Died: 9 February, 2006, in Dalmellington, Ayrshire, aged 93.
ENA Lamont Stewart, who has died on the eve of her 94th birthday, was perhaps the most remarkable of all Scottish playwrights, a quiet and profoundly reserved woman who wrote one of the great plays of the 20th century, but whose life came to exemplify the sheer difficulty of building a career as a theatre writer in Scotland. Lamont Stewart's mighty tenement tragedy, Men Should Weep, opened in Glasgow in 1947, and won immediate acclaim for its overwhelming portrayal of working-class family life during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and particularly of the often unacknowledged role of women in ensuring the economic and emotional survival of hard-pressed families.
First presented by the left-wing Glasgow Unity Theatre, Men Should Weep won Lamont Stewart instant recognition as one of a generation of writers who took working-class life as their subject, and who described its struggles and deprivations with a revolutionary frankness and compassion. And although her work - along with most Glasgow Unity plays - was largely neglected for a generation after 1950, her reputation was confirmed in 1982, when John McGrath's 7:84 Scotland company revived Men Should Weep as part of their famous Clydebuilt season, in a fine production by Giles Havergal that firmly established the play as a 20th-century classic, and helped ensure its recent inclusion in a Royal National Theatre list of the 100 greatest plays of the century.
Despite the tremendous radical energy of her greatest play, though, Lamont Stewart herself was a softly-spoken and genteel figure, who wrote about working-class life not from personal experience, but out of profound feeling for the women she saw struggling to keep their families together in the Glasgow of the 1930s.
Ena Lamont was born in Glasgow in 1912, the daughter of an eminent minister and theologian who, during her childhood, served a parish in one of the poorest districts of Glasgow; and although she trained as a librarian, she retained a vivid memory of the scenes of poverty she had witnessed in her childhood, and of the voluntary social work in which she had been involved. In the 1930s, she worked not only as a librarian in Aberdeen, but also as a medical secretary and receptionist at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow, once again seeing at first hand the impact of poor housing and chronic poverty on the health of struggling families; and in her spare time, she continued with the writing which had been her private passion ever since the day in her childhood when, so she said, one of her brothers had given her a penny for a story she had written.
In her late twenties, she married the actor Jack Stewart, gave birth to a son, and became increasingly interested in the work of Glasgow Unity Theatre, then in full rebellion against the middle-class tone and content of most professional theatre. Her first major stage success came in 1945, with the Glasgow Unity production of her hospital drama Starched Aprons, about the exploitation of nurses in the health system of the day. Men Should Weep was written over a single intense weekend in 1946, at a time when Lamont Stewart's marriage was beginning to fail, and she was facing the frightening prospect of life as a single mother in 1940s Britain; under the circumstances, her heightened feeling for gender politics, and for the burdens that fall on women, was perhaps hardly surprising.
If Lamont Stewart had hoped to make her living as a playwright, though, she was to be disappointed. The Glasgow Unity Players disbanded in the late 1940s, victims of financial mismanagement and changing times; and although Lamont Stewart continued to write, she increasingly found it impossible to get her plays performed. James Bridie, the founder-director of the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow, began to reject Lamont Stewart's work with such vigour that on one occasion she destroyed every existing copy of her latest play. With her young son to support, she returned to her profession as a librarian, and in the 1950s and 1960s was librarian in charge at Baillie's Reference Library in Glasgow. Productions of her work were few and far between in those years, professional productions almost non-existent; and by the time 7:84 Scotland came to revive Men Should Weep in 1982, Lamont Stewart was already a retired lady of 70, unable to respond as she might once have done to the new wave of commissions that came her way.
That revival, though, and the acclaim with which it was greeted, gave Lamont Stewart intense satisfaction in her later years. She continued to produce work such as her play High Places, about the experience of tower-block living, presented by 7:84 Scotland in 1985. She also wrote in support of the idea of a National Theatre for Scotland.
In the last decade of her life, she suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and lived very quietly in Ayrshire, close to her family; she is survived by her son Bill, two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. But there was no doubt in the minds of those who knew her that beneath the quiet surface of her life there had burned a passionate anger on behalf of those who suffer and struggle without recognition, particularly women and children in poverty. It was that passion which, back in 1942, set Ena Lamont Stewart writing what she hoped would be plays about real life, and real people; that passion which inspired the raw and brilliant drama of Men Should Weep. And it's for that deep-burning passion, in the end, and the work it drove her to produce, that this most outwardly unassuming of Scotswomen will be remembered; when noisier and more flamboyant figures have long since faded from the scene.