WORLD-OBITS-L ArchivesArchiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2007-09 > 1190156974
From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [WORLD-OBITS] MACDONALD: Robert David MacDonald apr/may,2004
Date: Wed, 19 Sep 2007 00:09:34 +0100
Robert David MacDonald
The Daily Telegraph and the telgraph.co.uk
Robert David MacDonald, who died on Wednesday aged 74, was a playwright,
translator and actor who - with the director Giles Havergal and the designer
Philip Prowse - ran Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre for more than three decades.
The triumvirate's period in charge made the theatre, according to the critic
Michael Coveney, "the most exciting and most influential" in Britain. Others
disapproved of what they saw as high camp, mannered performances and a
preference for Left-wing European dramatists over the repertory staples
which had been the theatre's primary output since it was founded by the
playwright James Bridie in the early 1940s.
But there was no doubt that the company's international standing was in
large part due to MacDonald's versions of European plays. He produced more
than 60 translations of plays and operas, and wrote 14 new works for the
company, as well as directing some 50 productions and acting in a score of
During MacDonald's time as co-director, the theatre launched the careers of
actors as diverse as Rupert Everett, Pierce Brosnan, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth,
Helen Baxendale and Ciaran Hinds, and also brought established figures such
as Glenda Jackson to the Gorbals, where the programmes listed everyone
involved in the production - from the cleaners to the stars - in
For years, a sign declaring "All seats 50p" blazed over what was then a slum
area: "the Citz", as Glaswegians knew it, could claim a large share of the
credit for the revitalisation of that part of the city, and for Glasgow's
reinvention when it was named European City of Culture for 1990.
MacDonald cut an imposing figure - at any rate off stage. While not everyone
thought his acting appearances assisted the Citizens' reputation, he shone
in investigative literary energy. He claimed fluency in six languages, and
insisted that a translator should work only from the original text. But he
understood that dictionary translations alone were not adequate, citing the
computer which rendered "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" into
the Russian for "The whisky is fine but the meat has gone off."
Although his style of writing was once described as "Shaw pulled through a
hedge backwards and colliding with Ivy Compton-Burnett on the other side",
and his programme notes tended towards the pompous, MacDonald played a
crucial role in making the Glasgow Citizens' more honoured abroad than in
its own country; and he translated and directed plays by Goldoni, Lermontov,
Chekhov, Racine, Beaumarchais, Musset, Sartre, Cocteau, Schiller and Goethe.
The historian Niall Ferguson maintained that he had been inspired to study
after seeing MacDonald's translation of Karl Kraus's Last Days of Mankind -
a satire on the First World War intended to be unstageable which was
produced at the Edinburgh Festival of 1982, along with Rosenkavalier -
without Strauss's music.
Tall, white-haired, waspish, frosty, with an acidly witty style of speech
which he dubbed "gutter mandarin" and a neo-Wildean quip for all occasions,
MacDonald snarled at the "pig ignorance" of critics.
Among MacDonald's own plays were Camille (1974), in which Marguerite
Gautier's tragic romance was counterpointed with Dumas' own affair with
Marie Duplessis, The De Sade Show (1975) for which he raided the novels
Justine and The 120 Days of Sodom and which incited The Scotsman's critic to
write of a "hideous exhibition of profanity . . . defiling the name of drama
. . . we are debased".
Chinchilla (1977) dealt with Nijinski and Diaghilev; Summit Conference
(1978) supposed a meeting in 1941 of the mistresses of Hitler and Mussolini;
A Waste of Time was a witty reduction of Proust's A La Recherche du Temps
Perdu, (1980); Don Juan was staged at the Round House, Chalk Farm (1980) and
Webster (1983) dealt with the private life of the Jacobean author.
Summit Conference was acted by Glenda Jackson and Georgina Hale in the West
End (Lyric Theatre, 1982). Jackson also played, in Glasgow, Mother Courage
in MacDonald's version of Brecht's play, and appeared in his version of
Racine's Phedre at the Old Vic in 1984.
MacDonald's best-known translations before he worked at Glasgow were of
Tolstoy's War and Peace, which ran for two seasons on Broadway and in London
at the Old Vic and the Phoenix (1962), and two plays by Rolf Hochhuth.
The first, The Representative (Aldwych, 1963) for the Royal Shakespeare
Company, caused a stir over the question of why the Pope failed to intervene
with Hitler over his treatment of the Jews. The second, Soldiers (New, now
Albery, 1968) caused an even greater stir by implying that Winston Churchill
did nothing to prevent the death of the Polish leader Sikorsky in the Second
In 1984, MacDonald's third translation of another unwieldy Hochhuth play,
Judith, was staged at the Citizens'. It was about the assassination of an
American president. That year he also translated Lorca's House of Bernarda
Alba for a successful London revival with Glenda Jackson and Joan Plowright
(Lyric, Hammersmith, and Globe).
When the triumvirate's policy of ignoring Scottish matters in favour of
high-camp productions of obscure foreign classics irritated conservative
Glaswegians, one of MacDonald's lines, from one of his abstruse
translations, was always quoted: "You must expect the cream of society to be
both rich and thick."
It came from his version of Lermontov's Maskerade (1917) which Meyerhold had
staged with 200 actors after five years of rehearsal. MacDonald directed it
at Glasgow with 14 actors after just a few weeks' rehearsal.
Robert David MacDonald - always known as David - was born into a Glaswegian
family of tobacco barons at Elgin on August 27 1929; his mother was a
doctor. He was educated at Wellington School, at Magdalen, Oxford, and the
Royal College of Music.
After three years' national service he studied conducting at Munich
Conservatory before abandoning music and taking a job as a translator for
Unesco. There he met the German director Erwin Piscator whose version of War
and Peace he put into English for Broadway and London. When televised in
America, it won an Emmy award.
In 1960 MacDonald was appointed director of Her Majesty's, Carlisle, a
repertory theatre, and the following year gave Havergal - who was eight
years his junior - his first job.
MacDonald moved to America in 1967 as a freelance director, staging plays in
Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis and Atlanta. Having worked at Watford with
Havergal, he rejoined him when Havergal moved to Glasgow.
His later productions included (as writer) Anna Karenina (1987) and two
shows which he wrote and acted in: Conundrum (1992) and In Quest of
Conscience (1994). His final work was directing an adaptation of Henry
Green's novel Nothing. He left the Citizens' last year.
Robert David MacDonald is survived by Henry Mann, his companion of many
Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2006.
|[WORLD-OBITS] MACDONALD: Robert David MacDonald apr/may,2004 by "Peter McCrae" <>|