The Edwin Morgan Papers: Joan Ure – Take Back Your Old Rib, Then

This month’s blog from our series highlighting gems from MS Morgan D – Correspondence: Named individuals features Edwin Morgan’s file of correspondence with the Scottish poet and playwright Joan Ure, and illustrates Eddie’s role as cultural commentator on the Scottish arts scene.

‘Joan Ure’ was the pseudonym of Elizabeth (Betty) Thomson Clark (1918-1978).  Edwin and Betty crossed paths in the 1960s, both as poets and as playwright and critic, corresponding between 1962 and 1970.

MS Morgan DC-7_03a

MS Morgan DC/7

Betty spent most of her life in and around Glasgow, however, she was born in Wallsend, near Newcastle, on 22 June 1918, the daughter of John MacFie Carswell, a Scottish engineering draughtsman, and Janet (Jenny) Love Thomson.

When Betty was twelve her mother contracted Tuberculosis (TB) and was thereafter permanently invalided, thus requiring her to combine looking after her father and three siblings with her schoolwork.  She left Langside Academy at fourteen and worked as a typist prior to her marriage to John Clark, a Glasgow businessman.  Betty gave birth to their daughter, Frances, in 1939 while John was away fighting in the Second World War.

Betty Clark contracted TB at the age of twenty-nine and it was while she was hospitalised that she began writing, later joining Edward Scoular’s creative writing class at Langside College on the South side of Glasgow.  She wrote poetry at first, but subsequently developed an interest in play writing.  She reportedly chose her pseudonym ‘Joan Ure’ to distance her role as writer from that of wife and mother.

In his article Clark, Elizabeth Thomson (1918-1978)’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Robert Trotter noted:

Ploughing a lonely furrow in the Scotland of the 1950s, Elizabeth veered more and more towards the particular challenge of playwriting, one especially daunting for a woman in a heavily male-orientated society. Strikingly beautiful, but physically fragile from the tuberculosis and the anorexia nervosa which were to lead to her comparatively early death, and constantly aware of the conflicting demands of conventional marriage and deeply committed writing, she gradually found, or created, platforms for her work.

Along with Ena Lamont Stewart and Ada F Kay, Joan Ure went on to found the Scottish Society of Playwrights in November 1973.  The Society was established in response to a need for a co-ordinated voice for playwrights to be heard in Scottish theatre, and to act as a playwriting development and promotional agency.

Betty died of respiratory failure on 24 February 1978 in Ballochmyle Hospital, Mauchline, Ayrshire.  In the introduction to Joan Ure Five Short Plays, published in 1979, Christopher Small commented:

When Joan Ure died in early 1978, at the height of her powers, the loss to Scottish writing, and especially writing for the stage, was immeasurable – such losses cannot in any case be measured, but in hers it was especially poignant, since she was just beginning to receive some of the recognition long overdue to her talents.

MS Morgan DC/7 contains primarily correspondence between EM and Betty Clark, with the vast majority of letters being from Clark.  It also includes typescript poems by Joan Ure, Betty Clark’s pen-name, with some signed ‘Betty’.  The letters demonstrate both Betty Clark’s playful side, and her struggles.  For example, a pink letter is typed by Betty Clark announcing that Elizabeth Clark has started printing poems of her protégé Joan Ure.

MS Morgan DC-7_02a

MS Morgan DC/7

Enclosed with the letter was two pages of typed poems ‘Self Portrait (1)’ and ‘Self Portrait (2)’.

Moreover, this file illustrates Edwin Morgan’s engagement with the local arts scene and his role as a theatre critic.

EM’s review of Ure’s play I See Myself As This Young Girl, which had been performed in the recently opened Close Theatre in Glasgow, was broadcast on the BBC Scottish Home Service radio programme Arts Review on 4 October 1967, the transcript of which can be found in MS Morgan K: Projects.

In his review Eddie commentated:

This is a low-keyed ‘mood play’, with scarcely any action, but the surface gentleness conceals not a few unsheathing claws: it’s an intensely feminine, not to say feminist, piece.  It has the virtue that it does establish a certain view of woman’s frustrations and possibilities….  It seems to have two weaknesses. The dialogue did not, for me, fully convince; too often it sounded forced and unnatural….  And secondly, the play doesn’t and can’t make much actual use of the theatre, which seems a pity when this flexible open stage is asking to be experimented with.

In a letter to EM dated 19 October 1967, which Clark addressed ‘Not yet dear Edwin – but it’ll come’, she opened by stating:

I think I hurt you saying that your review of my play seemed to me condescending.  Later when I’m more likely to be objective, I’ll play the atrocious incident back…

This was part of an ongoing correspondence concerning EM’s review of the play and Clark goes on to argue her case passionately.  Shortly afterwards Betty wrote again.  This time the handwritten letter opens with the words:

The paranoiac phase is past…

Two years later Ure’s play went on to be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland in 1969 (see STA Km 3/3), and was published in Two Plays by Joan Ure in Spring 1970.  For anyone interested in learning more about the play I See Myself As This Young Girl the Scottish Theatre Archive has numerous documents including production photographs, annotated scripts and a programme.

STA Ex 2_4b

STA Ex 2/4b

Furthermore, the Scottish Theatre Archive holds a wealth of documents relating to Joan Ure, for further information on accessing either this collection, or MS Morgan, please contact the Special Collections at: special@lib.gla.ac.uk

For a rare glimpse of an image of Joan Ure please see http://www.sheilakcameron.com/id140.html

Robert Trotter, ‘Clark , Elizabeth Thomson (1918–1978)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/60220, accessed 13 Dec 2013]



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