Brian Johnston, Professor Emeritus in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama and internationally recognized authority on the plays of Henrik Ibsen died on March 2 in Pittsburgh. He was eighty. His life’s journey was as interesting as it was improbable.
Born into poverty, he left home at the age of thirteen after dropping out of elementary school. He wandered in search of various unskilled laboring jobs in England before joining the British Army and serving three years in Malaysia. Following his discharge in 1953, he worked at other unskilled employment, and spent a year at Fircroft College, Birmingham. Professor Johnston then gained a scholarship to Cambridge University, receiving a First Class Honors Degree in 1960. From 1964 to 1968 he taught at Northwestern University, followed by positions at the University of California-Berkeley and Santa Barbara.
Unable to secure a teaching position following his return to Britain, he worked for the postal service while writing his first book The Ibsen Cycle. He went on to teach at Cambridge, Norges Laererhøgskolen in Trondheim, Norway, Jordon’s Yarmouk University and the University of Jordan, and Beirut University College. In 1986 he was teaching at the American University of Beirut. Despite being warned repeatedly by the State Department to leave, he remained at his post until he was forced to flee the country following his attempted kidnapping by Islamic Jihad in which two other American University professors were taken hostage. That same year he joined the faculty of the School of Drama, Carnegie Mellon University, and taught there until his retirement in 2007.
In addition to The Ibsen Cycle He published two other critical studies of Ibsen: To the Third Empire: Ibsen’s Early Plays (1980) and Text and Supertext in Ibsen’s Drama (1988). Both books offered radical correctives to traditional Ibsen scholarship, and their initial critical reception ran the gamut from hostility to grudging acceptance. They are now regarded as classic texts and professor Johnston went on to edit the Norton Critical Edition of Ibsen’s plays published in 2004. His translations of Ibsen include A Doll House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler, The Lady from the Sea, Rosmersholm, Little Eyolf, Emperor and Galilean, and Peer Gynt. They have been produced at major professional theaters across the United States including Center Stage, Baltimore; Alliance Theater, Atlanta; Berkeley Repertory Theater; Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, D.C; and Alaska’s Perseverance Theater.
From 1986 to 1991 he was the editor the journal Theater Three. He has lectured on Ibsen in the United States and internationally and is the author of numerous essays and reviews in various theater magazines and journals. Four volumes of his translations have been published by Smith and Kraus.
Following his retirement Professor continued to write, traveled frequently to Britain, launched an educational website Ibsen Voyages and devoted much of his time to human rights issues, especially those of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories.
By Barbara MacKenzie-Wood and Jim Nieson