Annaghmakerrig in the making

In a compilation of writing to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Eugene McCabe recalls …

In a compilation of writing to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Eugene McCabe recalls his first meeting with Guthrie.

It was 1962. We were friendly with a law student called Henry Murphy who arrived one evening seeking refuge from what he called "the Guthrie annual dinner." A few questions and we discovered he was referring to Tyrone Guthrie the director and that he (Guthrie) and Henry's father had known each other since childhood and were still friends.

Why, we wanted to know, was Henry "seeking refuge"? "Because they keep booming away at each other about religion and poetry and sometimes Guthrie sings and the old man accompanies him with his pipe in his mouth, stuff like Thomas Moore's Oft in the Stilly Night and Sweet Vale of Avoca. It's excruciating. The dog howls and has to be put out. Apart from that, Guthrie's slightly unnerving."

"In what way?" "Because if he's not singing or talking about religion he sometimes questions me, a lot of questions I can't answer. He's like a cross between a psychiatrist and a headmaster and looks like an eagle. He's seven feet tall you know." Ah, come on Henry! "Six feet six at least, huge."


We talked some more. I poured Henry a generous libation before asking: "Any chance of gate-crashing?" "You'd like to meet him?" "Very much so." And so we arrived. Henry's father was a solicitor with the unchristian name of Baldwin, a clear indicator of family politics, Redmondites, Castle Catholics, a leftover breed long since extinct. Dinner was at the port stage in the living room. There was no singing in progress and within minutes the conversation became animated. I remember asking Guthrie if he'd seen the photograph of Kenneth Tynan that week in the Observer. It captured Tynan with one eye watchful and knowing, the other slightly hooded and enigmatic. It was an interesting photograph.

"Do you think Tynan's good?"

"I think he's great."

"A critic? Great! Are you serious? They're all eunuchs, some more perceptive than others but eunuchs nonetheless . . . more creativity in a nursery rhyme than anything most of them manage to churn out." Straightaway, the modulated voice, the force of personality, the instinct to dispute and electrify (shock) was in that first response. I was too startled to disagree, having been brought up to believe that you don't use words such as eunuch in mixed company.

He then asked me if I'd read Tynan's attack on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. No, I'd missed it.

"Tynan," he said, "focused on Capote's use and abuse of the two murderers for commercial gain and lacerated his callous indifference to their execution, bleating on about how a man with Capote's influence, connection and largesse should have tried to intervene and save them, fraudulent stuff from beginning to end. Capote's response was witty and devastating. It made Tynan seem like a hypocrite and marked very clearly the difference between a critic and a creative writer." Years later I thought it curious that Tynan is not mentioned in the index in James Forsyth's biography [ of Guthrie].

Even at the time, I felt the sharpness of that response was in some way personal. It didn't change my opinion about Tynan. He was by far the most original and perceptive critic of that time.

"Enough about Mr Tynan. What do you do to earn your crust, Eugene?" "I'm a farmer," I said, which is what I put on my passport.

"And a writer," Baldwin boomed. "Eugene has written stories and a television Christmas play about a parish priest and a tinker. I found it very affecting." I didn't dare look at Guthrie but heard him ask: "And are you writing now?" "No." "And why is that?" "I'm milking cows." "Do you like milking cows?" "I quite like it." "More than writing?" 'I haven't thought about it." Henry was right. He was like a psychiatrist, all questions and implied judgment. I felt I was expected to go away and rationalise about the direction of my life. As they were leaving, I asked if he'd like to see some of the stories I'd published in small magazines.

"No," he said. "I'd like to see a new story and we must talk again. You'll come over some evening. Bring the new story with you and read it to us." And so ended that first meeting. I was quite certain we'd never see or hear from him again. Then a postcard arrived. As he met us at the door of Annamakerrig he asked: "Did you bring your new story?" "I thought you were joking." "I never joke about writing." Thereafter we met here at Drumard or at Annaghmakerrig, infrequently because he was away so much directing plays, opera and pageants in America, Europe, Australia and, alongside this workload, founding the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis which proved to be a triumph against all the odds and continues to flourish as one of the great theatres of the world. It's almost unbelievable that one man could initiate and accomplish so many brilliant and varied productions in such a short span.

1967 WAS THE tricentenary of Jonathan Swift's birth. There were worldwide productions, memorial documentaries, seminars and academic works flowing from universities. Old plays were being revived, new ones written. I was fascinated by Gulliver's Travels and the little I knew of Swift's astonishing life.

I wondered about a play and started reading. I talked with Guthrie.

"Don't read the critics," he said. "With rare exceptions they write lit jargon for each other. Read the man himself, his correspondence, and a couple of biographies. That should get you going." "The correspondence," I said, "runs to three bulky volumes." "Will you have time to farm, research and write?" "I can try." He then mentioned that he was contracted next to directing a James Bridie play at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow where I was born and lived for 10 years. Given that fact he could try to get me a bursary from the Scottish Arts Council and arrange that I be attached to the Citizens as an observer. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. These proposals were put into the pipeline immediately.

I sold the cows, closed the house and we (my wife Margot and four children) went to live for six months in an apartment of the house I was born in: Innisfree, Milrig Road, Mill Street, Rutherglen.

When I was a child I remember our telephone number was Rutherglen 60. Hard to believe now that there was ever such a two-digit number in that vast, sprawling city, but then it was a very long time ago, the 1930s. There were three murders the week we arrived.

I sat in on many productions. There were two memorable ones, a truly magical Tempest, which went on to London to great acclaim and packed houses. In Glasgow it had played to virtually empty houses. Then there was Guthrie directing Bridie's play The Anatomist, a work he had directed back in 1931 at the New Westminster Theatre, a black play about bodysnatching and murder. It was full of macabre humour, boisterous shouting and some really scary scenes. He relished every minute of rehearsal and so did the actors. It was a revelation to see him work when he was happy. He had chosen his cast carefully and gave only the faintest hints. There were no "profound" speeches or tedious analysis, just winks of encouragement. At most he'd cross the floor, take an actor gently by his or her arm and talk quietly as they listened, nodding. It was very clear that they didn't just respect him; it was something more akin to veneration. The banter during tea breaks was wonderful. He could do a Scottish accent effortlessly.

That production was a huge success. The lord mayor held a special dinner to honour the great-grandson of the Revd Thomas Guthrie DD whose statue adorns Prince's Street in Edinburgh alongside Sir Walter Scott. It was a very posh affair followed by laudatory speeches.

Then Guthrie stood up to reply. He lambasted the invited guests. He "could see", he said, "dripping diamonds and sense bulging wallets and was aware of all the Rolls Royces parked outside. Glasgow," he went on to say "was reputed to be the second city of a now expiring Empire, a city which cannot even support a theatre in the heart of the Gorbals and if I have described Belfast as a cultural Sahara let me say now that Glasgow is, at present, a cultural slum." He then sat down. Not having been there I don't know whether there was a stunned silence, tepid applause or the now compulsory standing ovation. The latter I doubt very much. He was with us for lunch the next day. I'd heard and asked him about the dinner. He shrugged dismissively "I may have drunk too much whiskey."

We came back to Drumard in May of 1968.

I REMEMBER SITTING outside as dawn was breaking, absorbing everything I could see and hear around me for hours. Just being home. That was when I realised yet again the heartbreak that permeates Chekov's Cherry Orchard. To leave the place you've known and loved deeply must be a form of dying and for Guthrie Annaghmakerrig had associations that went back not only to childhood but for centuries. He was conscious that his 1,000 acres with its forest and gracious house above the long lake was what historians call "escheated land" and that the native Irish had been there a long, long time before English maps and boundaries were drawn up. He wasn't sure, he said, where the rock in the river was but he loved the sound of Anna-Ma-Kerrig. "It has a soft beginning and a hard ending, like life itself!"

Later, as chancellor of Queen's university, he caused great upset by saying publicly: "How would you feel if the Germans came here in 1940 and stayed for 400 years?" A simplistic, shock-tactical thing to say, but deliberately said. A few days later, a heavyweight delegation came down from Queen's and asked him to resign. He said if he was caught telling lies he'd resign but not for asking a question intended to help. When comes such another?

Swift was completed and tried out at the Belfast Arts Festival in 1968.

Swift's will fascinated Guthrie: "He gave what little wealth he had To build a house for fools and mad And showed by one satiric touch No nation needed it so much." Guthrie's bequest of Annaghmakerrig to the nation was influenced by Swift's gesture. It was during a rehearsal lunch break that he had a 30-minute meeting with Charles Haughey, then minister for finance. They discussed details of Annaghmakerrig House being left to the nation as an Arts Centre. He was adamant that the arts councils North and South should work together in the running of the centre, dispensing bursaries to artists on a pro rata basis. Haughey agreed.

When I asked how the meeting had gone he said: "It was as if I was asking a favour, not granting a gift!" He then asked me if I'd ever met Haughey.

"No," I said "and have no wish to." "A reptilian little man," he muttered, not a snap judgment easily forgotten.

I came back to my Border farm swearing I'd never, ever write another play. I would milk cows and write prose that no one could mutilate on a stage and that is what I began to do.

Guthrie at this time had become deeply and financially involved with a jam factory called Farmhouse Preserves. The aim, far from making money, was philanthropic: to create work in the fruit fields and give employment locally in the disused railway station which he converted. The office was in the high signal box where (when not abroad) he strode about dictating letters that were chatty and unbusinesslike.

It was probably the most exotic, eccentric office in the world, and part of him delighted in that. I put a share of money into the venture as requested but hesitated about planting a field of raspberries. When he asked why I said I had reservations about the man he'd employed to run the business.

"For example?" "I've never heard anyone speak well of him." "That's of no consequence." He was wrong. He told or wrote Friel that the jam factory was the most important production of his life. When it went very wrong it literally broke his heart, "the hard ending". Meantime I'd written Cancer, the first story of the Victims Trilogy, and was embarked on the second when that unmistakable voice came on the phone to say he'd been asked by the New Zealand Arts Council to commission a work based on the old morality play Everyman.

HE'D BEEN IN touch with Alec Guinness, who'd said yes to the lead. The money involved was substantial. Would I like to think about it. Meantime, he wrote: "It can't be a play in the strict sense, more a pageant, hopefully far removed from the commercial theatre, a universal work dealing with the big themes, love and hate, war and peace, life and death, God and the religions with their crazy histories, the here and now and the hereafter if there be such overcrowded mansions in the universe! What do you think? My feeling is it's very much the sort of work you should attempt. Peggy saw your Pageant in Limerick Cathedral and was hugely impressed."

I knew that he knew I was licking my wounds after Swift [the Abbey production of it had been a nightmare]. He also knew I'd written a story meantime and asked me to bring it and read it. This I did. Cancer dealt with sectarian hatred and two brothers who were jealous of each other. As always, he listened very attentively.

"That gets it but I wonder about the mix of the human and the political?" We then talked about the Everyman project for New Zealand. Had I given it any thought? I said I'd jotted down ideas, a rough outline, which was true, but I did not say it wasn't working in my imagination which had already moved on to Heritage, the second story of the Victims Trilogy.

Three days later he was dead.

The above is an edited extract from 'The Rock in the River', Eugene McCabe's contribution to Annaghmakerrig. The book captures the essence of the artists' retreat, stories of its fascinating families, and the creativity of the 5,000 artists who have spent time there since it was opened by Brian Friel in 1981. Contributors to the book include Joseph Hone, Colm Tóibín, John Banville, Gerald Barry, Anne Enright, Joseph O'Connor, Robert Ballagh, Dorothy Cross, Paul Muldoon, Rosita Boland, Tim Robinson and Claire Keegan. It is edited by Sheila Pratschke, director of Annaghmakerrig. The hardback book, published by Lilliput Press, €40 in shops or €30 from