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The Irish Connection: Tyrone Guthrie and Regional Theater

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 16, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 2012
pp. 127-141 | 10.1353/nhr.2012.0060

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On June 27, 2006, the North American premiere of DruidSynge by Galway's Druid Theatre Company took place in the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the first production in a $125 million, three-stage structure on a new site that included thrust, proscenium, and black box stages. The premiere and the dazzling building bespoke newness and originality; but the occasion also reminded attendees of an extraordinary continuity in the Minneapolis company's history. The most conspicuous continuity was the fact that two Irishmen had played central parts in the Guthrie's history. Sir Tyrone Guthrie had founded the theater as a classics-based thrust stage theater and served as its first artistic director from 1963 to 1966. Joe Dowling had become the seventh artistic director in 1995, and it was under his leadership that the Guthrie had been reinvented in this new location. As a local journalist noted,

The new Guthrie Theater is the manifest vision of one man—Joe Dowling, a fighter and a visionary, a wit and an emissary of American theatre. But who is he really? When the curtain rises on the new Guthrie, the playhouse will still bear the name of Tyrone Guthrie, the Irish director who ignited America's regional performing arts movement when he opened a theatre in Minneapolis in 1963. But the marquee credit for the $125 million riverfront megastructure that debuts in June belongs to another Irishman. Joe Dowling, artistic director since 1995, has led the Guthrie through a long and sometimes bruising quest for a bold new building designed by French architect Jean Nouvel—and into a new era.

Dowling was acutely aware of the links; he had, in fact, employed his connection to the Irish roots of Sir Tyrone Guthrie to shape an inspiring and enabling narrative that led to moving, expanding, and re-inventing the theater.

In his first press conference at the Guthrie Theater after his appointment, Dowling had declared, "I have all my life been inspired by the life and work of Tyrone Guthrie. People often think that because Guthrie was knighted, he was English. I am here to correct that misconception." Dowling brought a comprehensive sense of Guthrie's Irish connections to his appointment. Guthrie (1900-1971) was very much a living presence among Dowling's theatrical colleagues. Dowling had joined the Abbey Theatre as a student in 1967, was accepted into the company in 1968, and began ascending the rungs of authority at the Irish National Theatre after 1970. Both Dowling's mentors, the playwright Brian Friel and Tomás Mac Anna, artistic director at the Abbey from 1973 to 1978, were deeply influenced by Guthrie. Friel attended the inaugural rehearsals of the Guthrie Theater from April to June, 1963, and completed his masterly evisceration of small-town emotional paralysis, Philadelphia, Here I Come! on returning to Ireland from his Minneapolis sojourn. Mac Anna credited Guthrie's visually stylish 1950 Gate Hamlet with influencing his inventive Irish language pantomimes and invited Guthrie to present both George Shiels's McCook's Corner and Eugene McCabe's Swift at the Abbey in 1968-69. Mac Anna would direct Juno and the Paycock at the Guthrie Theater in 1973 at the invitation of Guthrie's protégé, Michael Langham, before returning to Dublin to helm the Abbey and allow his own protégé, Joe Dowling to run the Peacock, the Abbey's second experimental stage. Many of Dowling's other colleagues had been imprinted by Guthrie's passion for theater. For instance Hugh Hunt, the Abbey's artistic director from 1969-70 had encouraged Dowling to set up the Young Abbey, Ireland's first theatre-in-education group, and had served as Guthrie's assistant at the Old Vic from 1951 to 1952. The web of connection can be extended through almost the whole of the Irish theatrical community.

Joseph Zeigler, in Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage (1973) categorizes the development and evolution of the regional theater movement in three images: "acorn" theatres, which were small theaters before 1960; "sapling" or intermediary and middle-sized theaters after 1960; and "oak" theaters—meaning the Guthrie and its imitators after 1960. The Guthrie emerges as the most important theater in...



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