Self-taught playwright and trade union activist
Although self-taught in theatre, and having only a brief playwriting career before his untimely death in 1965, writer Sam Thompson’s work had a groundbreaking effect on theatre in Northern Ireland.
Born in 1916 (his family lived at Montrose Street, Belfast), Thompson began a five-year painter’s apprenticeship at the Harland and Wolff shipyard at the age of 14. He remained for several years as a fully fledged craftsman and trade union member, of which he would become a lifelong advocate, also supporting the Worker’s Educational Association. He left the yards in 1943 to set up his own business as a painting contractor, before working for Belfast Corporation.
Encouraged by BBC producer Sam Hanna Bell in the mid 1950s, Thompson began writing radio features such as Brush in Hand (1956), Tommy Baxter, Shop Steward (1957), The Long Back Street (1958), The General Foreman (1958) and the serial The Fairmans (1958). These offered vivid and varied accounts of the life and community from which Thompson came, including tales of school days, neighbourhood camaraderie, the Twelfth week, life in the shipyard and the trade union movement.
Thompson occasionally performed in his features and on the stage, and harboured ambitions to write a stage play. Over the Bridge, a play centring on a group of trade union officials challenged by an outbreak of sectarianism in the Belfast shipyards, was the product of several years’ hard work. James Ellis, the recently appointed producer of the Ulster Group Theatre, accepted the play for production.
However, in May 1959 the company’s directors announced that they were withdrawing the play just two weeks before its scheduled opening; they described the play as ‘full of grossly vicious phrases and situations which would undoubtedly offend and affront every section of the public … It is the policy of the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage’.
This pronouncement prompted a stream of resignations from the UGT, and exposed the narrow political parameters within which publicly funded theatre operated. It made front page news, and Thompson subsequently successfully sued for breach of contract.
His play was finally staged in January 1960 at the Empire Theatre by the newly assembled Over the Bridge Productions, comprising Ellis, Thompson, Henry Lynch Robinson and many of those previously associated with the UGT. It proved a tremendous success, and toured Dublin, Scotland and England. Far from offending audiences, Sam Hanna Bell thought ‘it was possible to detect a quite extraordinary feeling of relief that at last the unclean spirit of sectarianism had been dragged before the footlights’.
Sam Thompson went on to write just three more plays. The Evangelist, a play about revivalism and responses to it, was staged in a major production at Belfast’s Grand Opera House in 1963. Cemented with Love, a television play dealing with the politics of an election campaign, was screened posthumously in 1965 after several postponements. The Masquerade, a London based study of a psychopathic thug, was discovered after his death, and showed clear evidence of experimental development in theme and form.
Though criticised by some for faults in construction, these plays have more often been praised for their passion, dignity and stubborn courage, and celebrated by The Irish Times as ‘a brickbat hurled violently against all bigotry’.
A member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, Thompson stood for the South Down constituency in the 1964 General Election. A year later, he died suddenly of a heart attack. His death was described as a grievous loss to theatre, Stewart Parker stating that he had ‘never been more needed than in the dark days since his death’. To this day, Over the Bridge is ‘regarded as an important turning point in the history of Northern Ireland’s cultural modernisation’ (Lionel Pilkington). Through Thompson’s efforts, theatre in Northern Ireland would never be the same again.
Over the Bridge and Other Plays (1997) edited by John Keyes; Sam Thompson and Modern Drama in Ulster (1986) by Hagel Mengel.
© Ophelia Byrne