Denis Johnston (1901-84)

[William Denis Johnston]; b. 18 June, 54 Wellington Rd., Ballsbridge, Co. Dublin; son of Kathleen (née King, b.1860, m. Sept. 1894) and William Johnston, later a High Court and finally a Supreme Court judge in 1939; descended from 17th c. Covenanters [dissenters] in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, who settled nr. Magherafelt, Co. Derry; a grandfather, James (d.1906), throve as an enterprising tea-merchant and built houses on Adelaide Ave., Belfast and environs, incl. his own home Dunarnon, Malone Rd.; Denis ed. St. Andrew’s, the Presbyterian day school on St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, and later at Merchiston Castle, Edinburgh, which he recalled as ‘by far the most horrible period of my life’; his family home at 61 Lansdowne Rd (‘‘Etwall’’) was commandeered by Volunteers during the 1916; DJ summoned to the Prefect’s Room at Merchiston to tell the story; returned to St. Andrews, 1917;
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proceeded to Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1919-23; romantic involvements with Ethna MacCarthy [see also under Samuel Beckett, q.v.] and with Olive Barrett (aetat. 15), 1919; spoke effectively in ‘Ireland a Dominion’ debate and elected secretary of the Union, 1919-1920; elected president, autumn 1921; invited George Lansbury, East-End London socialist, to address Union; attempted to sign on [?enlist] against Republicans in Dublin, 1922; grad. (history and law; 3rd class) 1923; proposed to Olive, summer 1923; saw O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman; proceeded Harvard Law School on Pugsley Schol., travelling out on S.S. Majestic; read and saw plays by G. B. Shaw, as well as expressionist plays of Karel Capek and The Madras House by Granville-Barker, and others by Kaufman and Connelly (Beggar on Horseback); travelled to Canada and Mexico, working his passage on board the S.S. Spaulding; returned to Ireland on board the S.S. Columbia, July 1924; took law lectures at King’s Inns and Inner Temple, called to bar, London 1925;
joined the Dublin Drama League and played in Benavente’s School for Princesses, meeting Shelah Richards (aetat. 21); active in Dublin Drama League and the New Players 1925-29; successfully sits Irish and English Bar exams, May 1925; buys Triumph motor-bike (“Margot”); plays in Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (Dublin Univ. Dram. Soc.), Iphigenia (Drama League, dir. Lennox Robinson), Strindberg’s Dance of Death and Shaw’s Major Barbara, meeting parental dissent; briefly visited Algiers, 1926, and commenced sketching “Shadowdance”; serves in law office at Hare Court, London, as pupil to Reginald Croom Johnson, 1926; joins Kensington Shakespeare Soc.; sees Toller’s Masses and Man in an ‘amazing production’ by Peter Godfrey at Gate Theatre (nr. Covent Garden), as also Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight, with Claude Rains;
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writes draft novel (now lost) as well as draft plays, ‘Continuous Performance’ and ‘Tuppence Coloured’, the former sent to Lennox Robinson (now lost); returned to Dublin and played Ulysses in Euripides The Cyclops, at Lennox Robinson’s ‘at home’, August 1926; adopts nom-de-plume and stagename E. W. Tocher for professional reasons; fnd. The Dramick, intended as experimental branch of Dublin Drama League, with Shelah; plays in Robinson’s The Whiteheaded Boy, and lectured on Joyce, both for the Irish Literary Society, London, 1927; completes two-act version of ‘Shadowdance’, later called ‘Rhapsody in Green’; sends letter to Irish Statesman criticising play-selection at the Abbey and proposing a new reading committee (a suggestion rebutted by AE in an editorial note to same); sends ‘Shadowdance’ to Robinson at the Abbey soon after; acts in Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph (dir. Richards), May 1927;
his play “Shadowdance” rejected by Abbey (on which occasion Lennox Robinson told him ‘... the Old Lady says “no”’, referring to Lady Gregory); DJ negotiates cuts in the play with Robinson; receives notice that Yeats wanted some parts reinstated, June 1927; leaves lodgings at Bloomsbury House Club and returns to Dublin, July 1927; begins to get legal briefs, espec. in pleas; travels to Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Budapest, Innsbruck and Mayrhofen; Shelah departs for six-month tour in USA with Irish Players, reuniting in London, though abstaining from ‘normal consummation’ at her request; Johnston appears in Evreinov’s The Chief Thing (Peacock); produces Eugene O’Neill’s The Fountain (Drama League); m. Shelah, 28 Dec. 1928 (St. Anne’s Church, Dawson St.), with whom children Jeremy, Rory, Jennifer and Michael; goes on honeymoon in Fez and Rituan; directs King Lear for Abbey in his own adaptation with F. J. McCormick in the lead, 1929;
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directs Ernst Toller’s Hoppla for Drama League against moralistic opposition from Gabriel Fallon and others; informed by Yeats at Dalkey that the Abbey would give him £50 to mount “Shadowdance” elsewhere, Autumn 1928; Hilton Edwards agrees to produce it at end of first Gate season; staged by the Gate as The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ (3 July 1929) with Micheál MacLiammóir as Robert Emmet and Meriel Moore as Sarah Curran; a dg. Jennifer Prudence, b. 12 Jan. 1930; influenced by Theodore Dreiser, Johnston joins the Friends of the Soviet Union, 1929; plans an Irish Film Society with Mary Manning; works on Gate Revue (ed. Manning); makes a solo trip through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Greece and Italy; showed the first act of The Moon in the Yellow River to Lennox Robinson; continues writing at Kitzbühel, during a skiing holiday with Shelah and Pet Wilson, Dec. 1930; spends Easter 1931 with Oliver St John Gogarty at Renvyle Hse.;
supposedly anti-clerical section in his Gate Revue attacked by Hugh Allen (CTS) and others; premier of The Moon in the Yellow River (Abbey 27 April 1931), 3-act comedy afterwards played at Birmingham Rep. under direction of Barry Jackson (25 Nov. 1933), and later still at Malvern Festival, 1934, prob. on the instigation of G. B. Shaw who invited Johnston to lunch in London; joins Dublin University Club; travels to Leningrad, Dec. 1931; New York Theatre Guild applies to perform Moon in the Yellow River for a fee of $500; Johnston purchases La Prevost’s Tower, Portmarnock; appt. Director of Gate Theatre in place of Gordon Campbell, 1931-36; beaten into second place in Tailteann Games by a play of Ulick Burke, Nov. 1931; travels to meet Shelah in Cincinnati, where she is touring the Players; The Moon in the Yellow River plays in Philadelphia and New York with Claude Rains as Dobelle, Feb. 1932; with F. R. Higgins and others, Johnston supported Jim Gralton, the Roscommon socialist deported to America by the Fianna Fáil government, in Rotunda Meeting, 1932;
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holidays in Aran Island with Shelah, who had returned in March 1932; purchases the “Seabird”, a 5-ton sloop, for £30, Summer 1932; increasingly involved in rows with Shelah; they holiday together in Venice, Yugoslavia, Corfu, Athens, Constantinople, Scutar and Rhodes with the Hellenic Traveller’s Club; Johnston commences writing A Bride for the Unicorn (Gate Th., 1933); his Lady and Moon appear in Jonathan Cape edn. (1932); DJ has an adulterous tryst with Kate Curling, Sept. 1932; embarks on relationship with the Abbey actress Betty Chancellor (‘Oh, the white, soft charm of her’), late Dec. 1932, becoming lovers in March 1933, and has an illegitimate child, Jeremy, with her; holidays in west of Ireland with Shelah, and observes Robert Flaherty at work on his film, 27 Dec.; premier of A Bride for the Unicorn (Gate 9 May 1933), dramatising J. W. Dunne’s theory of serial time with Pirandellian devices, and using archetypal characters, of which Percy the Prosperous is the most developed; W. B. Yeats walks out early on, accompanied by Lennox Robinson; generally ill-received by Dublin critics;
directs a film of Frank O’Connor’s ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ to a script by Mary Manning, with Barry Fitzgerald, Cyril Cusack, and Hilton Edwards in the first entirely Irish production, filmed at Ticknock and the Scalp in Co. Wicklow, with improvised cottage set at Etwall, Summer 1933; writes Storm Song (Gate 6 Jan. 1934), completed while staying solo at the Palace Hotel, St. Helier (Jersey), and dealing with a film production on Aran (“Crioch”) with the character Szilard in place of the real-life director Robert Flaherty, Gordon King as his mutinous disciple, and Jal Joyce as the love-interest; Szilard - so named after Leo Slizard, the inventor of the atomic bomb, whom DJ met on an Atlantic crossing - dies while filming in the storm, having trained the islanders to use harpoons contrary to custom - a collation regarded as ‘an attempt at a ‘popular play’; Johnston fills in for Edwards when the latter was struck down by appendicitis, and simultaneously directs Franz Molnar’s Liliom (Gate, 13 Feb. 1934); Shelah conducts public relationship with Jack Irwin; Johnston directs Mary Manning’s Happy Family; The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ is revived at the Gate Th. (May 1934); sends reviews - good and bad - of The Moon in the Yellow River to George Bernard Shaw, and received lunch invitation at his Whitehall Court home;
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Betty Chancellor joins the Cambridge Festival Theatre, July 1934; DJ’s Storm Song is produced by Shelah Richards and Mary Manning at Shere Theatre Fest., Surrey (July 1934); The Moon in the Yellow River is produced by directed Barry Jackson for the Birmingham Rep. Co. at Malvern Festival (26 July 1934); Johnston purchases with Shelah the moored schooner Hermione at Chiswick for £400; acts as stage-manager to Hugh Ross Williamson’s Hand in Glove (Westminster Th.) for Baxter Sommerville as a condition of himself directing The Moon in the Yellow River (24 Sept. 1934); meets J. B. Priestley and the [Robert] Lynds [q.v.]; transfers to Haymarket, West End, to critical acclaim directed by Fred O’Donovan in production by Priestley and Bronson Albery, with Joyce Chancellor as Blanaid (against Johnston’s wishes) and without Esme Percy and Godfrey Kenton from the first production; premier of Guests of the Nation (Dublin, 20 Jan. 1935);
BBC broadcast of The Moon in the Yellow River (14 May 1935); rejected Dartington College - famously the school favoured by Sean O’Casey - for his dg. Jennifer; his A Bride for the Unicorn revived at Gate (1935) but The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ played instead in the ensuing Gate tour to suit the acting and directorial preferences of MacLiammóir and Edwards (‘the skunks’); breaks the news to Betty that Shelah was pregnant; lectures at Amherst College, Mass., as a guest of Curtis Canfield, rehearsing students there in The Old Lady Says ‘No!’; also lectures at Mount Holyoke, Yale Theatre, and Smith College; researches Jonathan Swift at Amherst; The Moon in the Yellow River plays to muted criticism in New York, and attacked in London by St. John Ervine and Denis Ireland; A Bride for the Unicorn plays unsuccessfully at Harvard (dir. Joseph Losey); Johnston takes part of Michael in the film of Riders to the Sea, made at Renvyle in the Hurst-Flanagan production, financed by Gracie Fields;
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settles at Berlin Lodge, Leinster Sq., Dublin, for the birth of Micheal [William Michael Robin Johnston, b. 27 Oct. 1935]; engages as remedy script-writer on Ourselves Alone at Elstree Studios and is shoddily dismissed with others; proposes compromise between ‘The Boys’ [Mac Liammoir & Edwards] and Lord Longford; directs Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness for Longford in London tour, 1935; Johnston directs A Bride for the Unicorn for Longford as a replacement at the Westminster [Fest.]; his Storm Song ill-received at Embassy Th.; meets H. G. Wells (‘You Irish have no political sense’); seeks a BBC job at Shelah’s suggestion, and accepts the post of Feature Programme Research Assistant at £700 p.a., offered by John Sutthery (NI BBC Programme Dir.), Oct. 1936; formally quits his law practice and loses his father’s annual subvention of £100;

Lord Longford tours The Moon in the Yellow River with his own Yahoo in the Irish provinces; Johnston appears with Shelah Richards in Fanny’s First Play (Abbey Th. 1936); broaches separation from Shelah and offers her half of his salary; formally resigns from the Gate Board before his departure to Belfast; meets Nancy Horsbrugh-Porter in Patrick Campbell set, Dublin (‘the real love of my life’); writes Blind Man’s Buff (Abbey Th., 26 Dec. 1936), an adaptation of Toller’s Die blinde Göttin [The Blind Goddess] (1932), arising from a meeting with the refugee-playwright in London, a crime-play dealing with the case of Frank Chevasse, unjustly charged with the murder of his suicided wife in the wake of his affair with Anice Hollingshead, and including successful stage-Irish characters Dominic Mapother and Mary Quirke as the witnesses for the prosecution; attended London BBC Staff College (‘St Beadle’s’), 1937-38; travels to New York with his father, Sept. 1937, meeting Nancy and embarking on a love-affair with her;
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writes crime-drama “Death at Newtownstewart” (BBC [NI], 7 Oct. 1937), based on events of 1873 involving Thomas Hartley Montgomery, a police inspector hanged for the murder of William Glass, Northern Bank clerk, in Newtownstewart, and introduced in the Radio Times by his father; broadcasts readings of Somerville & Ross [q.v.], and feature on Harland and Wolff shipyard; The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ is revived (Jan. 1938); writes “Lillibulero” (March 1938), a documentary on the Siege of Derry, prefaced by an article in the Radio Times (‘doughty conflict … what one side lost in charm it made up by rugged dignity, and what the other side lacked in efficiency it made up in colour and warmth’) - and described by W. B. Yeats as ‘a masterpiece’ (Orders and Desecrations, 1992); incensed to find studio production taken over by Sutthery; Nancy marries Barney Heron, 24 June 1938, but continues correspondence with Johnston in a relationship that later provided the subject of his confidential tape-recording “Equinox” (recorded in 1961) which reveals that her first child, conceived weeks after the marriage, might have been his; finally leaves Shelah, 1938;

adapts A Bride for the Unicorn for ‘Experimental Hour’ (BBC NI, July 1938); writes and produces “The Parnell Commission” and “Weep for Polyphemus”, on Swift, using expressionist alternation between characters and actors; produced and directed two plays of Teresa Deevy (1938); puts himself forward for television, and accepted, autumn 1938, occupying an office at Alexandra Palace (fam. “Ally Pally”), living at first with her Aunt Belle in Barnes; directs “St. Simeon Stylites”, his first TV work, amid resistance from technical staff; has a passionate reunion with Nancy in Hermione, late Sept. 1938; moves in with Betty, who had become pregnant in October, at Denning Rd., Hampstead; acrimonious confrontation between Shelah and Betty at Aunt Belle’s, 7 Nov. 1938; directs “The Last Voyage of Captain Grant” (Nov. 1938), based on novel of Robert Flaherty; settles in “Glen Ellyn”, Wise Lane, Mill Hill, London, NW7;
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adapts The Moon in the Yellow River for television; adapts “Death at Newtownstewart” for television (Feb. 1939); also “The Parnell Commission”; directs his own play The Golden Cuckoo (Gate 1939; revived with Maureen Potter, 1956), a semi-naturalistic farce dealing with the ‘one-man Republic’ of Dotheright (based on real-life Francis Walter Doheny, 1805-63); Jeremy, a son with Betty, b. 7 June 1939; work as director on BBC TV “Picture Page”; engaged on rehearsing a play, Queen of Spades when war was declared and TV transmission closed down; moved to ‘American Control Unit’ (later American Liaison Unit); travelled back and forth between London and Dublin during phoney war; The Golden Cuckoo played in London, dir. Hugh Hunt (Duchess Th., 2 Jan. 1940), closing after ten days; revised “Weep for Polyphemus” as The Dreaming Dust (Gate, March 1939), on Swift;
sent Betty and Jeremy to stay with Leo Adams, a female cousin school-teacher in Newry; visited Shelah and children in Greenfield Manor, Spring 1940; sent by BBC to make programmes in Dublin with effect of enlisting Irish war support through Overseas Service, and encountered censorship difficulties with George Marshall, the pro-Unionist Regional Director in Belfast; recorded talks for NBC and CBS at Radio Eireann studios; interview with Frank Aiken and broadcast on Home Service feature on Garibaldi; William Johnston d. 29 Nov. 1940, of stomach cancer; produced “Nansen” (BBC 25 Dec. 1940), about the explorer, and “Christmas under Fire”; made half-and-half St. Patrick’s Day programme for Ministry of Information linking NI BBC and Radio Éireann studios, 17 March 1941 (treated as ‘appeasement’ by the Northern Whig);
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broadcast “Great Parliamentarians” on Burke and Palmerston, and “High Command”, a play with Igor Vinogradoff, and “The Gorgeous Lady Blessington” (all 1941); Kathleen Johnston moves to 131 Strand Rd.; Etwall converted to flats; Betty under pressure from Leo’s school employers; joined Local Security Force; served as Drama Critic on The Bell; appt. BBC War Correspondent, 1942-45, on capture of Eddie Ward (later Lord Bangor of Castle Ward) in N. Africa; sails for Lagos out of Liverpool on board the Highland Brigade, 9 May 1942; travels by plane to Khartoum and on to Cairo; keeps War Field Books which would form the basis of Nine Rivers from Jordan (1953), an attempt to ‘puzzle out the war’; carries Ulysses everywhere; moves up to Front, 23 June 1942 and works there with Richard Dimbleby, later with Godfrey Talbot; duties incl. recording Winston Churchill at El Alamein, 22 Aug. 1942;
makes victory broadcast from Alam Halfa, 6 Sept. 1942; travels to Tel Aviv and Jordan; flies in RAF bombing mission from Tel Aviv to Benghazi, 22 Oct. 1942; follows the rout of Rommel from Cairo, recording Montgomery’s words (‘We’ll hit him for six right out of Africa’); receives surrender of a German officer; rejects stories of German booby-trap atrocities; returns to Britain via Gibraltar, 24 Jan. 1943; spends much of 1943 in Ireland; his return announced by Patrick Kavanagh in the Irish Press; scripts “The Battle of Egypt” with Alan Moorhead (5 March 1943); has a brief affair with Micheline Patton, a beautiful cousin and an actress, March 1943; resigns from what he perceives as war-propaganda, 1 April 1943; further relations with Nancy, now divorced; writes a programme on Amanda McKittrick Ros (BBC [NI], 27 July 1943);
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re-enlists to serve as journalist in Italy, 1943, landing at Brindisi; stationed at Vasto (‘Dysentry Hall’); dissensions with his recording truck driver Vizard; fighting up through towns Mozzogrogno, Lanciano, et al. loc.; interviews General Montgomery [“Monty”] and is provided with own jeep; posted at Naples to record Christmas Day programme; associates with fellow-reporter Wynford Vaughan-Thomas; visits Partisans on Vis, an island off Dalmatia, bringing back 24 recordings, March 1944, - a venture acknowledged to be a first-rank ‘scoop’; covers Anzio landing at D-Day [query]; witnesses casual bombing of Civita Vecchia from the air; races to Rome and meets German armour en route, June 1944; reaches Bristol via Gibraltar, 20 July 1944; travels to Ireland by mailboat, 26 July 1944; his mother Kathleen d. 29 August, 1944, after period of dementia; Johnston leaves Ireland, 24 Oct. 1944;
travels to Ostend in an MTB, returning soon afterwards to Dover with a “War Report”; flies to Paris; visits Aachen in wake of of paratroop landings; advances with Gen. Patton’s Twelfth Army; injured in the elbow in fall, and undergoes operation; supplies peripatetic reportage from S. France, Bonn, and Paris; divorced from Shelah Richards, 1945; travels to Ireland on leave to marry Betty in Dungannon, she then appearing acting in Othello (Gaiety), March 1945; returns to duty for crossing of the Rhine; acquires utility vehicle and proceeds to Bonn; attempts unsuccessfully to contact Anneliese Wendler in Eckartsberga, nr. Weimar, addressee of letters written by Wehrmacht soldier Georg Sichermann, found in N. Africa [though no longer in possession of the actual letters]; enters Buchenwald Concentration Camp, being among the first to reach it after the retreat of the Germans (‘those who are capable of such things will have to be killed themselves’), April 1945;
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in attended Goering press conference at Augsburg, 11 May 1945; returns to London via Paris, 13 May 1945; further encounter with Micheline, detected in flagrante by her parents; returned to Dublin, c.21 May; awarded OBE, 1946; appt. BBC Director of TV Programmes, 1946-47; filmed G. B. Shaw - apparently talking ex tempore but suitably prepared - on his ninetieth birthday at Ayot St Lawrence for BBC broadcast, July 1946; moved to America and worked for Theatre Guild of the Air, 1948; ‘taught college’ at Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Massechussets. and Smith Coll., Massechussets, 1949-67; an extract from his “Diary of the War” on his experience at Buchenwald printed in The Bell (March 1951); produced nine plays and works of autobiography including Nine Rivers from Jordan, a wartime narrative (1953); advised Mary O’Malley on production of Mary Manning’s adaptation of Finnegans Wake as The Voice of Shem (Lyric Players’ Th., Belfast, 1955); awarded Guggenheim Fellow, 1955-1956, resulting in In Search of Swift [1959] - which Michael Foot, British Labour Party leader and author on Swift (The Pen and the Sword, 1957), cites with approbation in Debts of Honour (1880); DJ appt as chairman of Dept. of Theatre and Speech at Smith Coll., 1961
passed over for post of Director-General of RTÉ, 1962; elected MIAL; wrote and produced The Táin, a pageant about Cúchulainn produced at Croke Park 1956; settled in Alderney, Channel Islands, 1967; returned to Dublin, 1970; broadcast talks from his ‘Records’ [i.e., papers] during the 1970s; issued The Brazen Horn (1976), a ‘non-book’ inspired by an incident during his time as a war correspondent and containing speculations on science in a mystical and philosophical vein; d. 8 Aug. Ballybrack, Co. Dublin; bur. St. Patrick’s Cathedral (outside), with Betty Chancellor; a collection of his papers incl. MSS and typescripts are held at the University of Ulster, Coleraine (“Special Collections”); further papers were presented to TCD Library by his children in 1986; The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ successfully revived by National Youth Theatre in Dublin, 2001, there is a head by Marjorie Fitzgibbon in the RDS. NCBE DIW DIH HOG OCEL KUN FDA OCIL

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Plays (First Performances),
  • The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ (rejected Abbey 1928; Gate, 3 July 1929; 1929; revived Abbey 1977);
  • The Moon in the Yellow River [3 acts] (Abbey, 27 April 1931; 1st. publ. Cape 1932; another edn. 1935), 154pp.;
  • A Bride for the Unicorn (1933);
  • Storm Song (1934);
  • Blind Man’s Buff (Abbey, 26 Dec. 1936);
  • The Golden Cuckoo (Gate 1939);
  • The Dreaming Dust (Gaiety 1940) [on Swift];
  • A Fourth for Bridge (1948);
  • ‘Strange Occurrence on Ireland’s Eye’ (Abbey Theatre, 20 Aug. 1956);
  • The Scythe and the Sunset (Cambridge, Mass.; Abbey Theatre, 19 May 1958).
Plays [Contemporary editions]
  • Two Plays: The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ [and] The Moon in the Yellow River (London 1932);
  • Storm Song and A Bride for the Unicorn (London 1935);
  • Blind Man’s Buff (London: Jonathan Cape 1938; NY: Random House 1939);
  • The Golden Cuckoo and Other Plays (London 1954);
  • The Moon in the Yellow River, in E. Martin Browne, ed., Three Irish Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1959), pp.9-98 [with others of Joseph O’Conor and Donagh MacDonagh].
Plays [Later editions]
  • The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ [1 vol.] (Boston: Atlantic Little Brown 1960) [in UK Collected Plays of Denis Johnston, 2 vols. (London: Jonathan Cape 1959) - incorporating a description by the author of each of six included];
  • Joseph Ronsley, ed., Selected Plays of Denis Johnston [Irish Drama Selections, II] (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe; Washington: CUA Press 1983), 416pp. [contains The Old Lady Says ‘No!’, The Moon in the Yellow River, The Golden Cuckoo, The Dreaming Dust, The Scythe and the Sunset, also cited, “Up the Rebels!”, 325-32];
  • Dramatic Works of Denis Johnston, Vols. 1 & 2 (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1977, 1979, 1992) [see contents].
  • Christine S. Peters, ed. & intro., The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1992), 131pp. [based on 1977 revision].
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  • Nine Rivers from Jordan (London: Derek Verschoyle 1953) [on his wartime experiences];
  • ‘The Abbey in Those Days’, in The Writers: A Sense of Ireland, ed. Andrew Carpenter & Peter Fallon (Dublin: O’Brien Press 1980), pp.66-70 [with photo-port.];
  • ‘Did you Know Yeats? And Did You Lunch with Shaw?’, in A Paler Shade of Green, ed. Des Hickey & Gus Smith (London: Leslie Frewin 1972), pp.60-72.
  • In Search of Swift (Dublin: Hodges Figgis 1959);
  • John Millington Synge [Columbia Essays on Modern Writers, 12] (NY & London: Columbia UP 1965), 48pp.;
  • The Brazen Horn: A Non-Book for Those Who, in Revolt Today, Could be in Command Tomorrow [Dolmen Editions, XXII] (Dublin: Dolmen 1976), viii, 256pp. [ltd. edn. of 1,050 copies; see extract].
  • Rory Johnston, ed., Orders and Desecrations: The Life of the Playwright Denis Johnston, foreword by Hugh Leonard (Dublin: Lilliput Press 1992), 256pp.
  • ‘Sean O’Casey: An Appreciation’ (Daily Telegraph 11 March 1926), rep. in Ronald Ayling, Sean O’Casey: Modern Judgements (London: Macmillan 1969), pp.83-90;
  • ‘The Mysterious Origin of Dean Swift’, in Dublin Historical Record, III, 4 (June-Aug. 1941), pp.81-97 [For extracts, see under Jonathan Swift, as attached];
  • ‘A Short View of the Progress of Joyceanity’, in Envoy: A Review of Literature and Art, ed. John Ryan [“James Joyce” Special Issue ] (1951), pp.13-18 [see extract];
  • ‘Sean O’Casey’, in Living Writers: Critical Studies Broadcast in the BBC Third Programme, ed. G. Phelps (Sylvan Press Ltd. 1947) [q.pp.];
  • ‘Joxer in Totnes: A Study in Sean O’Casey’, in Irish Writing, 29 (Cork 1954) [q.pp.];
  • ‘Sean O’Casey: A Biography and An Appraisal’, in Modern Drama, IV, 3 (Kansas 1961) [q.pp.];
  • ‘Clarify Begins At: The Non-Information of Finnegans Wake’, in Irish Renaissance: A Gathering of Essays, Memoirs, and Letters from the Massachusetts Review, Robin Skelton & David R. Clark [prev. ‘An Irish Gathering’] (Dublin: Dolmen Press 1965), pp.120-27;
  • ‘The Abbey in Those Days: A Memoir’, in The Writers: A Sense of Ireland, Andrew Carpenter & Peter Fallon (Dublin: O’Brien Press 1980), pp.66-70.
Contribs. to The Bell
  • ‘Plays of the Quarter, being a review of a number of plays produced in Dublin’, in The Bell, II, 1 (April 1941), pp.89-95;
  • ‘Plays of the Month, the works of J. M. Barrie, Robert Collis and David Sears’, in The Bell, II, 2 (May, 1941), pp.86-91;
  • ‘Public Opinion: the stone dolls, being mainly a discourse on Louis d’Alton’s “The Money Doesn’t Matter” and remarks by Denis Ireland on the Abbey Theatre’, in The Bell (July 1941), pp.72-81. [reply to Frank O’Connor, vide Bell, June 4 1941, pp.61-68];
  • ‘The Theatre, being a write-up of a few plays appearing on the stage in Dublin’, in The Bell, II, 5 (Aug. 1941), pp.88-90;
  • ‘Dublin Theatre’, in The Bell, III, 2 (Nov. 1941), pp.157-61;
  • ‘Drama: The Dublin Theatre’, in The Bell, III, 5 (Feb. 1942), pp.357-60;
  • ‘Meet a certain Dan Pienaar, being extracts from a diary of the war years, selected by George Gilmore’, in The Bell, XVI, 2 (Nov. 1950), pp.8-18;
  • ‘Man - Sovereign Man, being extracts made by George Gilmore from a diary of the battlefield in World War 2’, in The Bell, XVI, 3 (Dec. 1950), pp.19-28;
  • ‘Detour in Illyrea, being an extract made by George Gilmore from a Diary of the War Years’, in The Bell, XVI, 5 (Feb. 1951), pp.44-52;
  • ‘Buchenwald, being an extract made by George Gilmore from a Diary of the War Years’, in The Bell, XVI, 6 (March 1951), pp.30-41;

—See NLI Sources, online; accessed 18.11.2009.

Bibliographical details

Dramatic Works of Denis Johnston, ed. Joseph Ronsley, with a General Introduction and prefatory remarks on each play, Vol. 1 (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1977) - CONTENTS. ‘General Introduction’; The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ (1929); ‘A Note on What Happened’; The Scythe and the Sunset; Storm Song; The Dreaming Dust (Gaiety 1940), and ‘Strange Occurrence on Ireland’s Eye’.

Do., Vol. 2 (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979), CONTENTS. ‘Preface: Concerning the Unicorn’; A Bride for the Unicorn (1933), The Moon in the Yellow River; A Fourth for Bridge; The Golden Cuckoo; Nine Rivers from Jordan [opera libretto]; The Táin [pageant]; Appendix: ‘Introducing the Enigmatic Dean Swift’.

Do., Vol. 3: Broadcast Plays and Essays (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1992), CONTENTS. Radio Plays: Lillibulero, Multiple Studio Blues, Great Parliamentarians: Lord Palmerston, High Command, The Gorgeous Lady Blessington, Amanda McKittrick Ros, In the Train. Television Drama: The Parnell Commission, Weep for the Cyclops, The Call to Arms, Operations at Killyfaddy, Murder Hath No Tongue. Essays on Broadcasting; Reviews; Appendices: Blind Man’s Buff, Riders to the Sidhe; A Radio Talk.

TCD Library holds 107 boxes of papers of Denis Johnston (1901-84) as TCD MS 10066, being play scripts and production materials including programmes, posters, photographs, scores, radio adaptations, press-cuttings, correspondence, and production copies of plays by other dramatists, 1925-83 [See TCD Library Guide - online.]

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  • Robert Hogan, ‘The Adult Theatre of Denis Johnston’, in After the Renaissance (Minnesota UP 1967), pp.133-146;
  • Harold Ferrar, Denis Johnston’s Irish Theatre (Dublin: Dolmen Press 1973);
  • Gene A. Barnett, Denis Johnston (NY: Twayne 1973);
  • Joseph Ronsley, ed. Denis Johnston: A Retrospective [Irish Literary Series, 8] (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1981), xii, 276pp., ill. [contribs. John Boyd, Curtis Canfield, Richard Allen Cave, Mark Culme-Seymour, Cyril Cusack, Hilton Edwards, Maurice Elliott, Harold Ferra, Robert Hogan, Thomas Kilroy, Roger McHugh, Micheál Mac Liammóir, D. E. S. Maxwell, Vivian Mercier, Christopher Murray, B. L. Reid, Joseph Ronsley & Christine St Peter, with a checklist of Denis Johnston’s writings compiled by Ronsley; also, recent revisions by Johnston to A Bride for the Unicorn as appendix.]
  • John Boyd, ‘Denis Johnston 1901-1984: A Personal Note’, Threshold, 35 (Winter 1984-1985), pp.1-3;
  • Noel Peacock [Glasgow Univ.], ‘Denis Johnson’ in Irish Playwrights, 1880-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, ed. Bernice Schrank & William Demastes (CT: Greenwood Press 1997), pp.124-33;
  • Bernard Adams, Denis Johnston: A Life (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2001), 320pp.

See also Paddy Smyth, ‘Riveting truth in a “non-memoir”’, in The Irish Times (31 Oct. 2009), Weekend, p.10 [which finds that Truth or Fiction by Jennifer Johnston, the writer’s mother, is true to the life of her father Denis Johnston; extract].


Contemp. reviews incl. Brooks Atkinson, review of The Moon and the Yellow River, in The New York Times (13 March 1932); Mary McCarthy, review of The Old Lady Says ‘No!’, in Partisan Review (q.d., April 1948).

Articles relating to Johnston incl.:
  • ‘Yeats, Lady Gregory, Denis Johnston and Theatre Nights’ [being extracts from the autobiography of Micheál MacLiammóir], in The Bell, V, 4 ([?1940], pp.253-65; Further extracts, VI, 1 (April 1943), pp. 33-42; further extracts, The Bell, VII, 6 (March 1944), pp.487-95;
  • Hilton Edwards, ‘Denis Johnston’, in The Bell, XIII, 1 (Oct. 1946), pp.7-18;
  • James Plunkett, review of Nine Rivers from Jordan, in The Bell, XIX, 3 (Feb. 1954), pp.53-55;
—See National Library of Ireland, Sources [online]

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D. E. S. Maxwell, A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama 1891-1980 (Cambridge UP 1984), lists The Dramatic Works of Denis Johnston, 2 vols. (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1977 & 1979), with general intro., and with preface and prefatory remarks on each play by Johnston. Also cites cites The Tain - a Pageant; Introducing the Enigmatic Dean Swift, et. al.

The World Book Encyclopedia, 1959 edition, in its article on World War II cites Nine Rivers from Jordan under "Books to Read", along with Churchill, Eisenhower et al. The encyclopedia is intended for American school students.


Bernard Share, ed., Far Green Fields, 1500 Years of Irish Travel Writing (Belfast: Blackstaff 1992) incls. extract from Nine Rivers from Jordan (London: Derek Verschoyle 1953).

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Andrew Carpenter & Peter Fallon, eds., The Writers: A Sense of Ireland (Dublin: O’Brien Press 1980), selects ‘The Abbey in Those Days’, pp.66-70 [a memoir, with photo-port.].

Henry Boylan, Dictionary of Irish Biography (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1988) erroneously cites Brazen Head for Brazen Horn.

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Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 3, selects from The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ [176-81]; presented Gate, 3 July 1929; revived 1931, 1934, 1938, and Gaiety 1941 and 1947; Remarks at 171-173 [‘even DJ’s second play, The Moon in the Yellow River, Abbey 1931, forsook experiment for a realism that the Abbey directors indeed could welcome (despite the fact that the play had its origins in a parody of ‘the Abbey play’); its focus on precise political issues in the Free State (although achiev[ing] universal statement on paradox of conflicting ideals) prompts the recognition that much of the success of even The Old Lady [Says ‘No!’] had depended on a sure local knowledge; that had been a quintessentially Dublin play, an extravaganza of local lore, legend and feeling (never travelled well); the universalising theatrical impulses of Expressionism checked by Dublin man’s ambiguous feelings for his native place, metaphysical solemnity … dispelled by Anglo-Irish sprezzatura, a wit bred of excruciatingly complex loyalties [here quotes ‘Strumpet City …’, as infra]; the play concludes identifying Emmet’s terminal condition with a malaise symptomatic of the city’s experience’, ed. Terence Brown, 175]; also 657 [when Johnston wanted to criticise the Free State he had to reject the tenement play for the play of the streets, Fintan O’Toole, ‘Going West, the Country versus the City in Irish Writing’, in Crane Bag, 9.2 (1985)]; Biog., 232, as above. Works: Collected Plays (Jonathan Cape 1960); Collected Plays Vol. 1 (Gerrards Cross 1977); Vol. 2 (Gerrards Cross 1979); Bibl., Gene A. Barnett, Denis Johnston (Twayne 1978); Harold Ferrar, Denis Johnston’s Irish Theatre (Dolmen 1973); Joseph Ronsley, ed. Denis Johnston: A Retrospective (Gerrards Cross 1981), critical essays.

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Helena Sheehan, Irish Television Drama, A Society and Its Stories (RTÉ/Mercier 1987), lists TV films, The Dreaming Dust, dir. Michael Barry (1966); The Glass Murder, dir. Peter Collinson (1963); The Moon in the Yellow River, dir. Shelah Richards (1964); the Scythe and the Sunset, dir. Chloe Gibson (1965); That Rooted Man, dir. Tony Barry (1971). Also, silent version of O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation (1936), with Barry Fitzgerald, Cyril Cusack, and Hilton Edwards [Walter Reade Theatre, 1994 Program].

TCD Library holds an extensive collection of diaries, from age 15 until shortly before his death covering his day-to-day life, his work, and the people he knew, together with much correspondence and unpublished writing.

University of Ulster Library (Coleraine) holds a collection of mostly published playscripts, radio talks, newspaper cuttings, microfilms of many of the diaries, &c.

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The Old Lady Says “No!” (1929): the play takes place in the mind of an actor playing Robert Emmet in a traditional patriotic drama who is knocked unconscious in an accident and dreams he is the real Emmet walking the streets of present-day Dublin. There he encounters the jarring contrast between the myth of Ireland and modern-day reality exemplified by the hypocrisy of politicians and the materialism of the populace. On his way he encounters latter-day rebels, empty-headed youth, the self-satisfied middle classes, and the statue of the parliamentarian Henry Grattan come to life. Yeats’s heroine Cathleen ni Houlihan, the symbol of Ireland, is transformed into a foul-mouthed hag of a flower seller. Emmet finds himself fighting the very people he would redeem. The play parodies the sentimental martyrdoms in Irish literature, and brings in the voices of the great Irish writers who have bequeathed so much to the world’s knowledge of itself. Despite its satirical tone the play in the end eloquently presents the revolutionary’s cry, “I will take this earth in both my hands and batter it into the semblance of my heart’s desire.” The action of the play opens in the garden of “The Priory”, the home of John Philpot Curran and his daughter Sarah, with whom Emmet is in love and for whom he fatally lingered at the time of his arrest close by on the night of the 25th August, 1803. First entitled Shadowdance, it was submitted to the Abbey and returned with Yeats scrawl on the cover, "The Old Lady Says 'No!'', referring to Lady Gregory. The author then sent it to the Gate Theatre. (See Irish Playography - online; accessed 12.06.2015.)

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Strange Occurrence on Ireland’s Eye (1956): The historical event around which the play turns is the Kirwan murder, documented in Mathias Bodkin’s Famous Irish Trials (1914; rep. edn. 1956). The malefactor, William Bourke Kirwan, a miniature painter and son of a celebrated picture dealer, was accused of strangling his wife Maria Louisa Crowe (known as Sara) in 1852, with whom he shared a home at 11 Lwr. Merrion St. Kirwan had a second menage in Sandymount with one Maria Theresa Kenny and their eight childrenIn June 1852 he went to Howth with his wife on a painting expedition. She was found dead on a wet sheet at Long Hole by boatmen after he reported her missing. An inquest found the cause of death to be drowning but witnesses in Howth later claimed to have heard screams from the island. In spite of a court defence by Isaac Butt, the jury found him guilty in Dec. 1852. The death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when it was found impossible to hear screams from the island and with the further revelation that his wife was epileptic. Kirwan was held on Spike Island, Co Cork, and spent a time in prison in a Bermuda penal colony. He was released in 1879 and emigrated to America having rejoined his mistress. Purportedly he revisited Ireland’s Eye before departing. There is a life of Kirwan in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (RIA 2008). Note that Frances Hoey (née Johnston) wrote a novel on Ireland’s Eye. (See Stephen Brown, Ireland in Fiction, 1919; also under Hoey, q.v.)

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The Moon in the Yellow River (Abbey 27 April 1931), concerns an extremist republican plot to blow up a hydroelectric power-station, with Darrell Blake as the Irreconcilable, Tausch as the German manager, Lanigan as the soldier who eliminates Blake, and Willie Reilly as Blake’s side-kick; also Roddy Dobelle (played by F. J. McCormick), the occupant of a naval fortress and his 13-year old daughter whose mother’s death in childbirth has blocked his love for her.

Note: On quitting his room in Bloomsbury House Club in 1927, Johnston inscribed lines from Pound on the wall: ‘And Li-Po / Also died drunk. / He tried to embrace a Moon / In the Yellow River.’ (See Bernard Adams, Denis Johnston: A Life, 2002, p.90.)

Further: In the Preface to the 1959 Collected Plays, Johnston he gave brief descriptions of each of the six plays contained in it, indentifying The Scythe and the Sunset and A Fourth for Bridge as ‘two antimelodramas about war’ and The Moon in the Yellow River as ‘an exercise in character drawing’. [Email communication from Rory Johnston.]

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Hilton Edwards remarks on The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ at its premiere in 1929: ‘It read like a railway guide and played like Tristan and Isolde.’ (See The Old Lady Says ‘No!’, Colin Smythe; Washington; Catholic Univ. of America Press 1992).

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James Plunkett: Plunkett took the phrase ‘Strumpet City’ in The Old Lady Says ‘No!’, as the title of a novel in 1969. A corrupt version of the speech from which it comes is included in Sean McMahon, ed., Book of Irish Quotations (Dublin: O’Brien Press), substituting ‘so rich with memories’ for ‘so sick with memories’ in the original. The erroneous version was repeated in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature (1991), under Johnston [see References, supra].

Further: A corrupt version of a Thomas Davis poem appears in Orders and Desecrations (ed. Rory Johnston 1992), following the version sourced by the publisher in Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature (1991), being copied there from a tampering Victorian editor [this correction made by Rory Johnston, in email to RICORSO].

Note: the American students’ travel guide Let’s Go Britain and Ireland (Cambridge, Mass.: E. P. Dutton 1986) writes: ‘James Joyce loved his “Strumpet city in the sunset”’ - effectually but erroneously ascribing Johnston’s coinage to the older writer. (Editions 1977-97 listed in COPAC; editions of 1995, 2005, and 2007 listed on Let’s Go website.)

Benedict Kiely: Kiely notes that Denis Johnston, and also Philip Rooney, wrote plays about the case of Thomas Hartley Montgomery, a sub-inspector of police, who was hanged for the murder of William Glass, cashier of the Northern bank, in Newtownstewart, for a century among the most celebrated Ulster murders. (Benedict Kiely, Sing to the Bird, London: Methuen 1991, p.139.)

Bernard Adams, Johnston’s biographer, was b. in Dublin and ed. at Portora, Enniskillen and TCD (English); BBC journalist in N. Ireland and BBC TV producer in London; full-time writer. (See Clé publ. catalogue, 2002.)

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Johnston papers: Johnston himself deposited microfilm copies of his diaries with autobiographical links (‘omnibus’) in the University of Ulster (Coleraine) and several American universities. These formed the basis of study by Joseph Ronsley who met with unflattering references to himself among them. His papers were presented to TCD Library by his children in 1986 incl. manuscripts and unbuttoned diaries kept continuously from the age of 15, forming the basis of a biography by Adams (Denis Johnston: A Life, 2002).

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The Old Orange Flute”: Denis Johnston sang the traditional song of this title associated with the Ulster Orange Order in St. Peter’s Square with others to symbolise his freedom from papal thraldom (Nine Rivers from Jordan).

Note: Patrick Maume calls Nine Rivers to Jordan ‘an interesting pastiche on Ulysses’ and ascribes “The Old Orange Flute” to Peadar Kearney [q.v.] - but is corrected by Rory Johnston who identifies it as a traditional song, adding that Denis Johnston sang it with companions on that occasion.

See version at King Laoghaire Traditional Music [online]:

In the County Tyrone, near the town of Dungannon
Where many the ructions meself had a han’ in
Bob Williamson lived, a weaver by trade
And all of us thought him a stout orange blade.


Now Bob, the deceiver, he took us all in.
He married a Papist named Bridget McGinn,
Turned Papish himself and forsook the old cause
That gave us our freedom, religion and laws.


Bob jumped and he started and got in a flutter
And threw the old flute in the blessed holy water
He thought that this charm would bring some other
When he tried it again, it played “Croppies Lie Down”.

Now, for all he could whistle and finger and blow
To play Papish music he found it no go.
“Kick The Pope” and “Boyne Water” it freely would
But one Papish squeak in it couldn’t be found.


At the council of priests that was held the next day
They decided to banish the old flute away.
They couldn’t knock heresy out of its head
So they bought Bob a new one to play in its stead.

Now, the old flute was doomed, and its fate was
’Twas fastened and burned at the stake as heretic.
As the flames soared around it they heard a strange
’Twas the old flute still whistling “The Protestant Boys”

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Namesake: One Denis Johnston b. Dromahair, Co. Leitrim, in 1869, is represented in W. J. Paul, Modern Irish Poets (1894).

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