Peter Henry Coulson (Staff 1965-1988)
19 February 1929 – 17 October 2021
It is hard to describe how lucky we were, those of us who were taught by and worked with Peter Coulson, who has died, aged 92. He taught at CLS from 1965 to 1988, twenty-three years that saw huge transformations in culture, society, and education. As Head of English at CLS from the early 1970s, he presided over an English Department that would boast a thrilling range of teaching styles, but which was everywhere characterised by an unquenchable commitment to and love for literature and drama. To be taught by anyone in the CLS English Department in the 1980s was to be in the unmistakable presence of someone who radiated fascination for what literature was, what it could do, the ways it could show us our world sharpened or transfigured. Above all, in the 1980s, when Gradgrindian philistinism stalked the land, English at CLS exemplified an unswerving belief in the idea that literature mattered and that its study was an important means to deepen its joys and enrich our understanding of language and ourselves.
In no one was this more finely embodied than in Peter Coulson himself. He was a tall, willowy man, with a grave demeanour, but also with a smile that continually split open with joy and a wiry, electrical sense of energy, like a bow perpetually taut, ready to fire an arrow. He exuded a sense of seriousness about literature that was so clearly sincere and deeply felt that it occurred to no one, I think, not to emulate it. His A-Level classes were university seminars, all of us sitting in a circle attending to a problematic crux in the texts of Othello or trying to weigh the effect of Sisyphean repetition in Waiting for Godot. They were demanding classes because Peter took us all seriously and we felt we were equal participants in the momentous and difficult enterprise of plumbing the depths of a great and mysterious play.
In some ways, Peter bore the marks of his historical moment, as we all do. He went up to Hertford College, Oxford, in 1947, as an Exhibitioner not in English but in Modern History, principally because the English scholars had not yet been demobbed but switched at the end of his first term. He gravitated towards the scholar F W Bateson, who was a Leavisite marooned at Oxford. F R Leavis had inspired half a generation – and infuriated the other half – by both employing and seeking an attitude of reverent openness before life in the reading of literature. Bateson championed Leavis’s deep seriousness but added a non-deferential egalitarianism: he wrote a celebrated book on Wordsworth because he thought people respected the poet too much and read him too little. Coulson was lit by the Leavite fire too: there was a set of Leavis’s journal, Scrutiny, in his classroom, Room 18. One can see in Peter Coulson a Batesonian open spirit, determined to read seriously and think hard, regardless of the critical on dit. When we read these great plays together, it felt rather as if we were reading them for the first time and all bets were off.
He developed his teaching style at High Storrs Grammar School in Sheffield from 1952, and then at Dover College in Kent from 1959, before being drawn to City of London School in the mid-sixties. He also met and, in September 1972, married his wife, Thyra, the two settling very happily in Throwley, near Faversham in Kent. He settled, too, at CLS and became Head of English within a decade.
That decade was a period of great transformation in British theatre. It saw the influence of some great European theatre practitioners – notably Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud – into British theatre practice, most notably in the work of the great director Peter Brook. It is also the decade in which the National Theatre opened on the South Bank, the fringe emerged, and the theatre censorship was abolished, all of which transformed the landscape of British theatre utterly.
Although, his love of literature was broad, Peter’s intense fascination for the complexities of human creativity seemed particularly to have been fired by the new forms theatre was finding to ask questions about the world and itself and this enthusiasm soon found its way into CLS. At the school, he pushed for the transformation of the Beaufoy competition into semi-public performances of Shakespeare (in my time, each class in the 4th year took an Act of Macbeth to perform). He oversaw the adaptation of the old Tuck Shop as a flexible, black-box, experimental theatre space: The Tuck Shop Theatre. And he modernised the production of plays in a way that is astonishingly radical and intimately connected with the London theatre happening outside the school. His production of King Lear in 1975 was legendary and went successfully to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He then gave the school Macbett, Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist reinvention of Shakespeare. In 1983, he directed Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun followed the next year by André Gide and Jean-Louis Barrault’s adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. Neil McPherson, longtime artistic director of the Finborough Theatre in West London, for whom these were his first two School Plays, recalls with a kind of astonishment ‘working on the plays of writers of that quality was completely normal, a given. That’s just what you did, and it’s only in later years I realised that to be doing plays by writers like that at the age of 13/14 wasn’t normal at all. We were very lucky’.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be directed by Peter was very heaven. Playing Atahuallpah, King of the Incas, in Shaffer’s play was my first encounter with Peter. Nothing prepared me for the hard work, his uncompromising rigour, his sense that putting on a play was really just about the most important and serious thing anyone could be doing. He took us seriously – me! fifteen years old! being taken seriously! – and we gave him everything. He was tireless. I remember being called in for a lunchtime rehearsal to work on one particular vowel sound. He would issue some of his notes on our performances on enigmatic pieces of paper. ‘The colonel,’ one said, ‘is your only enemy.’ He meant that my attempt to be commanding on stage sometimes lapsed into an English military register and we took his Delphic advice without question and it changed us.
He retired in 1988 to Throwley and to his beloved Thyra, but he remained phenomenally active. He studied literature, again, at the University of Kent and, with a peer from that course set up a book club; though, being Peter, this was a book club that decided to get to grips with James Joyce rather than anything lighter. He went to the theatre, he was involved in village life, he created and maintained a beautiful garden, and he and Thyra kept dogs and travelled widely. I can’t remember if I got in touch with him or he got in touch with me, but as my playwriting started to flourish, he would send me taut, thoughtful appraisals that, once again, to my amazement took me seriously. And when we met a couple of times for lunch, he wanted to learn, to ask me questions, to find out what I thought about the directions theatre was taking. He also wrote; he sent a play to the Finborough Theatre and met Neil McPherson not just for a drink but to discuss the plays, to improve, to learn.
Thyra had a major stroke in January 2017 from which she did not ever quite recover, dying two years later. Peter had been devoted to his wife for almost fifty years and it seems clear that with her passing, he felt ready to set down his passions and energies. He died in October 2021.
Generations of his pupils received a great gift from Peter, the endless richness of literature and theatre and the undying joys of giving it all your attention. He was an extraordinary, wonderful man.
Dan Rebellato (CLS 1979-1986)
Picture: Peter Coulson re-directing his CLS production of King Lear for the 1975 Edinburgh Fringe (Photo © Simon Cooper)