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Tom McGrath Obituary

Tom McGrath
Playwright, poet, musician
Born1940, Rutherglen; died, April 29 2009, Kingskettle, Fife

Without Tom McGrath, who has died following a long period of ill-health at his home in Kngskettle, Fife, playwriting in Scotland wouldn’t be nearly as vibrant as its current status on the world stage suggests. This isn't the case just through McGrath’s own plays, which began with Laurel and Hardy and The Hardman, both part of a long association with Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, and which were followed by more avant-garde explorations of the self, community plays and large-scale spectacle, culminating in his final work, the quasi-autobiographical My Old Man. This was written for the Magnetic North company, whose exploration of form and content seemed in keeping with McGrath’s own restless curiosity.

As an enabler too, McGrath was a visionary. This was true be it as features editor on seminal counter-cultural publications Peace News and founding editor of International Times, as the first artistic director of Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre, now the site of the Centre of Contemporary Arts, as an instrumental force in setting up The Tron Theatre, or in his post as Associate Literary Director (Scotland). McGrath’s Buddah-like enthusiasm to remain open to new ideas allowed a generation of younger writers including Zinnie Harris and Douglas Maxwell to blossom and fulfil their potential without institutional interference.

Whether as playwright, poet, performer or free jazz pianist, McGrath was a free-thinking polymath who set the tone for the proliferation of alternative thought amongst an underground arts scene in Scotland that is currently thriving, and simply wouldn’t have existed without him. Influenced both by American Beat literature and the Glasgow music hall he saw as a child, McGrath melded these two sensibilities together in a body of what can now be recognised as deeply personal work, where the cheap laugh and the quest for enlightenment went hand in transcendent hand.

Tom McGrath was born in Rutherglen, also birth-place of Stan Laurel, and came of age during a turbulent time of social upheavel. Attracted to poetry and jazz via Charles Olsen and the Black Mountain poets as well as the Beats, McGrath was surprised to discover on reading Alexander Trocchi’s novel, Young Adam, that its pages contained references to Glasgow. McGrath contributed his own poems to numerous small magazines, contacted Trocchi, and became involved in Project Sigma, the novelist's attempt at 'an invisible insurrection of a million minds'.. McGrath also came into contact with another Glaswegian, radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Together, the trio formed the unofficial Scots branch of the counter-culture.

By 1965, McGrath appeared alongside Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other finest minds of his generation at the now legendary poetry reading at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He’d also become features editor of Peace News, and in 1966, editor of International Times, the defining statement of London’s underground and essential reading for the habitués of the Middle Earth and U.F.O. clubs, where The Pink Floyd played to light shows orchestrated by the Boyle Family.

McGrath was a zelig-like figure throughout unofficial 1960s history, and many of his encounters have appeared in histories of the era. To hear them from the horse’s mouth, though, was something else again, be it the tale of the poetry conference at the old Traverse, when discussion of McGrath’s reading was interrupted by a bored Adrian Henri, or the counter-cultural gathering in the country at which R.D. Laing described McGrath as ‘innocent,’ inadvertently gifting him with the title of his 1978 semi-autobiographical play about the era, The Innocent. Then there was his introduction by poet Robert Creeley to novelist William Burroughs, who snubbed him after mistaking him for American Communist poet, Thomas McGrath.

By 1969, even as McGrath’s poems formed part of Michael Horovitz’s seminal Children of Albion anthology, the sixties dream was fading, hippy capitalists were on the road to becoming the new establishment and McGrath had become addicted to heroin. Burnt-out, he returned to Glasgow, where, following a short spell in a mental hospital, he cleaned up and enrolled at Glasgow University to study English and Drama. It was here McGrath connected with poets Tom Leonard and Alan Spence, and became active in performance art troupe, The Other People, while The Buddah Poems were published during that period.

McGrath’s first formal theatrical appearance came in 1972 when he provided music for Tom Buchan’s Tell Charlie Thanks For The Truss at The Traverse, and the following year he became Musical Director on The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, the co-operatively run extravaganza peopled by a future Who’s Who of the Scottish stage. This was notable both for influencing the extrapolations of popular forms in The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil by John McGrath (no relation), and for making the young Billy Connolly a star.

In 1973, McGrath became director of the Glasgow Centre, and brought Miles Davis, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Duke Ellington to Glasgow, where he became inaugural director of the Third Eye Centre for three years. Approached by actors Kenny Ireland and Jack Sheddon, McGrath’s first play, Laurel and Hardy, applied McGrath’s experimental interests to popular vaudeville forms, and became a hit, transferring to London’s Mayfair Theatre the following year. The play remains a rep stalwart, and was successfully revived at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum theatre in 2005.

During his time at the Third Eye, McGrath had come into contact with convicted murderer Jimmy Boyle, then an inmate in the experimental Barlinnie Special Unit. The Third Eye exhibited Boyle’s early sculptures, and Boyle would become co-author of McGrath’s next play for The Traverse, The Hard Man, which drew on Boyle’s experiences, and would later transfer to the I.C.A., be re-mounted at Glasgow Pavilion and be broadcast on BBC Radio. More plays followed; Sisters (1978) for Theatre Royal, Stratford East, The Android Circuit (1978) for The Traverse, The Innocent (1979) for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Animal (1979) for the Traverse at Moray House gymnasium, and then later produced by the Scottish Theatre Company. In 1980 McGrath took time out to teach playwriting in Iowa, before returning to become writer in residence at The Traverse.

During this time McGrath wrote 1-2-3, a trilogy of plays that utilised sound, and transferred to London and Toronto. A few years later McGrath would take up residence in Edinburgh’s Netherbow Arts Centre for a week of public workshop rehearsals of the third play, Moondog, at which he would sit at his computer in full view of the audience, writing and re-writing draft after draft, printed pages spilling out of an old Amstrad computer and onto the floor, different versions cut and pasted together to make a brand new whole. This was typical of McGrath’s thinking, as ideas and absorbed, seemingly disparate associations pieced together collage-like. A series of drawings of the week captured McGrath in full creative flow.

In 1981, McGrath was a prime mover in founding Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, and in 1982 he wrote The Nuclear Family for BBC TV’s Plays For Tomorrow series, penned a radio adaptation of Neil Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, and contributed to Radio Scotland’s soap, Kilbreck. The same year, a wonderful photograph of McGrath appeared alongside some poems in New Departures, Michael Horovitz’s poetry magazine which kept the 1960s flame burning. Wearing a big jumper and trademark glasses, McGrath is sat at the piano, intensely pounding away, while an equally rapt Lol Coxhill blows into his soprano saxophone beside him. In 1983, volume 6 of The Riverside Interviews gave over almost three hundred pages worth of free-rolling dialogue with McGrath, throughout which he expounded on his artistic influences at enthusiastically discursive length.

For theatre, he wrote Kora (1986) for The Traverse, and Trivial Pursuits (1988) for the Royal Lyceum, and the the large-scale CITY (1989) for Tramway. The Flitting (1990) was written for Cumbernauld, where McGrath was now living (he reinvented the town as The Land of Nod in the play, while his former domicile of Maryhill became Merry Hell). Around the same time, McGrath was applying free-associative techniques while running drama workshops at an Edinburgh community centre. Flying blind and cutting a deceptively bumbling figure, he would get participants to reel off their first thought about fire, say. Before long, and without even realising it, the group had created a little dramatic symphony based on the counterpoints of London’s Burning and punk band The Ruts’ song, Babylon’s Burning, which McGrath had effectively scored, conducted and magicked into being.

McGrath was appointed Associate Literary Director (Scotland), to act as a conduit for a new generation of playwrights. Based at the Lyceum, he was assisted by Ella Wildridge, who would become a crucial figure in McGrath’s life for the next twenty years. At the old Lyceum Studio, McGrath hosted Words Beyond Words, a series of play-readings that took place for several years during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In 1990 at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, McGrath initiated The Deviant Tradition, a short season of performed readings from the works of German writers Heiner Muller and Tankred Dorst alongside excerpts of work by McGrath’s old drug buddy, Alexander Trocchi. The material was post-modern in excelsis, and like nothing the Lyceum stage had seen before. This would directly lead to a main-stage production of Dorst’s two-part epic, Merlin, translated by Wildridge and adapted by McGrath. A year later at the launch of a biography of Trocchi, McGrath arrived sporting a wildly-coloured shirt that Trocchi had gifted him years before.

McGrath wrote Buchanan, about the boxer Ken Buchanan, for The Traverse in 1993, wrote a version of Kidnapped for the Lyceum in 1994, and adapted a beautiful translation of Daniel Danis’ Stones and Ashes for The Traverse in 1995. McGrath also toured the Highlands with The Traverse, running writers workshops. McGrath wrote a new take on Frankenstein for Catherine Wheels, The Dream Train for Magnetic North, which was later produced in Germany and Finland, and a version of Electra for Theatre Babel in 2000.

McGrath and Wildridge settled in Kingskettle, Fife, and, back at The Traverse, while no new plays were forthcoming, McGrath became resident pianist for a time at the Monday Lizard, a Monday night platform for short play-readings performed script-in-hand in the theatre bar and founded by himself and Wildridge. One night, during the mid 1990s throes of Ecstasy culture and with a new literati looking to Trocchi and other literary outlaws for inspiration, during one contributer’s techno-set paean to the enlightening powers of the new drug, McGrath started heckling, telling the recently converted as only one who’d been there, done that could, that they were talking rubbish.

McGrath’s role as Associate Literary Director became increasingly marginalised, and in an interview in The Herald in 2005, he likened his departure to leaving London at the end of the 1960s. He suffered a stroke in 2003, but recovered enough to finish his final performed work, My Old Man, for Magnetic North in 2005. The play’s subject was a man on the verge of death who simply refused to go gentle into that good night.

McGrath’s final legacy was Playwrights Studio Scotland, which was set up as a direct result of his experience as Associate Literary director, and for which he was named Director Emeritus.

Two nights before McGrath’s death, in keeping with the current flowering of small-scale arts events, The Traverse bar had once again turned to hosting performed readings at an event called Wildfire. Beneath a Fluxus-style installation of paper planes on which the audience had hung their comments on the evening, those gathered were asked to stand in the centre of the room and close their eyes while a multi-media rendition of the Futurist Manifesto, a hundred years old that day, was performed in a touchy-feely fashion. In a mini production that was a fun embodiment of the avant-garde, it seemed to represent everything that McGrath’s creative life had been about. If he’d been there, one imagines McGrath laughing heartily, lapping up every old-new idea with approval, his Glasgow Zen alive and attuned to every possibility.

McGrath is survived by Wildridge, by three of four daughters to his ex wife Maureen, and five grand-children.

The Herald, May 2009

ends

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