Johnston, (William) Denis (1901–84), playwright, was born 18 June 1901 in Ballsbridge, Dublin, the only child of William John Johnston (qv), barrister (later a supreme court judge), and his wife, Kathleen (née King), teacher and singer. The Johnstons were Ulster presbyterians and liberal home rulers. Johnston received his schooling at St Andrew's College, Dublin (1908–15, 1917–19), and Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh (1915–16), where he was bullied; at both schools he was a member of the OTC (officers' training corps). He was present when the family home was occupied by rebels during the Easter rising in 1916. He studied history and law at Christ's College, Cambridge (1919–23) and was president of the Cambridge Union in 1921–2. At Cambridge he advocated his ancestral liberalism, but his political views were fluid; in 1918 he attempted to join Sinn Féin (even offering to supply the party with OTC weapons) and in 1922 tried to enlist in the Free State army. Johnston studied at the Harvard Law School (1923–4) and then entered King's Inns (Dublin) and the Inner Temple (London). His father wished him to pursue a legal and political career in London, but Johnston had developed an interest in modern theatre and lost faith in liberalism. (In 1930 he joined the Irish Friends of Soviet Russia, believing revolutionary leftism could circumvent IRA chauvinism and destroy the power of the catholic church; he was never a party member, but until as late as the 1950s believed that communism would replace capitalism.)
Early plays, 1927–33
From 1927 Johnston combined work at the Dublin bar with appearances as an amateur actor and theatre director, while working on his first play. In 1927 he co-founded, with the actress Shelah Richards (qv), the New Players, which was the first group to stage expressionist plays in Dublin. As appearing on stage under his own name infringed bar rules on self-advertisement, he took the stage name E. W. Tocher (from a protestant evangelist). Several of his plays include courtroom scenes or forensic debates, notably ‘Blind man's buff’ (1938) and ‘Strange occurrence on Ireland's Eye’ (1955).
Johnston's first play was an expressionist satire in which an actor playing Robert Emmet (qv) is knocked unconscious; in his mind he wanders through a squalid contemporary Dublin, seeking his true love (a cheating old beggarwoman, who pimps herself to her son's murderers). An early version submitted to the Abbey Theatre benefited from comments by W. B. Yeats (qv), but the Abbey board found its experimentalism (and parodies of Yeats's nationalist allegory ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ and the romantic dramas of Dorothy Macardle (qv)) uncongenial. It was produced by Hilton Edwards (qv) at the Gate Theatre in 1929 as ‘The old lady says ‘No!’’, with Micheál MacLiammóir (qv) as Emmet. (The story that the title derived from an Abbey rejection slip attributing the decision to Augusta, Lady Gregory (qv), was a legend purveyed by Johnston.) Considerable controversy was caused by Johnston's portrayal of Emmet as a violent, deluded egoist, compared explicitly to Jesus (whom Johnston believed to be mythical); Macardle protested that the play was inspired by ‘bitterness against all revolutionaries’ (St Peter, 21). It is conventionally seen as rejecting romantic nationalism, but this understates its ambivalence. Provocative parallels are implied between Henry Grattan (qv), the voice of common sense, and the murderous Major Charles Henry Sirr (qv). Frank Ryan (qv), investigating this possible insult to republicanism, decided that the play's satire on the Free State governing class constituted a republican manifesto: Johnston, after all, had preferred the theatre to a respectable legal career, and was regarded by many acquaintances as ‘a monster who worships failure and insults people for fun and refuses to play ball with anybody and thinks in his heart of hearts that he is Jesus Christ’ (Adams, 301–2) – a view of himself that even Johnston sometimes acknowledged. Like Emmet he sought to transform Dublin through provocative dramatic display, though in later life he preferred Grattan to Emmet and spoke of Emmet's final apotheosis as a ‘Fascist conclusion’ (Adams, 175). Edwards's production of ‘The old lady says ‘No!’’ became a staple of the Gate repertoire and Johnston himself directed for the theatre in 1931–6.
‘The moon in the Yellow River’ (1931), written for the Abbey Theatre, depicts an attempt by republicans to blow up a power station newly built by German contractors; the republican commander, Darrell Blake, combines features of Erskine Childers (qv) and Johnston himself, while the Free State commandant, Lanigan, is reminiscent of Kevin O'Higgins (qv); a minor character is based on Tom Casement (qv), brother of Roger Casement (qv). Johnston's political associate Captain J. R. White (qv) scolded him for writing an apparent apologia for Free State reprisal shootings. Others criticised the play as anti-catholic: the central character, a retired engineer, is embittered because catholic obstetricians allowed his wife to die in childbirth to save the life of the baby; he decides that if good people acting on the highest principles produce morally unacceptable results there is much to be said for the devil.
‘A bride for the unicorn’ (1933) marks the highpoint of Johnston's theatrical experimentation. It depicts Everyman's passage through life, seeking the mysterious Masked Lady who will give his existence meaning; the Masked Lady is revealed as Death. The play reflects Johnston's lifelong quest for a philosophical–religious world view, a rationalisation of the impulses underlying his writing, which he eventually set out in The brazen horn (his major endeavour of the 1960s, published in 1976). Johnston rejected his inherited presbyterianism as formal and hypocritical, but his world view reflects the tendency of Calvinism to decay into self-deifying pantheism (the same may be said of New England transcendentalism and the theosophy of George Russell (qv)). He was strongly influenced by the time theorist J. W. Dunne, who claimed to prove by studying dreams that time exists in more than one dimension; the true self is formed in this dimension, where, crystallised by death, it exists eternally. (A Christianised version of Dunne underlies many of the theological speculations of C. S. Lewis (qv), and J. B. Priestley's ‘time plays’, partly modelled on Johnston's dramas, are heavily influenced by Dunne.) The concept of the life force arrived at by George Bernard Shaw (qv) also influenced Johnston's thinking. (The multiplicity of the Shavian inheritance is displayed in the contrast between Johnston and St John Ervine (qv), who detested each other.)
Reflections and private life
Johnston's lifelong hatred of catholicism combined a presbyterian dislike for ‘superstition’, resentment of the restrictions it imposed on social and cultural life in the new Irish state, and belief that all forms of orthodox Christianity imposed legalistic obstacles to the gnostic quest for the true self. He believed the existence of suffering shows that God is not good, but is an impersonal force that creates good and evil indifferently, though humankind nevertheless has a responsibility to do good rather than evil. Moral laws have real force, but if it becomes an existential necessity to break them (as Johnston believed was the case in his own adulteries) they should be broken without guilt. Redemption comes through detachment from the cycle of action and revenge.
Johnston's quest for self-knowledge led him to compile and comment in a collection of diaries and journals (which he called ‘the report’); when they were made available after his death their frankness and self-criticism amazed those who knew Johnston as a genial elderly Edwardian. It also reflected a perfectionism that progressively crippled his ability to achieve literary synthesis; beginning with ‘A bride for the unicorn’ he developed a tendency obsessively to rewrite old plays rather than produce new ones.
In 1933–5 Johnston directed a silent film of Guests of the nation by Frank O'Connor (qv). His play ‘Storm song’ (1934), based on encounters with Robert Flaherty (qv) during the filming of Man of Aran, was a cynical attempt at commercial success. Johnston recognised its failure, describing it as ‘more a burp than a song’ (Barnett, 80) and from the late 1930s forbade performances and republication. The complications of his personal life, coupled with his long-standing desire to leave the bar before he was forty and his dislike of the Ireland of Éamon de Valera (qv), were leading him to look beyond Dublin.
On 28 December 1928 Johnston married Shelah Richards. In 1930 they had a daughter, Jennifer Johnston (who became a writer), and in 1935 a son. The marriage was troubled, Johnston finding Shelah too forceful and independent for his taste. From 1933 he conducted an affair with the actress Betty Chancellor (qv), and Shelah retaliated by entering into a relationship with the actor Jack Irwin; this aroused Dublin gossip and provoked prurient speculation from Yeats. In 1934–5 (at the time when ‘The moon in the yellow river’ was in production in London's West End), Johnston decided to commit himself to whichever of his partners became pregnant first; this was Shelah, but renewed marital discord after the birth on 29 October 1935 of their son Robin (later Micheal) led to a permanent break. Shelah refused a divorce for several years and Johnston did not marry Betty Chancellor until 26 March 1945. (Meanwhile he had affairs with Nancy Horsbrugh-Porter and his cousin Micheline Patton.) He had two children with Betty, Jeremy (b. 1939) and Rory (b. 1946).
With the BBC, 1936–42
In October 1936 Johnston joined the BBC, becoming research assistant for feature programmes in Belfast, and seeking an entry into the new medium of television. In Belfast he experienced intermittent controversy with unionists, who thought the station's output too Irish, and produced several radio plays, notably ‘Lilliburlero’ (1937), a well-received dramatisation of the siege of Derry. In ‘Weep for the cyclops’ (1946) (shown on BBC television in 1947) he set out a version of his theory about the career of Jonathan Swift (qv), which he also dramatised in his play ‘The dreaming dust’ (1940) and argued in In search of Swift (1959). Johnston, a long-standing member of the Old Dublin Society, claimed legal records proved that Swift's supposed father died ten months before Jonathan's birth. He claimed that Swift was the illegitimate son of Sir John Temple (qv) and Stella (Esther Johnson (qv)) the illegitimate daughter of Sir John's son, Sir William Temple (qv); as uncle and niece, Swift and Stella could not marry or have sexual relations without committing the criminal offence of incest. Johnston's Stella agrees to live chastely as Swift's soul companion after learning the secret, but when Swift develops a passionate love for Vanessa he cannot marry her or explain his position without having Stella thought a cast-off mistress or exposing the secret of his birth (which his pride forbids). Johnston's theory is confessedly speculative, but he made devastating criticisms of Swift biographers for repeating established interpretations uncritically. In August 1938 Johnston moved to London to work in BBC television, which was by then broadcasting for twenty hours a week. The following year saw his tragi-comedy ‘The golden cuckoo’ produced at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, by Longford Productions (April 1939).
Some months after the television service closed (September 1939) for the duration of the war, Johnston returned to the BBC in Belfast, where he was responsible for creating ‘Irish half hour’, a programme with a large audience in the south, which made a useful organ for British wartime propaganda. He was ambivalent about the British war effort. A visit to Austria in 1938 led him to detest the Nazis, but he believed that their rise to power was caused by unjust treatment of Germany after the first world war. He was disturbed by the prospect that Britain might invade Ireland: ‘my mission is to unify Ireland, not go down the drain with this fantastic empire I have always disliked’ (Adams, 203) but he needed a job and de Valera's Ireland was stony ground.
War correspondent, 1942–5
In 1942 he was posted to north Africa as a BBC war correspondent, arriving in June. He interviewed Churchill, flew on air raids over Libya and Tunisia, and followed the retreat of the Afrika Corps after the battle of El Alamein. He spent February to October 1943 in Ireland, and then accompanied allied forces through southern Italy to Monte Cassino and Rome. In March 1944 he secured the biggest scoop of his career when he visited the partisan-held island of Vis off the Yugoslav coast; to his later regret he turned down an invitation to travel inland and interview Tito. He was back in Ireland between July and October 1944, then was posted to Paris.
Johnston wished to experience the war without injuring anyone or being injured or killed himself. His attitude to the military authorities was noticeably cynical and insubordinate; he told other journalists that he was really neutral and did not particularly care which side won. Although after reading Mein Kampf in 1943 he was convinced that an allied victory was preferable, he refused to believe that absolute good and evil were involved. As he accompanied allied forces across the Low Countries and into Germany, he discounted as propaganda stories about Nazi atrocities (even reacting suspiciously to evidence of torture and executions in a liberated prison). He conspicuously flouted orders against fraternising with German civilians. In March 1945 he was one of the first allied personnel to enter Buchenwald concentration camp, where he discovered that absolute evil was indeed involved; however, he still believed that both sides perverted human values. In the war memoir, Nine rivers from Jordan (1953), God tires of the human race; in a parody of the Nuremberg Tribunal, humankind is declared collectively guilty and is punished by getting the atom bomb. Nine rivers has alternative endings: in one the Johnston persona, enraged by the evidence of the camp, takes up a gun to wreak vengeance on the perpetrators and is killed in the Brenner Pass with the same gun by a dying Nazi; in the other he rejects the cycle of vengeance and survives. The brazen horn, combining conscious paradox with a belief in alternative time dimensions, argues that Johnston did, in some sense, die in the Brenner Pass in 1945.
Johnston was now largely disillusioned with, and detached from, Ireland. He travelled on a British passport for convenience during the war, and always used it thereafter; he claimed to be neither British nor Irish but a Dubliner. In December 1945 he became second-in-command of BBC television, which recommenced broadcasting in January 1946. Later that year he was awarded an OBE. He rapidly became disaffected with restricted and under-funded British television; in September 1947 he left for America seeking to work in television there. His expectations were over-optimistic, but from 1950 he established himself in American academia, teaching theatre and English at three Massachusetts colleges – Amherst (1950), Mount Holyoke (1950–60), and Smith College, Northampton (1961–6).
During this period Johnston worked on Nine rivers from Jordan, rewriting his field diaries in a modernist format based on Ulysses, a copy of which he had carried with him throughout the war. Nine rivers is structured as a mass, enacting the ‘death’ and resurrection of Dionysius / Denis. It met with a cool response, to its author's dismay; it was popular with war correspondents in Vietnam as the best existing account of the inconsequential violence of war and the cynicism of official propaganda. (In 1969 Johnston produced an opera libretto based on Nine rivers.) The one-act play ‘A fourth for bridge’ (1948) is also derived from his wartime experiences. ‘Strange occurrence on Ireland's Eye’ (1955) is loosely based on the dubious nineteenth-century conviction of the adulterous artist W. B. Kirwan (qv) for murdering his wife, which Johnston had researched for the Old Dublin Society; the play may be seen in part as Johnston's meditation on what might have happened if in 1939, in order to save his marriage, he had accepted his wife's demand that his lover abort her pregnancy.
Johnston's last play for the stage, ‘The scythe and the sunset’ (1958), is a depiction of the Easter rising in intelligent riposte to ‘The plough and the stars’ by Sean O'Casey (qv): Johnston thought O'Casey too moralistically pacific and too inclined to idealise women. A television play, ‘Operations at Killyfaddy’ (1960), satirises the IRA border campaign, and grew out of his decision to support partition, ‘while the South is obsessed with Maynooth and the Gaelic League’ (Adams, 322). Thereafter he devoted himself to The brazen horn, revising his plays, and working on ‘the record’. He lived on Alderney in the Channel Islands, 1966–70, while undertaking visiting professorships in north American universities. In 1970 he returned to Dublin, where his sons Jeremy and Micheal were employed by RTÉ; he encouraged Micheal in establishing a pioneering multi-denominational school in Dalkey. He took on the mantle of a genial literary elder statesman, offering carefully edited recollections in the broadcast talks that were later collected as Orders and desecrations (1992). He died 8 August 1984 at Ballybrack, Co. Dublin, and was buried in St Patrick's cathedral close; his epitaph is a quotation from The old lady says ‘No!’ – Emmet's lines praising Dublin ‘the strumpet city’.
In later life Johnston was haunted by a sense of unfulfilled literary potential; a select band of admirers champion Nine rivers, The moon in the yellow river, and The scythe and the sunset as neglected and due for revival. Opinion is divided on The old lady says ‘No!’, some declaring it to be as outdated as the idiom it satirises; but its historical importance as the first major English-language expressionist play is undeniable. Stewart Parker's (qv) treatment of Henry Joy McCracken (qv) in Northern star is an adaptation of Johnston, linked to Belfast as securely as The old lady to Dublin. Other inheritors of Johnston's literary experiments include Hugh Leonard (qv), who confessed a private fantasy that Johnston was his natural father.
Denis Johnston's papers are in Trinity College Dublin; the ‘war field books’, which formed the basis of Nine rivers from Jordan, are in the University of Ulster, Coleraine.