"Reprinted by permission from the Independent, Obituaries, 21 September
E.F. Watling will be most widely remembered for his much reprinted 1947 edition of Sophocles's Theban Plays for Penguin Classics. His idiomatic and scholarly translations, coinciding with the renewed post-war interest in a more naturalistic verse drama, were a cultural landmark, allowing the Greek dramatist to speak simply and directly to a new generation of English readers and actors:
Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these
/is man, who rides the ocean and takes his way
/Through the deeps, through windswept valleys of perilous seas
/That surge and sway.
Among the many stage productions, both amateur and professional, inspired by his translations, were Donald Wolfit's highly acclaimed, Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, in what was to be the great actor-manager's last full season of classical plays, at the King's Theatre Hammersmith in 1953. Yet none could have been more moving than Watling's own production of King Oedipus at King Edward VII School, Sheffield, where for 36 years he taught Classics, until his retirement in 1960.
In that period, King Edward VII School was - along with Manchester and Bradford - one of the three great northern grammar schools which rivalled the major public schools in their academic distinction, not least in the excellence of their Classics departments. Many Oxbridge scholars and exhibitioners will remember E.F.W. with gratitude and affection: as a teacher he had that rarest of gifts - the creative imagination to make ancient learning breathe and speak.
Educated at Christ's Hospital and University College, Oxford, Watling was a cultured school-master of a now vanishing breed -an amateur and a gentleman in the finest sense of those words. As a young man he was a leading member, both as actor and producer, of the Sheffield Playgoers, which in his time was the principal amateur dramatic society in the city. Later, when there was still a place for the first-class amateur in the professional theatre, he appeared in Geoffrey Ost's productions at the Sheffield Playhouse. With his tall and slim figure, his splendidly resonant voice, his mobile and expressive features, and an impeccable sense of timing his every performance was stylish and memorable, not least his vignettes as Fairy Queen and short-trousered schoolboy in staff pantomime and revue.
In the late Twenties and early Thirties he wrote sketches for the West End revues of André CharIot, to which Coward and Novello, among others, contributed. At least two of these pieces- French as She is Learnt and The Shooting Party; a little foul play in one act - have been more recently performed and still have the wit to charm and amuse. Over many years he was a regular reviewer of both books and theatre for the Sheffield Telegraph, and, as "Marcus", he went on compiling erudite crosswords for The Listener until he was in his seventies.
To younger colleagues E.F.W. seemed an Olympian figure, observing the world, from his considerable height, with a shrewd but kindly detachment, and letting fall from time to time a considered judgement that was invariably pithy, amusing, and felicitously phrased. In the last months before his death, his thoughts constantly returned to the stage, as he relived characters and productions of his past. A man who played many parts, his life was memorable for its integrity and style.
Edward Fairchild Watling school-master, classicist and translator born 8 October 1899, married 1928 Cicely Porter (died 1982; one daughter), died 6 September /990.
David Cook added as follows, printed in the Independent on 24th
"It was with a mixture of astonishment, sadness and admiration that I read
in Friday's Independent the obituary of E.F.Watling (by Peter Arculus and
Peter Hetherington) writes D.B.Cook. In their excellent tribute, Peter
Hetherington and Peter Arculus, my own early mentors, did not mention the
hilarious speech given to the school by Watling on the occasion of his
retirement. I remember particularly his story claiming to be the only
teacher on King Edward's staff who had taken the cricket team to Worksop in
a pony and trap, a remarkable achievment even for someone retiring in 1960."