Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie review: an admirable collection
Fintan O’Toole on Christopher Fitz-Simon’s edition of the great theatre director’s delightfully lively letters
Footlights: Tyrone Guthrie in the early 1960s. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch/Corbis via Getty
Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie
Edited by Christopher Fitz-Simon
In 2012 the Guardian’s veteran theatre critic Michael Billington named TyroneIn 2012 the Guardian’s veteran theatre critic Michael Billington named Tyrone Guthrie the most influential British director of modern times, above the likes of Peter Brook and Peter Hall. He acknowledged in doing so that “British” was a problematic term, and quoted Guthrie’s own description of himself as “a very Irish sort of Anglo-Scot”. This hesitancy is well justified: Guthrie was strongly attached to his native Ireland but worked very rarely in the Irish theatre. His physical legacy is all over the United States, Canada and Britain. His revolt against the proscenium arch and his creation of the thrust stage that carried the action right in among the spectators is still embodied in spaces like the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Shakespeare festival theatre in Stratford, Ontario, the Chichester Festival Theatre, and the Crucible, in Sheffield. There is no contemporary production of Shakespeare or the Greek tragedies that does not, consciously or otherwise, bear his mark.
Yet in his native country he is known, if at all, for the house he left to the nation as an artists’ retreat, Annaghmakerrig, in Co Monaghan. He would not have been entirely sorry about this: his love for the local people took the practical form of establishing a jam factory in Newbliss in 1963 to provide employment, an enterprise he described as “the most important production of my life”. But there is still something odd in the neglect of such a towering Irish artist in Ireland. There have been crucial artistic connections back and forth: it was Guthrie who brought the young Brian Friel to Minneapolis so he could learn by observation how plays are staged, and it was Joe Dowling who revived and redeveloped Guthrie’s Minneapolis theatre. The man himself, however, is scarcely appreciated in Ireland.
Guthrie is unsurprisingly sanguine when his Oxford exam results are so poor as to disbar him from a teaching career: it is obvious that his life is to be in the theatre
It is thus all the more welcome that Guthrie’s delightfully lively letters have been brought into print by one of Ireland’s great publishers, Lilliput, in a splendid edition by Christopher Fitz-Simon, whose father and mother were friends of the Guthries. (Fitz-Simon himself appears as a child in some of them.) The letters in Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie are addressed mostly to Guthrie’s mother, Norah, in Annaghmakerrig (because of her blindness they are written to be read out to her), to his wife, Judith, in their dingy flat in London or to his beloved sister, Peggy, in the lovely Maidenhall in Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny, where she lived with her husband, the great essayist Hubert Butler.
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Born in 1900, Guthrie was fortunate to miss service in the first World War: a letter of summer 1918 to his parents from his English boarding school passes on the “great piece of news . . . that on Tuesday we went to Reading for the army medical exam and I passed A1. Isn’t that splendid?” He enlisted in the Irish Guards and was due to join them in January 1919. Yet he brims over with youthful optimism, the sense that a new world will emerge from the war: “for the young who will live to see the wounds heal and help in the reform and construction to come, it’s an opportunity such as the world has never known before.”
The letters show that hopeful energy increasingly being poured into acting and singing at Oxford University and then as an assistant stage manager and supporting player at JB Fagan’s Oxford Playhouse. He is unsurprisingly sanguine when his Oxford exam results are so poor as to disbar him from a teaching career: it is obvious that his life is to be in the theatre. He is in good company. Of a production of The Rivals he tells his mother that “young Jack . . . isn’t at all bad – conceited and a little ‘artistic’ but I think he will improve a lot.” He did: Jack is one of the great English actors, John Gielgud.
Yet Guthrie was let go by Fagan and found work as a studio assistant with the BBC, a job he reckons (at the age of 24) to be “the best chance I shall ever get of would-be ‘artistic’ work that is yet a career”. Strikingly, given a choice of locations, Guthrie chose Belfast over London or Edinburgh. His was in fact the first voice heard on BBC Northern Ireland, on its initial transmission in 1924. Between commissioning talks with titles like Ulster’s Contribution to the Empire and The Romance of Flax Seed he got back into producing plays for radio: WB Yeats’s The Land of Heart’s Desire; even an Iphigenia in Tauris with the young Flora Robson. But he was also repelled by Belfast’s sectarianism: “Oh! The insufferable all-suffusing bigotry . . . The intolerance & excess seem to permeate from religion and politics into every department of their civilisation.”
By 1926 he knew he had to leave Ireland or it will “steep me in provincialism and rather bitter dullness”. He took a job with the Scottish National Theatre (an attempt to emulate the Abbey) and began his stunning theatrical career. By the early 1930s he was already London’s leading director, bringing his vivid, uncluttered style to bear equally on new plays and on the classics. By 1936 he was in effect artistic director of the Old Vic.
Guthrie writes delightfully of meeting Bernard Shaw, of Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier, of Cyril Cusack, of Guthrie’s own production of Seán O’Casey’s The Bishop’s Bonfire
Guthrie, now in the big time, writes delightfully of meeting Bernard Shaw to try to get his new play for the Old Vic, of Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier, of Cyril Cusack (“a charmer of the first water but as slippery as an eel”), of Guthrie’s own production of Seán O’Casey’s The Bishop’s Bonfire, which was greeted in Dublin with protests for being “communist” and “anti-Irish”: “It is just Irish vanity, self-absorption, inferiority complex, that makes the ‘anti-Irish’ stuff seem so important”. His deep contacts with Ireland only confirm him in his decision to make his career abroad – as he writes to Hubert Butler in 1955, “Any young Irishman or Irishwoman . . . of ‘artistic’ bent, who wishes to live by one of the fine or applied arts, MUST go abroad.” Yet Guthrie did give crucial encouragement to two young Irish writers who did not go abroad: Friel and Eugene McCabe.
And he himself was drawn back to Annaghmakerrig, which became the base from which he conducted his dazzling transatlantic career from 1959 until his death, in 1971. He was able to find a way to think of home that was both intensely local and utterly international, that transcended nationality and religion. It seems apt that the mantra that sums up his optimism and resilience and that Fitz-Simon borrows for the title of this admirable collection – Rise above! – was borrowed from him for the main character in Friel’s last play, The Home Place. Guthrie did rise above the narrowness of Ireland in his time, but his brilliant achievements never cut him off from the possibilities of home.
Fintan O’Toole’s latest book is Judging Shaw