Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1971) was an English theater director, largely responsible for the founding of the Shakespeare Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario, and of the Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis.
Born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Tyrone Guthrie was the great-grandson of the Irish actor Tyrone Power. As a schoolboy Guthrie soon showed an interest in the theater, music, and writing. At Oxford University he studied history and was an active member of the Dramatic Society. In 1923 he joined the newly-founded Oxford Playhouse. However, the company's director, James B. Fagan, developed little confidence in Guthrie's acting abilities and did not re-hire him the following season.
Guthrie then accepted a job as a broadcaster for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in Belfast and soon began to produce plays over the air. His success as a radio director led him back to the theater and to a directing position with the Scottish National Players in Glasgow (1926). In 1928 the BBC produced two of Guthrie's radio plays, Squirrel's Cage and Matrimonial News, and employed him as a script editor in London.
Guthrie soon left the BBC to become artistic director of the Anmer Hall Company at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge. With this new company Guthrie's directing repertoire could shift away from the somewhat parochial national plays favored by the Scottish Players. He directed Euripides, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, and Pirandello. It was here at the Festival Theatre that Guthrie also began to develop his gift for staging innovative, animated crowd scenes, eventually one of his directorial trademarks. In late 1929 another of Guthrie's radio plays, The Flowers Are Not For You To Pick, was successfully produced by the BBC. Despite Guthrie's primary involvement with the theater, his reputation as a radio writer and personality continued to grow. Accordingly, he was engaged to produce in Montreal a radio series of dramatized popular history, "The Romance of Canada" (1930-1931).
Upon returning to the Anmer Hall Company Guthrie directed James Bridie's The Anatomist (1931). The play opened the company's second home at Westminster Theatre and was Guthrie's first London production. He had his first West End directing success with Dangerous Corner, J. B. Priestley's first play (1932). That same year Guthrie published the first of his many books, Theatre Prospect, and his Westminster production of Love's Labours Lost brought him to the attention of Lilian Baylis. As administrator of the esteemed Old Vic, Baylis was in search of a new resident director for the company. She offered Guthrie the position for the 1933-1934 season.
Guthrie brought Charles Laughton to the Old Vic and directed him in several leading roles, most notably as Angelo in Measure for Measure (1933). However, Guthrie received mixed reviews for his year's work and subsequently concentrated on tallying up a number of West End and Broadway successes. Having proven himself in the commercial theater, Guthrie rejoined the Old Vic in 1936. As resident director, he staged a number of important, if not always entirely successful, productions: Wycherly's The Country Wife (1936), with Edith Evans and Ruth Gordon; A Midsummer Night's Dream (1937, 1938) with Mendelssohn's music; a modern dress Hamlet (1938) with Alec Guiness; and Ibsen's An Enemy of the People (1939). Two of his productions, Hamlet (1937) and Othello (1938), became famous for their Freudian interpretations, with Laurence Olivier playing major parts in both. During World War II Guthrie struggled to keep the Old Vic organization afloat in the provinces. One of his finest productions of this period was Ibsen's Peer Gynt (1944) with Ralph Richardson in the title role.
From 1945 to 1951 Guthrie worked as a freelance director. Among his many productions during these years were Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (1946), again with Richardson in the lead role, and Oedipus Rex in Israel, New York, and Finland (1947, 1948). He also directed several operas and presented plays at the annual Edinburgh Festival. Guthrie returned to the Old Vic as interim artistic director for the 1951-1952 season, but his focus then moved to a new project in Canada.
The project was the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. It was founded in 1953 and originally housed in a huge tent. Guthrie's impulse to become involved with this venture was threefold: to help to develop a national theater tradition in Canada; to work with a resident ensemble, for Guthrie was a strong advocate of theater done by a community of artists; and to stage Shakespeare in a spatial configuration true to the Elizabethan spirit. After years of experience with Shakespeare's plays, Guthrie felt that an amphitheater setting with a large thrust stage better served the Bard's theatrical vision than the more common proscenium stage. Guthrie was the festival's artistic director for its first two summer seasons and directed plays for the company until 1957.
In 1958 Guthrie began plans to expand the ideas he had realized in Canada and to transfer them to America. His goal was to establish a fully professional classical repertory company free from commercial pressure. His efforts came to fruition with the 1963 opening of the Minneapolis Theatre, designed somewhat on the lines of the Stratford theater. For the opening season Guthrie directed his second modern dress Hamlet and Chekhov's The Three Sisters. His later productions in Minneapolis included Henry V and Jonson's Volponein 1964; Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Richard III, with Hume Cronyn in the title role, in 1965; The House of Atreus, an adaptation and monumental staging of Aeschylus's The Orestia, in 1967; and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in 1969. In 1971 the theater was renamed in honor of Guthrie. He was knighted in 1961.
Besides Theatre Prospect (1932), Guthrie's own books on the theater include A Life in the Theatre (1959), his autobiography; A New Theatre (1964), which chronicles the development of the Minneapolis Guthrie Theatre; and In Various Directions (1965), a collection of essays. He also co-authored three volumes on the Shakespeare Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario: Known at Stratford, with Robertson Davies and Grant MacDonald (1953); Twice Have the Trumpets Sounded, with Davies and MacDonald (1954); and Thrice The Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd, with Davies (1955). An informative biography is James Forsyth, Tyrone Guthrie (1976). Interviews with numerous actors and designers about their work with Guthrie are collected in Alfred Rossi, Astonish Us in the Morning: Tyrone Guthrie Remembered (1977). □