By David Edgar
It’s saddening to report that playwright and Guild member Peter Whelan has died at 82. As fellow RSC associate artists, we met and colluded frequently. He’d had health problems over many years (complications following a hip replacement) and was confined to hospital during rehearsals for his Morris/Rossetti play at the Almeida, The Earthly Paradise. But fellow playwright and Guardian interviewer Samantha Ellis found him working, from his bed, on a new play.
The son of a lithographic artist, Peter was born and brought up in Stoke on Trent, accounting for his fascination with history and pottery. A considerable actor at the Questors Theatre, Ealing, he played Guildenstern in an early version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, directed by Tom Stoppard himself. But although he always intended to be a playwright, he didn’t start writing till he was almost 40. His first play for the RSC, Captain Swing, was picked up off the mat.
Peter’s subsequent work for the company included The Accrington Pals (being revived this year), Clay and The Bright and Bold Design (both potteries plays) and A Russian in the Woods, based on his national service in postwar Berlin. His best known plays – also for the RSC – were set in the English renaissance. His Marlowe/Thomas Kyd play The School of Night was revived at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and his play about Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, The Herbal Bed, had runs in the West End and on Broadway (and, with his Birmingham Rep play about the monarchy, Divine Right, won him a Guild best regional play award in 1996). For me, the scene in The School of Night in which the unknown actor Tom Stone is revealed to be Shakespeare (“Two writers under one roof is one too many”. “If you ask me, it’s two too many”. “Especially when there are three”) is one of the great dramatic coups of the contemporary theatre. He also wrote for broadcast (his television work included The Trial of Lord Lucan for Granada).
Peter was no pushover – in or out of the rehearsal room – but his kindness and generosity of spirit shone through his work. Four years ago, we found ourselves pursuing the same subject, and his withdrawal was typically gracious. He was unfailingly supportive to younger writers, and a great friend. The RSC were lucky to have him. Our condolences go to his wife of 56 years, Ffrangcon, and their children.