We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  (Robert) David MacDonald (1929–2004), by Richard Campbell, c.2003 (Robert) David MacDonald (1929–2004), by Richard Campbell, c.2003
MacDonald, (Robert) David (1929–2004), translator, director, and playwright, was born on 27 August 1929 in Elgin, Moray. His mother was a doctor and his father an executive in the family tobacco business (MacDonald's of Glasgow, established in 1840). He grew up in rural Scotland and was educated at Wellington School, Somerset. After national service in Trieste with the intelligence corps he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied modern history. His love of music and ability as a pianist then took him to the Royal College of Music and the Munich Conservatory, where he studied conducting. By young adulthood he spoke at least eight languages fluently—an autodidact in this respect, the imprecision was of his own making, and he dismissed Dutch, for example, as ‘an after-dinner attainment’. He was soon in demand as an interpreter and translator, and in this latter capacity he worked in New York for UNESCO, translating reports about the wheat yield in Argentina. There he learned the importance of working only from the original text and of being wary of too literate an approach to translation; he cited an occasion when Russian translators fed the sentence ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ into a computer and had it come out as ‘The whisky is good but the meat has gone off’ (Daily Telegraph, 21 May 2004).

While with UNESCO MacDonald met the radical German theatre director Erwin Piscator, and his life took a significant turn as a result. He started to work in the theatre, directing Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde at the Berlin festival and later working as an assistant director at both Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, before being appointed artistic director of Her Majesty's Theatre, Carlisle, in 1960. His European connections bore fruit when he translated Piscator's 1962 stage version of War and Peace, which ran on Broadway for two years, was televised by Granada, and received an Emmy award when broadcast in America. The play became a staple diet of repertory theatres throughout Europe.

Piscator, newly appointed as director of the Volksbühne in Berlin, directed a play by the documentary dramatist Rolf Hochhuth, Der Stellvertreter, about the alleged indifference of Pope Pius XII to the holocaust; MacDonald translated the play as The Representative and it was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre in 1963. He also translated the next Piscator–Hochhuth collaboration, the equally controversial play Soldaten (‘Soldiers’) at the behest of Kenneth Tynan, then literary manager of the National Theatre. In the play Winston Churchill was tendentiously implicated in the aeroplane crash that killed the wartime Polish leader General Sikorski. An incensed National Theatre board vetoed the play; Tynan took it to the producer Michael White, who presented it in the West End in 1969.

Everything in MacDonald's career came into focus when he joined Giles Havergal (whom he had employed as an assistant stage manager at Carlisle in 1961) and the designer Philip Prowse as an artistic director of the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre in 1971. Under this triumvirate the Citizens', founded by the Scottish playwright James Bridie in 1943, became arguably Britain's foremost repertory theatre, with an astonishing programme of European and contemporary plays, most of them either translated or written by MacDonald. As well as rare plays from the Jacobean repertoire, local audiences in the Gorbals could sample MacDonald's witty and idiomatic versions of plays by Goethe, Schiller, Lermontov, Goldoni, Sartre, Karl Kraus, de Musset, de Sade, and Brecht, unintimidated by literary reputation or ‘standards of excellence’. The theatre was also responsible for launching the careers of such actors as Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Rupert Everett, Ciaran Hinds, Pierce Brosnan, Siân Thomas, and Paola Dionisotti. MacDonald's wide cultural interests overlapped tellingly with those of Philip Prowse, Havergal operating brilliantly as the guiding light, public face, politician, and impresario of the regime. Crucially, the theatre kept its seat prices low, believing that public moneys were best spent on audiences, not scenic extravagance. Paradoxically, the brilliance of Prowse's designs deceived critics into thinking the opposite was the case. Ingenuity, practicality, and good housekeeping—the theatre was never in debt—underpinned the policy and ensured the creative survival and blossoming of the directors.

Although his work was primarily dramaturgical—he produced more than sixty translations of plays and operas from ten languages—MacDonald directed some fifty productions and often trod the boards in Glasgow. He played the piano in Prowse's sumptuous rediscovery of Noel Coward's bisexual extravaganza Semi-Monde in 1977 and in a production of Hamlet where he was made up to resemble the Abbé Liszt, some of whose more fiendishly difficult works he casually dispensed during the evening (although he refused to play on the night that the pianist Sviatoslav Richter visited the theatre, more out of respect than trepidation). His work was much admired by Glenda Jackson, who, before she retired from the stage to go into politics, appeared in MacDonald's exceptional translations of Racine's Phèdre and Brecht's Mother Courage.

Many of MacDonald's plays, the first being Dracula (1972), were written specifically for the company. Two of them, both landmark Prowse productions, were especially notable. Chinchilla (1977) found analogies for the Citizens' aesthetic in a half-disguised study of personalities at the Ballets Russes at the moment when Diaghilev switched loyalties from Nijinsky to Massine. A Waste of Time (1980), a brilliant distillation, in just four hours, of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, merits comparison with Harold Pinter's very fine, but different, screenplay. In Summit Conference (1978) MacDonald contrived a comedy of bad manners between Eva Braun and Clara Petacci, mistresses of Hitler and Mussolini (the roles were played in London by Glenda Jackson and Georgina Hale). Webster (1983) was a remarkable sequel to Chinchilla, another piece about the ensemble ethic in the guise of a fictional biography of the Jacobean dramatist John Webster. Halfway through the writing MacDonald realized that the title role was far too long for the actor to learn in a short rehearsal period, so he made him talk rapidly and at length in the first act and remain totally silent in the second after being shot in the jaw.

MacDonald once described his writing style as ‘gutter mandarin’ (The Guardian, 24 May 2004). One critic went further: ‘like Shaw pulled through a hedge backwards and colliding with Ivy Compton-Burnett on the other side’ (Daily Telegraph, 21 May 2004). His dialogue, like his conversational style, was brilliant, erudite, and aphoristic. Among his favourite playwrights was the eighteenth-century Venetian Carlo Goldoni whom he praised as ‘the virtuoso of the superficial. Everything is there in either action or word. This is a great skill shared by a few people, of whom Raymond Chandler would be another’ (The Guardian, 24 May 2004). MacDonald also loved Chekhov and, like Michael Frayn, translated him directly from the Russian. ‘All Chekhov's plays’, he said, ‘seem to me to be about out-of-work actors. Certainly, all of his characters behave like out-of-work actors’ (ibid.).

MacDonald (known as David rather than Robert) was a tall, handsome man, with a forbidding air but an attractive quality of wearing his knowledge lightly. One actor said that working with him was ‘like attending a very informal tutorial, terribly funny and interesting’ (The Times, 24 May 2004). MacDonald's last production as a director at the Citizens' was Andrea Hart's new adaptation of Henry Green's novel Nothing, and his last written work—his fourteenth for the company—was a Christmas pantomime, Snow White (2003). He died of a heart attack at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London, on 19 May 2004 and was survived by his companion of many years, the former dancer and antiques dealer Hon Yeung Man (known as Henry Mann).

Michael Coveney

Sources  

M. Coveney, The Citz: 21 years of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre (1990) · Daily Telegraph (21 May 2004) · The Scotsman (21 May 2004) · The Times (24 May 2004); (28 May 2004) · The Guardian (24 May 2004) · The Independent (28 June 2004) · personal knowledge (2008) · private information (2008) · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, performance footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, interview with M. Coveney, B7390/01 · BL NSA, current affairs recordings · BL NSA, performance recordings


Likenesses  

R. Campbell, photograph, c.2003, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow [see illus.] · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£544,887: probate, 29 Dec 2004, CGPLA Eng. & Wales