Ervine, St John Greer (1883–1971), Ulster dramatist, critic, and biographer, was born John Greer Ervine on 28 December 1883 in Belfast, son of William Ervine, printer, and Sarah Jane Ervine (née Greer), who may have been a deaf-mute. Ervine's father died soon after his birth. He was brought up by his maternal grandmother, an evangelical protestant who kept a small shop on the Albertbridge Road in east Belfast until her death in 1893; Ervine often drew on her memories of the Greers' north Down roots. She was kind but stern; Ervine knew nothing of the facts of life until an unusually late stage of childhood, and had severe disciplinary problems at school (Westbourne national school, Susan St., off the Newtownards Road, Belfast), where a gifted teacher introduced him to Shakespeare.
Ervine left school at 14, becoming a clerk with the Ocean Assurance Society. In 1901 he moved to south London as a clerk. The poverty he had witnessed converted him to socialism, and he campaigned with the young Herbert Morrison. Ervine wanted to write for the theatre and sent a manuscript play to George Bernard Shaw (qv). The older writer showed remarkable generosity; Ervine became his literary and political protégé and joined the Fabian Society, serving briefly on its governing body. The name ‘St John’, adopted when he began his literary career, reflected a certain pretentiousness.
Ervine's early Abbey plays are semi-Ibsenite critiques of Orange bigotry and religious narrowness, set in Belfast and north Down. ‘Mixed marriage’ (1911) is the prototypical ‘troubles play’, while ‘John Ferguson’ (1915), often called his masterwork, shows an old farmer's faith in Providence collapsing under a series of family tragedies. Ervine advocated home rule and criticised Ulster unionism; ‘Sir Edward Carson’ (1915) ridicules Carson (qv) as an obsolete poseur while praising Sir Horace Plunkett (qv) and declaring that home rule will bring reconciliation and modernisation. Ervine was not a separatist; he likened the Abbey to the British regional drama (inspired by the Abbey) associated with the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, for which he wrote ‘Jane Clegg’ (1913). In 1915–16 he served as manager of the Abbey Theatre, attempting to forge closer links with British regional theatres; his tactless handling of actors caused mass resignations and his dismissal.
Despite his horror at the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (qv) and the execution of Roger Casement (qv), Ervine joined the British army in October 1916 and became a lieutenant in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He served in France from April 1917 until he lost a leg to shellfire in May 1918; for the rest of his life he suffered constant pain. Ervine was aggressively proud of his war service and believed Ireland should support the allied cause, which he equated with civilisation, in the first world war. He denounced nationalist non-participation as selfish provincialism. He was horrified by IRA and government atrocities in Ireland; a statement by de Valera (qv) that Ulster unionists should go ‘back’ to Britain, the civil war, and the death of Michael Collins (qv) all completed his reversion to unionism.
Ervine thought postwar Britain degenerate, denouncing modernism and commercial theatre as betrayals of his Georgian ideals. These views found expression in several books on ethical problems and on theatrecraft. As theatre critic of the Observer in the 1920s and 1930s Ervine was known as a fearsome literary curmudgeon; a visit to America as critic of the New York World (1928–9) was controversial. He enjoyed successes with West End plays, while continuing to compose regional drama, notably the sentimental Ulster comedy ‘Boyd's shop’ (1936). His experience of technological war left him with a rage to assert the importance of the individual against the impersonal machinery of modern society; this turned him to biography. Parnell (1925) began as a debunking but became a eulogy. God's soldier: General Booth (1934) marks renewed though idiosyncratic commitment to his nonconformist religious heritage. One by-product was the philo-semitism visible in The lady of Belmont (1923) – a sequel to The merchant of Venice – and the travel-book A journey to Jerusalem (1936). The social and sexual resentment displayed in Oscar Wilde: a present time appraisal (1953) is remarkable even by Ervine's standards. Politically he moved to the individualist right, denouncing the Attlee government (1945–51) as a bureaucratic tyranny.
Ervine was regarded as the most prominent mid-century ‘Ulster’ writer. He made regular visits to Northern Ireland, mingled in local literary circles, and promoted such figures as the progressive teacher R. L. Russell and the comedian James Young (qv). Younger Ulster writers respected Ervine's commitment to the province but distrusted his conservatism and apologetics for the Stormont regime. He was commissioned to write the official biography of James Craig (qv). Craigavon: Ulsterman (1949) was so digressive and splenetic against ‘Eireans’ that even the Stormont government was irritated. Ervine and Shaw remained friends, though Shaw mocked Ervine's desire for ‘a proper Belfast God’ and Ervine attacked Shaw's determinism. Ervine's last major work was the dogged official biography Bernard Shaw: his life, work and friends (1956). He died on 24 January 1971 in a nursing home at Fitzhall, Ipling, Sussex.
He married (1911) Leonora Mary Davis, schoolmistress turned actress and playwright, from Birmingham. Their marriage was happy, though both had difficult personalities; there were no children. They lived in Seaton, east Devon, from the 1940s until Leonora's death in 1965. A lengthy manuscript autobiography exists in private ownership. Some correspondence and literary manuscripts are held at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind., USA. Autobiographical references are scattered through Ervine's works.
There are two film adaptations of Ervine plays. A musical adaptation of ‘The first Mrs Fraser’ (dir. Sinclair Hill, with Leslie Howard Gordon as co-writer) was produced in Britain in 1932, and in 1960 ‘Boyd's shop’, adapted by Philip Howard, was filmed at Ardmore studios, Bray, Co. Wicklow, as a British–Irish co-production (dir. Henry Cass), starring Geoffrey Golden, Aideen O'Kelly, Vincent Dowling, and Eileen Crowe (qv).