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Tom McGrath

Playwright, poet, musician; Born October 23, 1940; Died April 29, 2009.Tom McGrath, who has died from cancer aged 68, was a playwright and polymath without whom the arts scene in Scotland would not have been as vibrant. McGrath's plays began with Laurel and Hardy and The Hardman, both part of a long association with Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, and culminated in his final work, the quasi-autobiographical My Old Man.

Playwright, poet, musician; Born October 23, 1940; Died April 29, 2009.

Tom McGrath, who has died from cancer aged 68, was a playwright and polymath without whom the arts scene in Scotland would not have been as vibrant.

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McGrath's plays began with Laurel and Hardy and The Hardman, both part of a long association with Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, and culminated in his final work, the quasi-autobiographical My Old Man.

As an enabler, McGrath was a visionary, too, be it as features editor on Peace News and founding editor of International Times, the first artistic director of Glasgow's Third Eye Centre, now the site of the Centre of Contemporary Arts, as an instrumental force in setting up the Tron Theatre, or in his post as associate literary director (Scotland). McGrath's openness to new ideas allowed a generation of younger writers to blossom.

McGrath was a free-thinker who set the tone for the proliferation of alternative thought among an underground arts culture in Scotland that would not exist without him. Influenced both by American Beat literature and the Glasgow music hall he saw as a child, McGrath melded these sensibilities in a body of work where laughs and the quest for enlightenment went hand in hand.

He was born in Rutherglen, and was attracted to poetry and jazz from an early age. He contributed poems to numerous magazines, and was surprised to discover on reading Alexander Trocchi's novel, Young Adam, that it contained references to Glasgow. He contacted Trocchi, and became involved in Project Sigma. McGrath also came into contact with another Glaswegian, psychiatrist R Laing. Together, the trio formed the unofficial Scots branch of the counter-culture.

In 1965, McGrath appeared with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other fine minds at the legendary poetry reading at London's Royal Albert Hall. He became features editor of Peace News and, in 1966, editor of International Times, the defining statement of London's underground scene.

McGrath was a Zelig-like figure throughout the 1960s. At a counter-cultural gathering in the country, Laing described McGrath as "innocent", inadvertently gifting him the title of his 1978 semi-autobiographical play. McGrath was later famously snubbed by William Burroughs after being mistaken for American communist poet Thomas McGrath.

By 1969, even as McGrath's poems appeared in Michael Horovitz's seminal Children of Albion anthology, the 1960s dream was fading and McGrath had become addicted to heroin. He returned to Glasgow, where he cleaned up and enrolled at Glasgow University to study English and drama. He connected with poets Tom Leonard and Alan Spence, and became active in performance art troupe The Other People.

McGrath's first formal theatrical appearance came in 1972 when he provided music for Tom Buchan's Tell Charlie Thanks For The Truss at the Traverse, and the following year he became musical director on The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, the co-operatively run extravaganza peopled by a future Who's Who of the Scottish stage, including Billy Connolly.

In 1973, McGrath brought Miles Davis, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and Duke Ellington to Glasgow, and became inaugural director of the Third Eye Centre for three years. His first play, Laurel and Hardy, applied his experimental interests to vaudeville forms, and became a hit, transferring to London. The play remains a rep stalwart.

During his time at the Third Eye, McGrath had come into contact with murderer Jimmy Boyle. The Third Eye exhibited Boyle's early sculptures, and Boyle would become co-author of McGrath's next play, The Hardman. More plays followed: Sisters (1978), The Android Circuit (1978), The Innocent (1979) and Animal (1979). In 1980, McGrath took time out to teach in Iowa, before returning to become writer-in-residence at the Traverse.

During this time McGrath wrote 1-2-3, a trilogy of plays that utilised sound, and transferred to London and Toronto. A few years later he would take up residence in Edinburgh's Netherbow Arts Centre for a week of public workshop rehearsals of the third play, Moondog. He would sit at his primitive Amstrad computer in view of the audience, writing and rewriting, printed pages spilling on to the floor, cut and pasted together to make a brand new whole.

In 1981, McGrath was a mover in founding Glasgow's Tron Theatre. In 1982, he wrote The Nuclear Family for BBC TV's Plays For Tomorrow series, penned a radio adaptation of Neil Gunn's The Silver Darlings and contributed to Radio Scotland's soap, Kilbreck. Later work included Kora (1986), Trivial Pursuits (1988), CITY (1989) at Tramway, and The Flitting (1990) for Cumbernauld. McGrath was appointed associate literary director (Scotland) by the Scottish Arts Council, to act as a conduit for a new generation of playwrights. Based at the Lyceum, he was assisted by Ella Wildridge, who would become a crucial figure in McGrath's personal and professional life. At the old Lyceum Studio, McGrath hosted Words Beyond Words, a series of play-readings during the Edinburgh Fringe.

In 1990, at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre, McGrath initiated The Deviant Tradition, performed readings from the works of Germans Heiner Muller and Tankred Dorst, alongside excerpts of work by Trocchi. The material was like nothing the Lyceum stage had seen before, and led to a main-stage production of Dorst's epic, Merlin, translated by Wildridge and adapted by McGrath.

McGrath wrote Buchanan, about the boxer Ken Buchanan, for the Traverse in 1993, a version of Kidnapped for the Lyceum in 1994 and adapted a translation of Daniel Danis's Stones and Ashes for the Traverse in 1995. McGrath also toured the Highlands with the Traverse, running writers' workshops, wrote a new take on Frankenstein for Catherine Wheels, The Dream Train for Magnetic North, and a version of Electra for Theatre Babel.

Back at the Traverse, while no new plays were forthcoming, McGrath became resident pianist for a time at the Monday Lizard, a platform for short play-readings performed in the theatre bar and founded by himself and Wildridge.

In 2003, McGrath suffered a stroke, but recovered enough to finish his final performed work, My Old Man, for Magnetic North in 2005.

McGrath's final legacy was Playwrights Studio Scotland, which was set up as a direct result of his experience as associate literary director.

He is survived by Wildridge, by three daughters to his former wife, Maureen, and five grandchildren. By Neil Cooper

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