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Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie by Christopher Fitz-Simon

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Christopher Fitz-Simon © 2 November 2017.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Memoir · Non-Fiction ).

Before the advent of e-mail it seems to have been an irrefutable fact that persons destined by a Higher Authority to become famous would have their letters preserved from a very early age.  With this concept in mind, it was surely a matter of course that Tyrone Guthrie’s letters to his mother at Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan, to his sister Peggy in Kilkenny and to his wife Judith mainly in London (when she was not travelling with him) were methodically saved:  for Guthrie was to become the most influential theatrical director in the English-speaking world.

Such a fanciful notion apart, Guthrie (1900-1971) was by nature an inveterate letter writer. He had an extraordinary wish – a compulsion, indeed – to share with his family his experiences of the places abroad where he was working, and the personalities encountered there.  I reckon that at least 3,000 letters and post-cards survive.  It was quite normal for people who came from a highly literate sector of society ‘never to throw anything away’.

After Guthrie’s death the founders of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, of which I was a member, entrusted the family papers – many go back to the 18th century – to the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland which offered the most expert system of identifying and cataloguing this highly disparate collection.  Among the papers were Guthrie’s letters from school, from Oxford, from the BBC in Belfast, from the Scottish National Players, from the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells Theatres, from the Covent Garden and Metropolitan Operas, from Broadway, from Tel Aviv, Helsinki, Düsseldorf, Edinburgh, Toronto, Stratford (Ontario and Warwickshire), Sydney, Minneapolis, etc –   not forgetting Sioux City, Iowa, and Ballymoney, Co Antrim, etc etc.

After the death of his sister (Mrs Hubert Butler) Guthrie’s letters to her were found by her daughter Julia Crampton.  Knowing my interest in the theatre and the fact that I had met Tyrone Guthrie many times, she invited me to read the letters, which I did with mounting fascination – I had not read any of those consigned to the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.  I was convinced that there was a book in waiting, and a visit to PRONI doubled this certainty. I prepared a Proposal and approached The Lilliput Press which had brought out the essays of Hubert Butler in six masterful volumes.  Lilliput subsequently commissioned me to provide a text of up to 120,000 words.

The constraints were:  the vast amount of reading; the reduction of the available material to less than a tenth; attempting to achieve in the selection a balance between the domestic and the professional, the local and the cosmopolitan; the cost of research in travel and subsistence; and the haunting question as to who would want to read the letters of a largely forgotten theatrical director?   For once the lights go down or the curtain falls on a stage production, its director’s work – unlike that of the film director – vanishes for ever.  (Tyrone Who?)

Fortunately I had experience of biography when writing The Boys, the life stories of Hilton Edwards and Mícheál MacLíammóir, founders of the Dublin Gate Theatre, and as a consequence I was aware of the niceties of delving into public archives and also of interviewing survivors of the period. This would mean a considerable amount of travel, and to this end I applied with success to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for a bursary to cover, mainly, research at PRONI in Belfast (I live in Dublin) and also visits to libraries in Glasgow, Burnley and London where much Guthrie ‘background’ material is available. (I had determined to insert short paragraphs here and there where the context of his correspondence might be obscure or confusing.)  I was also fortunate in receiving a travel grant from the Department of Foreign Affairs to attend a seminar in Minneapolis, location of The Guthrie Theater and of The University of Minnesota where there is a substantial picture library that turned out to be invaluable; noting, of course, the names of these and many other institutions and individuals for the eventual ‘thanks’ section of the book.

It was easy, though a slow process, to discard letters that could have no possible interest to anybody today – family matters of little apparent import, descriptions of unidentifiable persons, lengthy accounts of illnesses, rehearsals of long-forgotten plays, interminable journeys on the Belfast to Heysham ferry, etc. On the other hand, there were what seemed to me to be essential references to family matters that later blew up into disagreeable confrontations, to minor figures later becoming major, to illnesses that resulted in operations and even death, to stageings of fairly inconsequential works that led to important theatrical innovations, to journeys where scenes provided vivid descriptive passages. After a time it appeared essential that I must make my selection without it becoming ‘bitty’:   it will remain for readers and critics to decide whether I achieved this or not.

Having decided upon the Great Discard, I typed up those letters or sections of letters that I felt would interest potential readers on account of their racy descriptions of people, places and incidents that would, I felt, give an accurate and entertaining picture of Guthrie’s private and professional life.  This typescript amounted to approximately twice the number of words required.  I asked my wife and Julia Crampton’s husband Dick to read this document, which they dutifully did, and to advise me on what was boring, which they did with alacrity. There followed the Great Slash, the result of which was delivered to the publisher who invited Professor Terence Brown to read and report upon it. I was hoping that Professor Brown would suggest further cuts, for I now felt the word-requirement made for too long a book.  I was surprised when Professor Brown praised the selection and the balance and advised that there should be no further editing except for some of Guthrie’s outlandish remarks which he felt went way beyond the acceptable limit of political incorrectness!

(c) Christopher Fitz-Simon

About Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie:

Here, in a stunning volume of letters, we are offered a glimpse into the vision of this extraordinary impresario aswell as a view of the intimacies of his relationships with his mother, wife and friends.During the 1940s and 1950s Guthrie was renowned for liberating the plays of Shakespearefrom declamatory delivery and excessive staging. His most enduring legacy was in inspiringthe creation of modern theatre buildings where the plays of antiquity could be brought closerto the audience – such as at Stratford, Canada, and the theatre that bears his name inMinneapolis, USA. Of Scots-Irish parentage, he identified most closely with his mother’s homeat Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan, which he made his professional headquarters after herdeath, hosting producers, designers, playwrights and composers there while planningworldwide productions. On the advice of his sister Peggy and her husband, Hubert Butler, heleft this house to the Irish nation as a workplace for writers and artists.Faced with often seemingly insurmountable financial and personal disaster, his celebratedmantra ‘Rise above!’ was testament to a life lived in on the wings of an operatic opening nightor a Shakespearean tragedy. Guthrie’s vivid descriptions of places visited are matched by theobservational skills of his remarks on the people he worked with, among them well-knownactors from Orson Welles to Alec Guinness. Family members come in for as many amusedcomments as do the famous and distinguished: Cousin Molly is no more spared than WinstonChurchill. Fitz-Simon has gathered an important, and entrancing, collection of TyroneGuthrie’s letters, raising a curtain on the life of Ireland’s leading theatre director of thetwentieth-century.

Order your copy online here.


Christopher Fitz-Simon is a former Artistic Director of the Irish Theatre Company, the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. He has lectured in Ireland, Britain, Canada, the US, South America and throughout Europe. Among his books are The Boys (2002), Eleven Houses (2007) and Buffoonery and Easy Sentiment (2011).
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