Obituary: Kenneth McLeish

Stephen Unwin
Thursday 11 December 1997 00:02

John Kenneth Tyrrell McLeish, writer, playwright and translator: born Glasgow 10 October 1940; married 1967 Valerie Heath (two sons); died Boston, Lincolnshire 28 November 1997.

Kenneth McLeish was the most widely respected and prolific translator of drama in Britain. His output included all 47 of the surviving classical Greek plays, most of Ibsen and Feydeau, as well as individual plays by Plautus, Moliere, Jarry, Strindberg, Horvath and Labiche.

He was a brilliant linguist and, unusually nowadays, only translated from languages he knew fluently. He had learnt Latin and Greek as well as French at Bradford Grammar School and, after a cycling holiday round Scandinavia as a schoolboy, taught himself Swedish, Danish and Norwegian from books and dictionaries in the public library.

The energy, enthusiasm and sheer joy he brought to this were extraordinary. His translations were staged by companies ranging from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National to the Gate, Cheek by Jowl and Actors Touring Company, and he took a passionate and practical interest in the productions. Three of the most successful were Deborah Warner's Electra for the RSC (1988), Katie Mitchell's Women of Troy at the Gate in London (1991) and my own Hedda Gabler for English Touring Theatre (1996).

McLeish was a man of the theatre and he understood that a good actor can work with the sharpest and most elliptical text. He trusted actors and they trusted him. Ibsen insisted that his realistic plays should be translated into everyday speech; in Ken McLeish he found his greatest exponent.

But he was as much polymath as polyglot, and he wrote and edited a formidable range of literary guides and cultural companions. His Theatre of Aristophanes (1980), although dismissed in some quarters as populist, was a milestone in the understanding and appreciation of Greek comedy. Other books include the encyclo-paedic Penguin Companion to the Arts in the Twentieth Century (1985), and the ambitious and wide-ranging Bloomsbury Guide to Human Thought (1993), as well as his hugely influential Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide (1988) and Myth (1996), a tour of world mythologies. Next year will see the publication of his Guide to Greek Drama and The Pocket Guide to Shakespeare, which he and I wrote together for Faber.

But, for all of the breadth of his knowledge, McLeish believed in getting down to the essence of the piece. He wasn't afraid of big ideas, but hated woolliness and pretentiousness. His work was punchy and sometimes provocative. He had an enviable ability to sum up a complicated concept with economy and wit. His books are invaluable to both specialists and the general reader.

McLeish always seemed to be cooking up some new scheme or other; and his interests were eclectic. He wrote a number of original plays and filmscripts (including Orpheus for Actors Touring Company in 1997 and Vice at the Vicarage for Frankie Howerd in 1978), adapted The Oresteia with Frederic Raphael for BBC Television (The Serpent's Tongue, 1979), was working on a musical adaptation of Whisky Galore, read voraciously and tended his garden. If he had a fault it was that he did too much.

He was also an accomplished musician; a friend recalls him playing at his wedding and making an ordinary electric organ sound like a baroque instrument. He had studied Music under Edmund Rubbra, as well as Classics, at Worcester College, Oxford, and when he became a teacher was forever rescoring musical pieces for plays and concerts and finding ways of giving schoolchildren the experience of the classics. If he hadn't taken up teaching and writing, he might well have pursued his first love and become a full-time composer.

After Oxford, McLeish starting teaching, mostly Classics, first at Watford Grammar School, then in Walsall and at Bedales. Although he turned to writing and translating full-time in 1975, his commitment to young people and a popular readership was central to all his work. His background was working-class Bradford and, although not explicitly political, he had radical and Quaker sympathies and hated snobbery of whatever kind. He used to scoff at the stuffiness of certain kinds of academic scholarship, but no one could fault the range and accuracy of his knowledge or his attention to detail.

It was in 1965, when working on The Soldier's Tale for Focus Opera, that he met his wife Valerie, then a music teacher. They collaborated on many occasions, including their very successful Listeners' Guide to Classical Music (1986). They were a devoted couple and, after his first stroke in 1980, she tried to protect him from the inevitable strains of his energy and drive. They lived in a modest house in the Fens, where McLeish worked away on a battered computer in a tiny study overlooking the garden.

He was a kind, modest man, big-hearted with a rough and ready sense of humour. He could argue his case forcefully, but always with a smile. His strength was that he passionately believed that the great works of the past should be communicated to the present in ways that neither patronised the reader nor compromised the original. In times when those ideals are too often ignored, Ken McLeish's was a brave and brilliant voice.

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