Playwright John Coulter was born in 1888 in Belfast to Protestant parents, and died in 1980 in Toronto. He attended the School of Art and Technology in Belfast, and won a research scholarship to Manchester University. Upon returning to Ireland, he taught school in Belfast and Dublin until 1919. His early plays were produced in Belfast, Dublin, and London, and he moved to London in 1920, where he wrote for BBC radio. In 1924 he became editor of The Ulster Review, and in 1927, managing editor of John Middleton Murry’s journal The New Adelphi. After moving to Toronto in 1936, he married Olive Clare Primrose, a poet and short story writer. One of their two daughters, Claire Coulter is a prominent Canadian actor.
Coulter brought with him to Canada a vision of a national theatre inspired by the work of the poets and playwrights of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin -- W.B. Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and John Millington Synge – who established the Irish National Dramatic Society with the intention of restoring to the Irish people their cultural heritage by dramatizing their heroic myths and folk stories. In an article entitled “Canadian Theatre and the Irish Exemplar,” published in 1938 in the New York magazine, Theatre Arts Monthly, Coulter made his case for unique Canadian plays, which could transmute the subject matter of prairie droughts and crop failure, mining disasters, and the poverty of slum dwellers of city streets and country shacks into dramatic experience. His many essays on Canadian theatre also include “Toward a Canadian Theatre,” and “Theatre Needs More Than a Pat on the Head,” reprinted in Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings (1996), edited by Don Rubin.
Coulter worked with the Dominion Drama Festival, and helped to found the Canada Council and the Stratford Festival. He wrote twenty-four stage plays, seven of which are set in Canada. In his Irish and Canadian plays, his preoccupations are similar: the hero is usually a misunderstood radical, fighting for his ideals, and the inevitable victim of an unjust social system.
His Irish plays include The House in the Quiet Glen, produced in Toronto in 1937 by the Toronto Masquers; Father Brady’s New Pig (1937); Family Portrait, produced at the Hart House Theatre in 1938, and on CBC TV with the title The Sponger in 1956; Holy Manhattan, produced at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto in 1940, as a CBC radio play in 1941, and on CBC TV in 1945, and revised as a novel entitled Turf Smoke (1945). The Drums are Out (1971), which premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1948, won the award for Best Canadian Play in the Dominion Drama Festival in 1950. It portrays the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland through the divisions within one family.
He also wrote three historical plays for radio about Quebec: A Tale of Old Quebec (BBC 1935); Quebec in 1670 (CBS 1940); and Francois Bigot: A Rediscovery in Dramatic Form of the Fall of Quebec (CBC 1970). In other historical plays for radio, he considers the lives of Joseph Howe and Winston Churchill. His fascination for theatre personalities is reflected in his plays about Edmund Kean, A Capful of Pennies (1967), and Mr. Kean of Drury Lane (1980).
Coulter wrote three plays on Louis Riel: Riel (1949); The Crime of Louis Riel (Dominion Drama Festival 1966); and The Trial of Louis Riel (1967), produced every summer in Regina, where Riel was hanged. Each play is about different aspects of his enigmatic character, showing “the symbolic relations in which he stands to the emerging Canadian nation of his time and the emerging Third World nations of today” (Stage Voices ed. Sister Geraldine Anthony). In Riel he used the original transcripts of the trial for Riel’s speeches, which reveal his moral courage and integrity, and his mental instability.
He was written libretti for operas by Healey Willan: Transit Through Venus (1942), and Deirdre of the Sorrows (1946).
The Coulter archives are in the Mills Memorial Library at McMaster University.
Additional Reading: Geraldine Anthony. John Coulter. New York: Twayne, 1976.
Source: Geraldine Anthony. “John Coulter,” The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre, eds Eugene Benson and L.W. Conolly. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.
Last updated 2015-10-22