In the Belfast of 1901, John Coulter discovered his talent for words. “It was the death of Queen Victoria and our class was given an essay to write. I surrounded the pages with purple and black, for mourning, and inside the purple and black I wrote my little piece about this fat old lady who was on the backs of our pennies. I won the prize.” He was 13. Today at 91, John Coulter, alone in a Toronto high-rise, works as hard as ever: Prelude to a Marriage, his description of his bittersweet courtship, has just been published (see review, page 43) and his memoirs are scheduled to appear this fall.
Coulter has been productive all his life. Coming to Canada only at the age of 48, he co-founded the Canadian Arts Council, encouraged Tyrone Guthrie to begin the Stratford Festival and played an enormous part in bringing Louis Riel to national attention. His 1950 play Riel produced several times on radio and TV, started the “Riel boom” that’s resounding to this day. Above all, John Coulter is a dramatist. He has written well over 20 plays, the first of which, Conochar, was published in 1917. (He’s also the father of an acclaimed Toronto actress, Clare Coulter.) Tall, shuffling, alert, he tells his stories with eloquence and irony in a voice that has retained its Irish lilt. “I don’t think anyone can emigrate successfully after their mid-20s,” he observes. “I never did feel truly Canadian and I don’t now—yet I feel more alien in Dublin or London than I do here.” Says his friend John Robert (Canadian Quotations) Colombo: “The key to John Coulter is that he’s always been a little to the side of things here. He is, so to speak, father emeritus to a young bird that doesn’t even recognize his existence.”
A Belfast Protestant, born in 1888, Coulter first studied art and design, then became a teacher. But his true vocation was language. Living in Dublin, he often stayed at the Martello Tower near the city, made famous by Joyce in Ulysses. In 1919, Coulter published Note as to the Formation of a Drama League in Ulster. “We might succeed in founding a native school of drama,” he
wrote then, just as 30 years later he would claim in Saturday Night, “A hundred Canadian plays are waiting for Canadians who will write them.”
In 1920, with Ireland embroiled in civil war, Coulter moved to London, soon to begin a variety of jobs for the fledgling BBC. It broadcast his plays; it also broadcast his tennis reports. For several years he was managing editor of one of England’s finest literary magazines, The New Adelphi (samples of its contents: Second Thoughts on Humanism by T. S. Eliot; Woman in Europe by Carl Jung). But in 1928 Coulter met a young writer from a wealthy Toronto family, Olive Clare Primrose, and eventually they fell in love—a tortuous trans-Atlantic romance brought to life in Prelude to a Marriage. If her health had been good, he might never have come to Canada. When he did arrive in 1936, the doctors promptly forbade his bride, suffering from TB, to leave. “It was a very hazardous thing, cutting my life off over there, and I was quickly disillusioned with the emptiness, as it
seemed to me, compared to what I’d left in London.” Indeed, Mavor Moore, head of the Canada Council, has said: “His basic tragedy was that of the uprooted man.”
The marriage was a happy one, and Coulter quickly knew a modicum of success: his comedy The House in the Quiet Glen won almost every award at the 1936 Dominion Drama Festival. His daughter Primrose (herself a writer) was born in 1938, and Clare followed in 1942. “I’m as close to my daughters as I can be without being actively incestuous,” he says, a gleam in his clear blue eyes.
He had seemed, for a while, on the brink of fame and fortune. In the ’40s— besides publishing a novel, a biography of Churchill, a book of poems and several plays—Coulter wrote the libretti for two operas by the Canadian composer Healey Willan. In 1951, Laurence Olivier took an option to produce Coulter’s Sleep, My Pretty One', he compared its dark power to that of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. “But he never put the play on,” says Coulter now. “I can only surmise that he saw no part in it for him and no part for his wife, Vivien Leigh.” Other plays met with less glamor and more luck. His adaptation of the Russian novel Oblomov has been translated into more than a dozen languages; Coulter keeps an Urdu copy on his capacious bookshelf. Yet it’s scarcely known in Canada. Coulter has his suspicions why: “Oblomov himself is a colossal figure of inaction. All his ideals are the reverse of the go-getting attitude on this side of the ocean—so it wasn’t understood at all.”
His Louis Riel, by contrast, is both a dreamer and a fighter: “The tragic hero at the heart of the Canadian myth.” Coulter has written three Riel plays: The Crime of Louis Riel and The Trial of Louis Riel (now being performed for the 13th consecutive summer in Regina) were products of the ’60s, but his original Riel, conceived as an epic pageant, was written 30 years ago. “I spent a year doing very hard research for Riel, and never saw a cent till the radio production.” In 1949, Louis Riel was not a household name, and Coulter recalls asking the chief librarian at the University of Toronto for advice. “Dr. Wallace went red as a tomato and said, ‘You don’t mean to tell me you’re going to bring that scoundrel to public notice, do you?’”Coulterdisplays contempt for the CBC’s latest treatment of the story, a two-part popularized version aired in April. “A Canadian western. They should not have done it. It was got up to supply the market for the States. Misapplied and totally mistaken.”
As for Coulter’s general neglect in his adopted homeland, Colombo advances two explanations: “John isn’t in there slugging with the young producers. He’s expected them to come to him. And his work does hark back to an earlier era, that of national radio and little theatres.” In belated recognition of Coulter’s services to Canadian theatre, the Association for Canadian Theatre History granted him an honorary membership in May, the first
time it has given such an award.
“Bitterness,” John Coulter says quietly, “is the sin you must not commit against yourself, or it will seep into all you do.” His wife died in 1971, “and for a time I didn’t care what happened.” Yet now, having finished a new play, Talking of Love, he has resumed the editing of his wife’s extensive journals. It’s as though in the solitude of age Coulter has become heroic; he will not go gently into that good night.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.