Irish writer William Denis Johnston is born in Ballsbridge, Dublin on June 18, 1901. He primarily writes plays, but also works of literary criticism, a book-length biographical essay of Jonathan Swift, a memoir and an eccentric work on cosmology and philosophy.
Johnston is a protégé of William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, and has a stormy friendship with Seán O’Casey. He is a pioneer of television and war reporting. He works as a lawyer in the 1920s and 1930s before joining the BBC as a writer and producer, first in radio and then in the fledgling television service. His broadcast dramatic work include both original plays and adaptation of the work of many different writers.
Johnston’s first play, The Old Lady Says “No!”, helps establish the worldwide reputation of the Dublin Gate Theatre. His second, The Moon in the Yellow River, has been performed around the globe in numerous productions featuring such actors as Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Errol Flynn, although not all in the same production. He plays a role in the 1935 film version of John Millington Synge‘s Riders to the Sea.
During World War II Johnston serves as a BBC war correspondent, reporting from El Alamein to Buchenwald. For this he is awarded an OBE, a Mentioned in Despatches and the Yugoslav Partisans Medal. He then becomes Director of Programmes for the television service.
Johnston later moves to the United States and teaches at Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and other universities. He keeps extensive diaries throughout his life, now deposited in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. These, together with his many articles and essays, give a distinctive picture of his times and the people he knows. Another archive of his work is held at the library of Ulster University at Coleraine. He receives honorary degrees from the Ulster University and Mount Holyoke College and is a member of Aosdána.
The Denis Johnston Playwriting Prize is awarded annually by Smith College Department of Theatre for the best play, screen play or musical written by an undergraduate at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Johnston’s war memoir Nine Rivers from Jordan reaches The New York Times Bestseller List and is cited in the World Book Encyclopedia‘s 1950s article on World War II under “Books to Read”, along with Churchill, Eisenhower et al. Joseph Ronsley cites an unnamed former CBS Vietnam correspondent who calls the book the “Bible”, carrying it with him constantly, “reading it over and over in the field during his tour of duty.”