By Joseph Goodrich
When I was a college student in 1980s Minneapolis / Saint Paul, it wasn’t unusual to meet someone who had worked with Sir Tyrone Guthrie. I think of James Bakkom, for instance, a marvelous scenic designer who’d worked at the Guthrie Theater from 1964 to 1974; among other tasks, he built the distinctive costumes and props designed by Tanya Moisewitsch for Guthrie’s 1968 production of the “Oresteia.” He spoke with an almost religious awe about Sir Tyrone. Listening to Jim’s recollections, I wished that I could have known this titan of the stage.
Thanks to Christopher Fitz-Simon’s volume of Guthrie’s letters, my wish has been granted. “Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie” is a great plum pudding of a book, overflowing with the legendary director’s reports from the front lines of a theatrical career that covered five decades and three continents. True to its title, only Guthrie’s side of the correspondence is given; the cumulative effect is that of a memoir – or, thinking in terms of the theatre, one vast, enthralling monologue. Over the course of 457 pages, the reader comes to know Sir Tyrone well.
The letters span Guthrie’s life; his main correspondents are his mother Norah, his sister Peggy, and his wife Judith. We follow his progress from public school to Oxford University, where he gained a degree in history and began his directing career. His astute eye for talent was apparent even then. In 1924, he let his mother know what he thought of a young actor at the Oxford Playhouse: “Jack isn’t at all bad – conceited and a little ‘artistic’ but I think he will improve a lot. He’s only 19 & is just a bit full of himself at the moment – but when being natural and not showing off he’s very intelligent & genuine and friendly. I think he will do very well.” Young “Jack” was John Gielgud, who became one of the luminaries of 20th century theatre.
After leaving Oxford Guthrie took a job as a producer for the newly established BBC Radio in Belfast, arranging talks on such subjects as “Ulster’s Contribution to the Breakfast Table” and “The Building of A Liner,” as well as airing a number of radio dramas. He found the work congenial, Belfast less so; and when the opportunity to leave arose, Guthrie took it. In short order he was running the Scottish National Players, which modeled itself after the Abbey Theater in Dublin. The SNP mainly toured Scotland but also presented a short season of plays in Glasgow.
Guthrie next found employment at the Cambridge Festival Theater. It is here that he articulated one of the main tenets of his approach to directing – the stripping-away of the fustian in décor and performance: “It’s the very “sonority” of the “traditional” productions of Shakespeare that I cannot abide – that, to me, robs it of humanity and real meaning. I feel that Shakespeare is essentially a naturalistic writer, that Shakespearian blank verse enables the speaker to slip imperceptibly from prose-speaking to verse-speaking and that therefore a naturalistic method of verse speaking is indicated.”
This belief was strengthened by an event in 1937. An outdoor production of “Hamlet” was scheduled to take place at Elsinore Castle with Laurence Oliver starring as the Melancholy Dane. Members of the Danish royal family would be in attendance, along with representatives of the diplomatic corps and the press. Things didn’t go as planned. On the night of the performance, Guthrie writes, “The rain was coming down like bellropes.” The production was quickly moved into the ballroom of a nearby hotel. Olivier “conducted a lighting rehearsal with the cast improvising exits and entrances and rearranging business” while Guthrie and a few stalwarts “arranged eight hundred and seventy basket chairs in circles round the ballroom.” Things got a bit shambolic by the end of the play, but the audience response was highly favorable, reinforcing Guthrie’s notion that “for Shakespeare the proscenium stage is unsatisfactory.”
Guthrie’s conviction that the Bard should be freed from the “picture frame” of the proscenium led to the thrust stages of the Stratford Festival in Ontario and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where the playing space extends into the audience, which surrounds the action on three sides.
Stratford and the Guthrie represent the other major aspect of Sir Tyrone’s accomplishment: the creation of artistic organizations that operate outside of the boom-or-bust mentality of the commercial theatre. These companies were pioneering members of the regional theater movement and served as an inspiration and a model for other institutions across the United States.
Guthrie spent World War II running the Old Vic Theater and the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet companies. His account of keeping the doors open during those trying years is riveting. The arrival of Peace allowed Guthrie to resume his peripatetic career. His artistic exploits in the post-war decades took him around the world – if he wasn’t directing “Oedipus Rex” in Israel, he was lecturing in Australia before heading to America to stage a play on Broadway after, of course, directing that opera in Germany. Letters pour from his pen all the while. Although plagued with a variety of health problems as he aged, Guthrie was always high-spirited and industrious. In his mid-60s, he writes: “I hasten toward the sepulchre with a great deal of cheerfulness, even contentment. Autumn was ever my favourite season.”
Wherever he traveled, his heart was in Annaghmakerrig, the Guthrie family’s home in County Monahan. Though born in Tunbridge Wells and, as Fitz-Simon points out, considered an English director, Guthrie was of Scots-Irish descent and possessed the deepest of feelings for the Irish countryside. From boyhood on he was drawn to Annaghmakerrig and revitalized by the time he spent there. It’s only fitting that he died there in the spring of 1971 at the age of 70.
Annaghmakerrig was the source of a dispute between Guthrie and his sister that nearly sundered their long and devoted relationship. Without consulting Peggy, Sir Tyrone willed the house and grounds to estate steward Seamus McGorman. Guthrie’s defense of this decision forms a sad and painful strand of the correspondence. Ultimately, he changed his will and left Annaghmakerrig to the Irish state, which turned it into a world-renowned arts center, but things were never quite the same with Peggy.
A seminal figure in Irish theatre and television, Christopher Fitz-Simon has done an admirable job of editing and annotating Guthrie’s letters. His family stayed at Annaghmakerrig during World War II – his mother was a close friend of Guthrie’s sister – and Fitz-Simon turns up in several of the letters, first as a boy of nine and later as an adult. With this capacious volume he has given devotees of Irish and world theatre a magnificent gift.
Christopher Fitz-Simon will present a reading from “Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie” at the Irish Repertory Theater on Tuesday, April 24 at 7 p.m. To purchase $10 tickets click here. The event is free to members.
Joseph Goodrich is the editor of "People in a Magazine: The Selected Letters of S. N. Behrman and His Editors at The New Yorker," which will be published this fall by the University of Massachusetts Press.
PHOTO BY VERA HOAR