Obituary: Brian Johnston / CMU professor shook up established view of Ibsen

Died March 2, 2013

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There are many stories about Brian Johnston, world-renowned Ibsen scholar, CMU professor, Middle East human rights activist and educator, but perhaps the most noteworthy has to have been when he was teaching at American University in Beirut in the 1980s.

Even as the city became increasingly dangerous, and some of his fellow university professors had been kidnapped, Mr. Johnston still ventured out, until one day he was stopped at a checkpoint by a man with a machine gun and a black cloth over his face, recalled Jed Harris, a longtime colleague.

He was certain that he was about to be taken, when the man lifted his cloth slightly and said, "Have you graded your papers yet, professor Johnston?" and waved him on.

That's how good a teacher he was, Mr. Harris said.

Mr. Johnston of Wilkinsburg died of cancer March 2 at UPMC Montefiore at the age of 80. He will be memorialized at a service at the end of May, said fellow CMU drama professor Barbara MacKenzie-Wood, who called him one of the shining lights in that university's school of drama.

Mr. Johnston was one of the forces behind Pittsburgh's American Ibsen Theatre, "that grand and often magnificent dramaturg-driven theatrical experiment" that lasted for three seasons in the mid-1980s, said Mr. Harris, a longtime CMU colleague and producer.

"The thing you must understand about Brian was that he was the primary source for radical thinking about Ibsen," he added, noting that Mr. Johnston's 1970 book, "The Ibsen Cycle" was the first to move away from a social realist view of his plays, "laying out the possibility of them as a connected work" along the lines of Greek tragedy.

As editor of the Norton Anthologies of Henrik Ibsen's plays, and controversial critic of that playwright's works, he shook up the existing Ibsen "establishment" in Britain with that approach, said Rick Davis, his longtime collaborator and co-translator.

Mr. Johnston argued that the Norwegian playwright's dozen plays between 1877 and 1899, including "Hedda Gabler" and "A Doll's House," were not just a reflection of the social conditions of the times. His views caused a furor among scholars at Oxford and Cambridge.

"He had a running feud with the Ibsen establishment in Britain. They really hated his book, and wanted to see each play as an individual play." Nowadays, though, he added, "Ibsen scholarship has to deal with Brian, whose idea of an Ibsen 'cycle' has been assimilated in the critical discourse."

Mr. Johnston's analysis made it possible for Ibsen to be staged without regard to the period, he said. "No longer does Ibsen have to be performed in realistic settings, in period costumes. He is timeless, and Brian's scholarship really moved that."

Mr. Davis noted that in their partnership Mr. Johnston served as the linguist, translating Ibsen from the original Norwegian, while he served as the "polisher," refining the end result.

Every bit the image of the dapper, upper-class gentleman, Mr. Johnston actually grew up in poverty and served in a series of menial jobs before joining the Royal Air Force after World War II. That eventually led to a scholarship to Cambridge.

Leaving American University in Beirut after being warned by another student that he had been targeted for kidnapping that night, he escaped by boat and made his way to Pittsburgh and CMU, where he continued to teach and write until his retirement in 2007. He also returned to the Middle East frequently to work with peace groups on the West Bank.

He is survived by a brother, Tony, and three sisters, Margaret, Pauline and Dinah, who all live in Great Britain.

Details on Mr. Johnston's forthcoming memorial service will be announced, said Ms. MacKenzie-Wood.


Mackenzie Carpenter: or 412-263-1949.


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