John Gallagher

Born in 1976, John Gallagher attended Fettes College in Edinburgh. Having graduated in Law from Edinburgh University he moved South of the border to practise in London. However, the discipline of law gradually gave way to that of drama as his talent for playwriting took over in his late 20s. He has had two plays, Fire and Ice, and Do nothing til you hear from me produced at the Edinburgh fringe. Stroke is scheduled to be produced in 2012 at Edinburgh. He currently lives in London. 


Don’t get old…


Q & A with John Gallagher – Author of ‘Stroke’ 


‘Stroke’ essentially depicts the strange relationship between two very unlikely types, and the disastrous consequences it has. What gave you the idea for their bizarre friendship?


‘Bitter personal experience! Well, bitter-sweet. The play’s based on my time as the world’s worst chauffeur. I had to drive this rich, ‘high Tory’ businessman up to his flat in London. And I had to help him cope with life in general, because he’d been disabled by a stroke.


‘In some ways I became a victim of my own success, because he became dependent on me and my role changed from being a simple driver to this kind of anachronistic, Victorian paid companion, which he both appreciated and hated. He’d been a very successful businessman, as I say, and he’d also been an Olympic rower in his youth, as it happens. So he was used to power, and hated being dependent on anyone or anything, especially anything that highlighted that dependency: he despised his wheelchair, his nurse, his wife, his Labrador…


His dog?!


‘He thought it looked at him pityingly, so he was always booting it out of the room – or trying to – when he wasn’t having portraits painted of it! He was a man of extreme moods: a fantastic old fascist one moment, charming the next, and he was not ungenerous either: – he certainly paid well.


In ‘Stroke’ his character still evokes a lot of pathos.


‘Yes. there was something not wholly unadmirable in him. What I mean is that though he was violently stubborn and opinionated, the way he struggled against his condition – you have to realise he went overnight from being an extremely powerful player, so to speak, to being effectively crippled mentally and physically – meant you couldn’t help but admire him: his will, his defiance of the truth of his condition: almost as if by simply denying he was ill and incapacitated he actually managed to live a fuller life.


In the course of the play’s action, ‘Stroke’ depicts bodily incapacity and illness in general in. Was that a conscious motivation for writing the play: to give a voice to a side of life which contemporary culture for the most part ignores?


‘No, not at all. For better or worse, ‘Stroke’ is very definitely not waving a banner for the disabled, or any minority cause. I only depict illness and disability in detail in the play because they presented themselves to me: I had to take notice of them because they confronted me. And I found that I’d never really thought about them – the reality of them – until I crashed into them, so to speak, in the form of this relationship with this old man. I mean, until you’ve had to empty someone else’s urine bottle on a daily basis you don’t think about what it must be like to be incontinent.


But the play also resonates with a lot of comedic moments, in spite – or perhaps because of – the way you and he deal with his infirmity together.


‘No question. His stubbornness gave rise to many moments of absurdity: a whole private theatre of the absurd actually, with me either laughing in the stalls, or playing the straight man myself on stage!


‘I would drive him to France to see old lovers who he’d then have blazing rows with: that kind of thing. I was always picking up the pieces – sometimes literally! He’d drive up high streets the wrong way in his electric buggy and knock pedestrians over. So, yes, there was definitely a comic side to the whole thing. But it was also set against the decidedly un-comic backdrop of his relationship with his wife, which was poisonous in the extreme, though they would never express it: they were far too well-mannered for that, in the usual violently, repressed kind of a way.


I notice you frequently use the word ‘violent’ in reference to the characters in the play…


   ‘That’s because their behaviour is violent; but their class etiquette means they’re compelled to be well-behaved, so their cruelties to each other are subtle; but they’re real nevertheless – and premeditated a lot of the time. They can’t help themselves.  The more they repress their real feelings, the more they loathe each other.


– With your character getting in the way…


‘Literally, at times. Actually, the psychological key of the whole play is this kind of a collision between completely irreconcilable worldviews, which, in turn, causes a lot of collateral damage in all their lives, so to speak.



‘Don’ the central character is proverbially larger than life in some respects: what do you say to those who accuse the play of being unrealistic in its treatment of the elderly?


‘They didn’t know the man in question!”


So presumably you’d reject the charge of making fun of the disabled?


‘No I wouldn’t actually. Not in this case. Sometimes Don – the character at the centre of ‘Stroke’  – very definitely brings a degree of disaster on himself by his denial of the truth. And at that point the truth turns round and bites him by making a fool of him. I’ve depicted that.


Because it’s dramatically valid?


Because it happened!


So would you describe your treatment of disability as naturalistic, then?


It’s as naturalistic as it needs to be. Actually, it’s as naturalistic as human nature is, itself: which is to say, sometimes not at all: if, by Naturalism, you mean the stolid depiction of a sort of soap opera personality with a soap opera mentality.


‘If any of the characters in ‘Stroke’ are, as you say, larger than life, that’s because certain people are larger than life. And actually they’re the only people I’m interested in. I couldn’t care less about the banal concerns and reactions of banal types: how’s that meant to inspire

Artistic truth is a law unto itself.

I hope not. Naturalism is an offence to the Imagination. And without Imagination, drama is just so much soap opera.


What do you mean by ‘imagination’ in this case?


Imagination exists to interrupt the banality of our lives: that’s its job. It wouldn’t be Imagination if it didn’t. ‘Stroke’ is a depiction of that banality suddenly interrupted by the forces and influences of imagination in the lives of the characters portrayed – like all good drama. Because I believe we are as a species essentially imaginative beings with imaginative destinies, if you like. It’s when we insist on being unimaginative that we heap trouble on ourselves.


What do you mean by ‘unimaginative’ in this case?


I mean



But all plays have an element of Naturalism in them – ‘Stroke’ does.


‘Actually I don’t think the phrase ‘naturalism’ means anything really. Even the most religiously so-called naturalistic plays cull the most dramatic moments of people’s lives an piece them together unnaturalistically for the purposes of a drama If I want to watch people arguing

Essentially it’s the story, the drama of a certain period in an actor friend of mine’s life when he was unemployed.  He got a job as a driver to an old man, a crazy, rich, very cantankerous old man, as it happens, and over the months, they struck up a friendship. Well, friendship’s too generous a word. – They struck up an amusing intolerance of each other! And that lead to some odd situations – very odd in the end, as the play reveals. This old boy had always been a bit of tyrant and was used to ordering his family around. Then he had a stroke and his family gradually deserted him after needed a whipping boy and tried

It’s part, but not completely autobiographical, as such it’s occasionally verbatim, but, of course, I’ve injected some acid here and there, and exaggerated certain events whenever the drama needed to make a point.


‘Basically it plays out the story of a volatile relationship between a cantankerous old, disabled gentleman, of the ‘Old School’, so to speak, and his driver, who happened to be me at one stage.

So it’s not entirely naturalistic?


No drama is. I mean a lot of rubbish is talked about that phrase. But what do people really mean by Naturalism in drama?

It is a verbatim account – well more or less verbatim, I’m a writer, so I’ve injected some acid here, some kindness there, but