PROFILE: Tyrone Guthrie

With a commemorative blue plaque recently unveiled at BBC Broadcasting House, John Gray delves deeper into the life and work of the famed theatre director

‘Belfast was a salutary shock,' for 24-year old Tyrone Guthrie arriving in 1924 as a manager of the new BBC radio station. It was his first experience of an industrial city, an ‘ugly, fascinating’ one, as he described it, and a far cry from his sheltered Anglo-Irish background.

Guthrie scorned ‘the nouveaux riches, [the] militantly philistine people… who seemed to dominate Belfast, who poured the accent and jargon of the Surrey golf clubs over their own accents…’, and became ‘militantly provincial, the sworn foe of all that was fashionable and metropolitan’.

He was ‘extremely interested’ in the city’s underground life and a surrounding countryside with its own ‘wealth of beautiful folk music and legend’. Subsequently he was offered the management of the Ulster Literary Theatre, but chose the Scottish National Players with their own commitment to a vernacular theatre instead. He had stayed in Belfast for only two years, but the connection was to endure.

In a little over a decade Guthrie was storming the citadels of the London metropolis which he had so recently derided, as broadcaster, playwright, and above all as a theatre and opera director. This trajectory climaxed with his management of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells from 1937 and through the war. As theatre historian Richard Findlater has put it, ‘he combined an establishment manner and authority with a ruthless radicalism of mind’, and one that befitted a Christian socialist.

Guthrie recruited future stars such as Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Flora Robson and Sybil Thorndike, and developed with them in groundbreaking productions whether of Shakespeare or Chekov. He was a pioneer of theatre in the round, holding true to the practice of classical Greek drama, of which he was a formidable interpreter, perhaps most notably in Oedipus Rex, which toured internationally and was filmed in 1957.

Guthrie did not lose sight of Ireland and its challenges, however. He directed Sean O’Casey’s The Bishop’s Bonfire at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in 1955. There were angry demonstrations, and Guthrie wrote: ‘Dublin drives me mad – so much pretension about being A Capital, having A Culture, such a lot of self-appointed Guardians of this, Protectors of that, so much fucking holiness…’

Gerard McLarnon’s The Bonefire, which Guthrie directed for the Ulster Group Theatre in 1958, with its uncanny coincidence of title with O’Casey’s play, was a ‘wonderfully written and acted’ portrayal of ‘the bigotry and hysteria’ of Eleventh Night Orange celebrations. As Guthrie noted ‘it was not exactly the version that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board might care to exhibit… [and] questions were asked in Parliament; a deputation of enraged councillors waited upon the Lord Mayor, demanding to have the offending play withdrawn’, but it played to full houses.

Guthrie inherited his mother’s family home at Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan in 1957. His commitment extended to the launch of a local jam factory much in the Irish co-operative tradition, though this had to be subsidised by his continued international career.

The most enduring mark of this was the foundation of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater (1963) in Minnesota, a vibrant mid-west counterblast to Broadway commercialism. An early visitor was the young Brian Friel who immortalised the experience in Philadelphia Here I Come (1964).

Guthrie’s international importance and his 1961 knighthood meant that in small firmament Northern Ireland he was an attractive if risky recruit as chairman of the Ulster Theatre Council. Others saw him as an instrument of change, and in 1963 a dissident alliance elected him Chancellor of Queen’s University, defeating the establishment candidate, the Duke of Abercorn.

He may have overestimated the strength of ‘the wind of change’. At a Belfast City Hall dinner in October 1964 he urged students from north and south to work for the abolition of ‘the senseless line which separates our countries’. Uproar followed, but Guthrie remained Chancellor until 1970.

He was invited to direct two plays in 1970 for a special government organised festival to mark the 50th anniversary of Northern Ireland. He proved unbiddable and instead suggested that the money should fund a national theatre for Northern Ireland located either in Derry/Londonderry or at some country location.

By then he had already tried to stay the developing Northern Ireland conflict in an impassioned July 1969 television broadcast, when, like King Oedipus speaking to his Thebans about their plague, he urged Ulster people to ‘get a grip of yourselves’. They did not, and a month later ‘The Troubles’ exploded. He died suddenly in April 1971.

Guthrie gifted Annaghmakerrig to the Irish state, and this became a centre for visiting artists supported by both Irish arts councils. At Queen’s a Tyrone Guthrie Society was founded in 2000 to mark his centenary. Brian Friel was guest of honour at a recent unveiling on September 15, 2010 of a blue plaque commemorating Guthrie at Broadcasting House, Belfast. Friel has said of Guthrie: ‘he was not only a great man of the theatre but a great man without qualification’.