Stanley Eveling, playwright, lecturer, philosopher
Born Newcastle, August 8th 1925; died, Edinburgh, December 24th 2008
Stanley Eveling, who has died of cancer aged 83, was as a playwright at the helm of the 1960s avant-garde during a period when theatre was being revolutionised. During a long association with The Traverse Theatre, which included the distinction of being the very first living writer to receive a world premiere there with his play The Ballachites in 1963, Eveling became this country’s resident absurdist. As a lecturer in moral philosophy at Edinburgh University too, Eveling combined a dazzling intellect with a puckish playfulness and forensic line of inquiry.
In the 1980s, however, Eveling all but disappeared from the scene, and became one of numerous figures of his generation who were marginalised by changing theatrical fashions. With little in the way of infrastructures for archiving material in Scotland at the time, only latterly has Eveling been given the acknowledgement he deserves as a theatrical pioneer and a major influence on the more interesting of the current generation of playwrights.
Edinburgh’s hallowed halls were a far cry from the poverty-stricken Newcastle streets where Eveling grew up. The son of a working class Geordie girl and a Jew who ran out on his family shortly after his son’s birth, Eveling was encouraged from an early age to regard his grand-parents as his parents and his mother as his sister. Perhaps because of such displacement, this bright little boy became, in his own words in a 1983 interview in Scottish Theatre News, “a lost soul” withdrawn and dependent on his own resources, and who, aged four, became briefly convinced that he was Jesus.
Eveling’s early retreat into himself made him also become a writer, and he wrote poems and plays right through his child-hood, as well as acting in plays in boys clubs as a teenager. Evacuated to Carlisle during World War Two, he would read speeches from Shakespeare in the back yard. On leaving school he served in the army in Malaya, after which he took advantage of a post-war scheme to help working class people into higher education. Returning to the Newcastle campus of Durham University, Eveling studied English, with Moral Philosophy as a second subject. Beyond literature, that subject became Eveling’s great liberation. He took a second degree in it at Newcastle, which he completed in less than two years before going on to Oxford for a post-graduate degree.
At this time, British theatre was in its drawing-room doldrums, and Eveling had little interest in it. When he read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, however, it became Eveling’s second intellectual and creative epiphany. Encouraged by TV writer David Mercer, Eveling wrote a radio play, The Object. This was rejected, though a second, Dance To Thy Daddy, which looked to his Newcastle childhood, was accepted. More followed, including An Unspeakable Crime, which was later directed for the stage. It was here Eveling started to learn his craft, and he eventually wrote The Ballachites, and sent it to the then brand new Traverse Theatre, then housed in a former brothel off the High Street.
Up until then, the fledgling Traverse company had concentrated on European and American plays receiving their UK premiere. When The Ballachites, a re-examination of the Adam and Eve myth, opened on July 30th 1963, it set the tone for what would go on to become an internationally renowned home of the best new writing. Between 1963 and 1975, twelve plays by Eveling opened at The Traverse, where, along with C.P. Taylor and Stewart Conn in a pre John Byrne era, he would become pretty much the theatre’s in-house playwright. Eveling even appeared onstage in 1966 in a large scale Traverse production of Peter Weiss’ play, The Investigation, at St Mark’s Unitarian Church.
In 1967, Come And Be Killed showed off Eveling’s more conventional side, and in 1968, The Lunatic, The Secret Sportsman and The Woman Next Door played to 91 per cent capacity. In 1969, Dear Janet Rosenberg, Dear Mr Kooning was similarly successful, and transferred to London’s Royal Court Theatre. Eveling struck up a working relationship with the young Max Stafford-Clark as his director on Traverse plays including Our Sunday Times, a study of lone yachtsman Donald Crowhurst. As the theatre’s artistic director from 1968-1970, Stafford-Clark saw Eveling as sharing Ionesco-like influences, although Eveling described Stafford-Clark as a “wilful bugger” who would deconstruct and make strange plays which were actually quite conventional.
In 1972, Caravaggio Buddy, again at The Traverse, starred Ian Holm. By this time Eveling was on the Traverse committee, and was instrumental in securing Mike Ockrent’s appointment as artistic director. By 1975, though, Eveling felt jaded, and took an eight year break from play-writing to concentrate on philosophy. His withdrawal also chimed with the appointment of Chris Parr as Traverse artistic director. Eveling returned in 1983, again to The Traverse, with Buglar Boy. The play was received well, but a new generation of writers was breaking through in a flowering of Scottish drama ushered in by Parr, while European-based experimentalists like Eveling weren’t much on the agenda.
Eveling took early retirement as a lecturer in his late 50s, but continued as a university fellow. His last new play to be staged was The Albright Fellow at the Edinburgh University owned Bedlam Theatre in 1995. The Ballachites received a rehearsed reading as part of The Traverse’s fortieth anniversary celebrations in 2003, while a new play, Onefourseven, was also given an airing. While to date it remains unproduced, it was published by Oberon Books in 2006 as part of The German Tetralogy, which also featured The Strange Case of Martin Richter, The Dead of Night and The Buglar Boy – And His Swish Friend.
Eveling continued writing into his dotage, with his final completed work, Ways To Remember, going right back to his roots via an imagined look at his mother. Even a few days before he died, Eveling spoke of writing a new play about Alan Turing, the English mathematician who cracked the Enigma Code, but who later died of suspected suicide after being convicted of then criminalised homosexuality. It was a typically off-kilter subject to attract Eveling, and one can only speculate how it may have turned out.
Eveling’s archive currently resides in the Howard Gottlieb Memorial Collection at Boston University. One hopes its acquisition doesn’t write Eveling out of the Scottish history books forever, but hopes that works by himself and other writers of his generation can be made available for younger generations perhaps more able to deal with Eveling’s unashamedly clever scatological diversions that paved the way for Scottish theatre today.
Eveling’s funeral takes place at the Lorimar Chapel, Warriston Crematorium, Edinburgh, on Monday January 5th at 11am. He is survived by his wife Kate and their four children, Poppy, Ben, Sophie and Tom, and also by his first wife, Joyce.
The Herald, December 2008