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Adrian Mitchell Obituary

Adrian Mitchell
Poet, playwright, novelist, pacifist
24 October 1932-20 December 2008

When Adrian Mitchell, who has died aged 78, read a new version of his anti-war poem, To Whom It May Concern, updated to include Iraq, in 2005, one couldn’t help but wonder where the new generation of oppositional poets were. Mitchell, after all, had originally written and performed his most famous work in 1964, when the repeated pay-off line at the end of each verse, ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam,’ caught the spirit of such counter-cultural times. Now here he was again, at the vanguard of another protest which he became the conscience of, while a new generation of activists took stock of his wisdom as they slowly but steadily became politicised. Mitchell, however, was no hectoring polemicist, but a poet in every sense of the word, whose passion, anger, lyrical tenderness and child-like playfulness reduced audiences to laughter as often as to tears.

Adrian Mitchell was born near Hampstead Heath to Kathleen Fabian, a nursery school teacher, and Jock Mitchell, a research scientist from Cupar in Fife. At school Mitchell discovered the perils of institutionalised violence early on when he became a constant victim of bullying. Once moved to another school, Mitchell wrote his first play aged nine. As a teenager at Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire, Mitchell wrote and performed in plays with his friend Gordon Snell. National Service in the RAF confirmed Mitchell’s pacifism prior to three years at Christ Church, Oxford, where he became chair of the poetry society and edited Isis magazine. He became a reporter on the Oxford Mail, then on the Evening Standard before writing his first novel and television play. He then wrote about pop music for the Daily Mail, the pre-tabloid Sun and the Sunday Times before giving up journalism in the mid 1960s after he was fired for reviewing Peter Watkins’ then banned fictionalised documentary on the effects of nuclear war, The War Game.

By that time, however, Mitchell’s first volume of poems had been published, and he was immersed in the burgeoning underground poetry scene, taking part in Michael Horovitz’s legendary Poetry Olympics event at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965. It was here he read To Whom It May Concern before what has since been canonised as a gathering of the finest counter-cultural minds of Mitchell’s generation.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s literary manager showed Peter Brook, who was looking to adapt Peter Weiss’ play, Marat/Sade, some of Mitchell’s lyrics. Mitchell joined the mad-house in 1964 for what was to become one of the defining event plays of its era, and which took audiences on an epic theatrical roller-coaster ride through sanity, madness and revolution. The play transferred to Broadway and was filmed, with Mitchell penning the screenplay.

Mitchell worked again with Brook in 1966 on the even more contemporary US, an early example of what would now be recognised as devised theatre, collectively authored from scratch over fourteen weeks of rehearsal and dissecting the Vietnam war. Significantly, To Whom It May Concern was incorporated. Again, the alchemy brought to the project captured the spirit of the times.

In 1971, Mitchell wrote Tyger, a study of William Blake, with whom he shared a spiritual and creative affinity, in conjunction with jazz composer and long term collaborator Mike Westbrook for the National Theatre. Since then, Mitchell wrote more than thirty plays and librettos, including major adaptations of Calderon and Gogol. He also worked at the cutting edge, with companies such as Welfare State, 7:84 England, The Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, Contact, Manchester and other crucibles of alternative theatre which might just, in these recession-blighted times, be making a come-back.

In 1977, again with Mike Westbrook, Mitchell brought White Suit Blues, about the life of Mark Twain, to Edinburgh in a production by Nottingham Playhouse. In 1988, Anna To Anna played at Edinburgh’s Theatre Workshop. Alongside all this theatrical activity, Mitchell gave more than a thousand readings of his own work, including shows at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms. Mitchell forbade any of his poems to be used as schools set texts, but sat alongside the American Beats and the Liverpool Poets in applying popular musical idioms to his work, and appeared in Horovitz’s Children of Albion anthology.

This loosely aligned relationship continued, with Mitchell’s work appearing in every issue of Horovitz’s New Departures magazine, which presented the cognoscenti of the 1960s underground, going against the grain of the times. Watching Mitchell perform as part of Horovitz’s 1982 edition of his Poetry Olympics at the Young Vic was to witness a man of real heart and soul. In a short poem about his daughter, with a tiny gesture of his hand, one saw how he was transcended by the love he felt. A more playful short poem in that year’s printed edition meanwhile, captured some of the libertine absurdities of a theatrical rehearsal room where freedom was everything.

In September this year, Mitchell visited Shetland, where as Resident Poet at Wordplay Book festival in Lerwick, he gave a typically moving reading alongside a talk on William Blake. Mitchell contracted pneumonia shortly after, and wrote his final poem, My Literary Career So Far, the day before he died. It was intended as a Christmas gift to friends.

Three books by Mitchell are due to be published in 2009; Tell Me Lies – poems 2005-2008; his collected children’s works, Umpteen Poems; and a version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses entitled Shapeshifters. These will be a fitting testament to this holiest of writers.

Mitchell is survived by Celia Hewitt, with whom he had two daughters, as well as two sons and one daughter to his first wife, Daphne Bush

the Herald, December 2008

ends

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