Tyrone Guthrie

His Chancellorship shadowed the upheavals to come...

Though Tyrone Guthrie can be claimed by many parts of the world — Kent, Minnesota, Ontario and Israel to name a few — Northern Ireland can, in all truth, count this theatrical giant as one of its own. A towering presence in theatre throughout the 20th century, Guthrie was the first to bring direction to the forefront of theatre.

Born in Tunbridge Wells, England in 1900, Guthrie had theatre in his blood, being the great-grandson of William Gratten Tyrone Power, a famed 18th century actor, and cousin of the successful Hollywood actor Tyrone Power.

Guthrie was awarded a scholarship to St Johns College in Oxford, but refused in the hope that the money would go to a student from an underprivileged background. He did attend the university, however, and graduated with a degree in History. Whilst at Oxford Guthrie developed a love of theatre, and cut his theatrical teeth, so to speak, at the burgeoning Oxford Playhouse.

Guthrie first visited Belfast in the 1920s, and began working for a fledgling BBC radio station. By the age of 23 he had become head of features, radio plays and other original content streams - a remarkable rise to prominence for someone so young.

Guthrie, however, seemed, initially at least, unimpressed by the city around him. He wrote: 'Belfast was a salutary shock. To begin with it looked so different from any of the other places where I had lived. Here there were no dreaming spires, no grey colleges.

'Nature has been kind,' he continued. 'The city stands on the estuary of the River Lagan, with soft green hills to the south and south east; the sea to the east and to the north, the mountains — Ben Madigan, Divis, the Black Mountains. Man’s work is vile. The river is a polluted conglomeration of shipyards, gasworks, coal-basins; into it pours the refuse of the great mills, which send linen and rope to the far corners of the earth. Their chimneys rise like black points of exclamation over the rows and rows of little houses, square as boxes, scarlet as minced beef.'

Guthrie became administrator of The Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells theatres in 1937, but resigned in 1947 to begin his globe trotting career working on notable productions such as David Lyndsay’s Ane Satire of Thrie Estaites at the Edinburgh Festival in the late 1940s.

It was the kind of theatre Guthrie had dreamed of since Oxford: no proscenium arch, and a relationship between actors and audience that transcended the traditional ‘fourth wall’.

Guthrie was, by the 1960s, one of the world's most sought after and innovative directors, but he cast his eye upon his ancestral homeland of Ireland. Noticing a lack of job opportunities in rural Monaghan, he decided to create a jam factory based at Newbliss.

Guthrie also became chancellor of the Queen’s University, Belfast, nominated for election by a group of progressive unionists and supported by the nationalist minority. He was outspoken on topics such as the border and the representation of the community in Queen’s. His chancellorship shadowed the upheavals to come by showing that there were people in authority who felt the status quo was unsatisfactory. He was knighted in 1961.

On his death in 1971, Guthrie willed money for the creation of a drama department and theatre at Queen’s, and provision for halls specifically for foreign students.

Further reading:
A Life in Theatre (1987) by Tyrone Guthrie; Tyrone Guthrie:The Authorised Biography (1976) by James Forsyth.