Ulster Group Theatre: From Foundation to the Festival of Britain

Listen to Dr Scott Boltwood's Linen Hall Library talk on the formation of the Ulster Group Theatre


The Ulster Group Theatre still casts a long shadow over the performing arts in Northern Ireland. For 20 years it was the 'Abbey Theatre in Belfast', encouraging new playwrights, such as Joseph Tomelty and Brian Friel, and employing over 312 actors during its reign. It is an icon of Northern Irish Theatre, despite its ignominious – and ultimately self-destroying – treatment of Sam Thompson's Over the Bridges.

Isn't that all you need to know about it?

Leverhulme lecturer Dr Scott Boltwood doesn't agree and in the first of two lectures on the UGT at the Linen Hall Library he delves back into the early days of the theatre, from just before its inception in the 1930s to its heyday during the 1940s. Boltwood rues the scarcity of detail for the early years, and some of the less well-known actors and playwrights, and part of his motive for holding these talks is to lure out anyone with UGT connections (a ploy somewhat foiled on this occasion by an abruptly announced bus strike). What he does share, however, ranges from the interesting to the fascinating.

He has scans of old theatre programmes, information on how many plays the UGT staged (205) and a breakdown of the most popular plays, playwrights and directors. UGT founder Harold Goldbatt (pictured above) directed 80 plays between 1940 and 1959, and either George Shiels or Tomelty could claim to be the most popular director, with Tomelty's Is the Priest Home boasting the longest run (18 weeks) while Shiels wrote the most plays.

Many of which, despite the statement made during the Sam Thompson controversy that it was the ‘policy of the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage’, were political in nature. Boltwood points in particular to Borderline by George Shiels, a play about smuggling. In it a female character is accused of breaking the law, 'What law?' she asks. 'If you mean the six-county law – that's a law I don't recognise and never will.'

Boltwood's enthusiasm for the subject is contagious, fizzing with eagerness and waving a laser pointer enthusiastically, and it is fun to see scans of old theatre programmes and cast photos of actors who were often household names in their day. There are a surprising number of women named on flyers over the years, and not just as actors. Nita Hardie, another founder member, directed 10 plays for the UGT, and Elizabeth Begley directed an all female production of In Donegall Square.

Interesting, but entirely indicitive of changing attitudes. One woman, Boltwood points her out in a photo, appeared frequently with the UGT during the war years – until her soldier husband came home and found out what she was getting up to.

The war, Boltwood notes, was one of the reasons that the UGT was so successful. Films weren't being sent over from America, so more and more people wanted to go to the theatre. The advent of television, making access to entertainment easier, was a factor in the UGT's decline during the 50s.

The next Boltwood Lecture is Triumph, Controversy and State Take-over on April 27 at the Linenhall Library. With thanks to the Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College for the image of Harold Goldblatt.