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The deliciously indiscreet letters of top theatre mover and shaker Tyrone Guthrie

Tyrone Guthrie. Photo: Tyrone Guthrie Centre

As the private correspondence of Tyrone Guthrie is published for the first time, Nick Smurthwaite finds much humour in the 20th-century director’s candid observations about stars from Marie Tempest to Laurence Olivier

The legacy of Tyrone Guthrie, one of the great theatrical movers and shakers of the first half of the 20th century, lives on in the centre that bears his name. Located in Newbliss in County Monaghan, Ireland, it has been a residential workplace for writers and artists since 1981.

Until Guthrie’s death a decade earlier, this remote, handsome mansion called Annaghmakerrig had been the country home of the Guthrie family. It was much beloved of Tony Guthrie – as he was more commonly known – and his wife Judith.

After his mother died in 1956, the house became both Guthrie’s retreat and headquarters, where producers, playwrights, actors and designers came to visit from all over the world.

As well as being hugely respected as a director in the UK, Guthrie was the inaugural artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, and later established a new theatre in his name in Minneapolis.

Six Characters in Search of an Author, which Guthrie directed at London’s Westminster Theatre in 1931 and on Broadway in 1955.Photo: Tyrone Guthrie Centre

Yet his beloved home became the source of a protracted family feud between Guthrie and his sister, Peggy – with whom he had previously been very close – after he announced that he had left it in his will to his long-serving farm manager.

The letters he wrote to Peggy all his life, mostly describing his work, descended into acrimony, accusation and remorse over the dispersal of the estate.

They are now published for the first time in Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie, edited by Christopher Fitz-Simon, the son of friends of Guthrie’s. What begins as an epistolary account of his extraordinary rise ends up as a blow-by-blow story of a family at war.

It was Fitz-Simon’s aim to “balance letters that disclose his career in the theatre, with its dazzling successes and readily acknowledged disasters, alongside the ups and downs of his family relationships”.

As the editor points out in his introduction, the letters were never intended for publication and are littered with in-jokes, political incorrectness, and scabrous character assassinations. “His abhorrence of pretentiousness and pomposity both on the professional and domestic scene is a characteristic that emerges strongly throughout,” Fitz-Simon writes.

As early as 1932, Guthrie was a force to be reckoned with, directing a series of Shakespeare plays at the Old Vic, then led by Lilian Baylis.

His debut production was Henry VIII, with Charles Laughton as the corpulent Tudor despot. Guthrie writes: “Personally, I think [Laughton] is excellent but Henry is a poor part and few of the critics know enough to dissever the quality of a performance from the quality of a part.”

In a letter to his mother, Guthrie recounts an occasion at a matinee of The Cherry Orchard, when he was called upon to introduce the visiting Duchess of York [the future Queen Mother] to the company on stage. “Quite a nice little thing,” he writes. “Very small and rather undistinguished, but a bright and intelligent little face. She was quietly dressed in blue chiffon and a pearl necklace.”

Later he describes, again to his mother, a nerve-racking encounter with the 80-year-old George Bernard Shaw, whose 1936 play The Millionairess he hoped to direct. “He got to business at once about the play but was exactly like his writing, at once brisk but evasive. I think he means to let us have the play but would not commit himself and enjoyed mischievously dangling the prize before me and then whisking it ruthlessly away.”

He Who Gets Slapped, performed on Broadway in 1946. Photo: Tyrone Guthrie Centre [2]
He Who Gets Slapped, performed on Broadway in 1946. Photo: Tyrone Guthrie Centre

Guthrie’s directorial brush with Marie Tempest, the leading comic actress of her generation and, then in her 70s, coming to the end of her career, makes for hilarious reading.

He writes of the rehearsal experience: “We work pretty short hours, as two hours at a stretch is as much as the old girl can manage. The last hour before lunch becomes very teasing as she gets hungrier and hungrier. She barks out at me, ‘What’s the time, dear?’ about every three minutes, and looks vexed at every delay.”

As director of two great pre-war Hamlets – Laurence Olivier in 1936 and Alec Guinness two years later – Guthrie was uniquely placed to compare these very different actors. His verdict is plainly expressed in a letter to his mother in 1938, the year Guinness’ performance was greeted by “faint-hearted” reviews.

Guthrie writes: “Alec is much, much better than Larry, but Larry with his beautiful head and athletic, sexy movements and bursts of fireworks are what the public wants. They don’t know or want to know much about the play and character – they just want a show.”

Perhaps because these letters were never intended for publication, they are often deliciously indiscreet and always blisteringly honest. Since the dramatis personae are mostly long gone, they seem unlikely to give offence after all this time. What is refreshing about Guthrie’s attitude to the theatre, a field in which he excelled at every level, is that he was always able to step back from it and look at his successes – and failures – with a critical and humorous eye.

Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie is published by the Lilliput Press [3]

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive [4]