Stephen Mulrine – poet, playwright, translator, teacher
Born March 13, 1937; died January 14, 2020
Stephen Mulrine, who has died aged 82, was a writer whose craftsmanship extended to referring to himself as a wordsmith. As a poet, playwright and translator, however, his considerable output was rich both in artistry and construction. This was the case whether in his comic poem, Coming of the Wee Malkies, in his many translations of plays by Chekhov and other Russian writers, or in more contemporary fare such as Moscow Stations, his stage adaptation of Venedikt Yerofeev’s novel, which he also translated.
In Mulrine’s version, Yerofeev’s story of a boozy intellectual travelling through Brezhnev’s Soviet-era Russia was brought to life by Tom Courtenay at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh before transferring to London’s West End, where Courtenay won a Best Actor award. The production transferred to New York, and was later broadcast on BBC Radio 3. As with much of Mulrine’s work, Moscow Stations invested poetry into everyday speech in a way that brought it vividly to life.
Stephen Mulrine was born in Townhead, Glasgow, the eldest of five brothers and sisters, and attended St Mungo’s Academy. After National Service in the RAF as a radio engineer, he did stints as an apprentice gold beater and as a sales manager in John Lewis. It was here he met his future wife Elizabeth. The pair married in 1966, and remained together for the next fifty-three-years.
Mulrine took Highers at Skerry’s College in Glasgow, and went on to study English Literature at Glasgow University, where he graduated with first-class honours. After becoming a teacher at Possilpark, he was invited to join Glasgow School of Art’s newly created Liberal Studies department, despite him having no prior knowledge of art history.
Mulrine ran an informal creative writing group, whose participants included Liz Lochhead, and directed student plays, including a production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter featuring Robbie Coltrane. The Liberal Studies department was later renamed the Department of Historical and Critical Studies, with Mulrine being appointed its head.
Between 1975 and 1995, Mulrine was an extra-mural lecturer in creative writing at the University of Glasgow University, where he became president of the university’s literary society. Mulrine also became part of Philip Hobsbaum’s legendary writing group, and, alongside peers such as Tom Leonard and Tom McGrath, wrote poetry in a Glasgow dialect that became part of a new wave of Scottish writers who wrote in their own voice.
Coming of the Wee Malkies appeared in Noise and Smoky Breath, the era-defining illustrated anthology of Glasgow poets from 1900 to 1983 published by Sauchiehall Street arts lab, the Third Eye Centre. The poem was later referenced by Billy Connolly in his 1994 TV series, World Tour of Scotland. Mulrine’s monologue, A Good Buke, was later included in the 100 Scottish Poems to Read Out Loud anthology.
Mulrine’s move into translating came from his love of Chekhov and a desire to understand the plays in the language they had been written. He was awarded a post-graduate diploma in in Russian from the University of Strathclyde, and visited Moscow and what was then Leningrad.
Mulrine’s translations of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard were produced by English Touring Theatre, while his take on Uncle Vanya was chosen by Sir Peter Hall to open the Rose Theatre, Kingston on Thames. Hall also oversaw Mulrine’s versions of Chekhov’s Swansong and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Theatre Royal, Bath. Other translations by Mulrine included Ghosts and John Gabriel Borkman, both by Ibsen, and works by Molière, Pirandello and Strindberg.
For television, Mulrine’s original works included The Audition (1976), starring Ian Hendry, two episodes of the long-running Network series (1976-1977), and Extra Mural Study (1979) for the Scottish Playbill strand. There were episodes of long-running rural soap, Take the High Road, and The Human Crocodile (1980), an episode of Square Mile of Murder, based on Jack House’s book about real life killings that took place in the Charing Cross area of Glasgow. Mulrine also penned The Silly Season (1982) for the BBC’s long-running Play for Today season of stand-alone dramas, and The House on Kirov Street (1985) for Summer Season.
Mulrine regularly reviewed poetry on BBC Radio Scotland’s McGregor’s Gathering programme, and was a board member for the Scottish Arts Council and the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. He was later made a fellow of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Since retiring from Glasgow School of Art in 2001, Mulrine performed in the Merchant Voices choir, and latterly with the the Lanarkshire and Glasgow South Parkinson’s group choir. As a loyal reader of the Herald, Mulrine was an avid solver of the cryptic crossword, and was the proud owner of not one, but two Wee Stinker t-shirts. It was as a translator of the Russian classics, however, that Mulrine’s wit and eye for vernacular was brought to life in a way that tapped into each play’s human soul.
Mulrine is survived by his wife Elizabeth, their children Stephen, Leigh, and Jonathan, and six grand-children, Sean, Evan, Kyle, Iona, Egan and Oran.
The Herald, February 21st 2020