in his ninety-third year.