Myles na gCopaleen trialled one of his best putdowns on Tyrone Guthrie

Guthrie’s production of Hamlet was slated in The Irish Times in June 1950

Tyrone Guthrie: eventually made a full recovery from the hatchet job

Tyrone Guthrie: eventually made a full recovery from the hatchet job

 

In February 1955, the English theatre director, Tyrone Guthrie, was in Dublin producing a new Seán O’Casey play, The Bishop’s Bonfire. “The name of Mr. Guthrie is known in all the first cities of the world,” the cheekily named byline of “Quidnunc” declared in An Irishman’s Diary, in a piece centred on Guthrie’s Canadian work. “When he leaves Dublin in March, Mr Guthrie will be heading across the Atlantic to start another season of Shakespearean plays at a little place called Stratford.”

The Stratford referred to here, is the small city in Ontario. “Not only does it bear the name of its English counterpart, the home of Shakespeare, but it is modelled on exactly the same lines. Even the street-names are the same, the houses are the same, and the lay-out is the same. The river that flows through the town is called – of course – the Avon!” 

In November 1939, Guthrie’s mother, Norah Guthrie, wrote to The Irish Times to clear up some family connections, “I note with interest your query in Saturday’s Irish Times as to whether Tyrone Power, the film star, is any relation of Tyrone Power, the actor. As grand-daughter of the latter and cousin of the former, I feel competent to answer you. Young Tyrone is a great-grandson of the actor, whose grandson, Fred Tyrone Power, was also a well-known actor in the States, and married an American wife. Young Tyrone was over in England this autumn, but lives in America. My son, Tyrone Guthrie, is a London theatrical producer, and well-known there in that capacity. Tyrone Power was drowned in 1847 on his way home from America, when the SS President was lost with all hands off the coast of Nova Scotia. I have various portraits of my grandfather in different parts and it is interesting to know that his name is not entirely forgotten in Dublin, where he first became famous.” 

Short holiday

Throughout the 1940s, Tyrone Guthrie often popped up in theatre notices, radio play listings, and in particular the London Letter column, such as in May 1944, when the “traditions of the Old Vic repertory company are to be fully re-established at the New Theatre under the leadership of Laurence Olivier … with Mr Tyrone Guthrie in charge of administration.” 

In April 1950, a report in the newspaper about the former Abbey actor Arthur Shields arriving in Dublin from India for “a short holiday for the first time in ten years,” concluded with more Guthrie news. “Tyrone Guthrie, the producer, arrived in Dublin yesterday to prepare for the production of Hamlet for Ronald Ibbs, at the Gate Theatre.” When that play opened, The Irishman’s Diary described Guthrie in full flight at the Gate. “When I finally spotted Tyrone Guthrie, he showed great promise of sound and fury. He is about eight feet tall, with shoulders like a barn door, and with something of the aura of a man-eating sergeant-major about him.” 

As it happens, Guthrie’s production of Hamlet was slated in The Irish Times, “The source of grief, I fear, must be traced to the producer, Mr Tyrone Guthrie,” the reviewer wrote at the end of May 1950, “who seems to have set out to stage a Hamlet so packed with visual interest that the words would be of secondary importance.” Ouch. 

Letters page

The review caused a stink. The letters page was flooded with ripostes. Myles na gCopaleen weighed in in his Cruiskeen Lawn column that June. “Is there anything wrong with this Hamlet? There certainly is. Tyrone Guthrie, the producer, who suffers from the disability that of him I have never heard, is presumably a Donegal man, and therefore supposed to be cute. In certain regards I would not give him a job minding mice at a crossroads.”

This turn of phrase, which is famously attributed to Brian Nolan aka Myles aka Flann O’Brien, appeared in his column before, in 1946, with him “quoting” a farmer talking about city labour dispatched to the countryside. It wouldn’t be until 1953 that Nolan would use the most commonly known version of it – “The majority of the members of the Irish parliament are professional politicians, in the sense that otherwise they would not be given jobs minding mice at a crossroads” – but he used it in print on Guthrie first.  

Guthrie moved beyond that Hamlet production and his legacy lives on, in particular at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig near Newbliss in Co Monaghan, where writers and artists sit and work, and try to come up with turns of phrases as sparkling as those biting theatre reviews of the 1950s.

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