DBF Interviews: Christopher Fitz-Simon

Christopher Fitzimon

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).

Christopher is the editor behind Rise Above!: Letters from Tyrone Guthrie (The Lilliput Press), his latest book which launches on Thursday, November 9th in the beautiful setting of the RDS Library. This stunning volume of letters details the life of the celebrated theatrical director whose influence on international theatre lives on. Here, we are offered a glimpse into the life of the extraordinary figure as well as the intimacies of his relationships with his mother, sister, wife and friends. Christopher will be joined by guest speaker Dr Joe Dowling, former Artistic Director of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis.


Q. How did you weigh up what to include or discard in your research on Guthrie?

Lilliput-TyroneGuthrieLetters-FullJacket.inddFollowing the death of Peggy Butler, sister of the theatre director Tyrone (Tony) Guthrie, Peggy’s  daughter Julia came across masses of letters from him to her. Knowing my interest in the theatre and the fact that I had met Tony many times, she invited me to read them, which I did with mounting fascination. I was convinced there was a book, and when I went to the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland where the letters from Tony to his mother at Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan, and to his wife Judy – mainly in London when she was not travelling with him – are preserved, I was even more convinced. In all, I think there are over 3,000 letters and postcards from all over the world. It took several months to read this collection and I found it quite easy to discard letters that could have no possible interest to the general reader – family matters of obscure import, lengthy accounts of illnesses, rehearsals of long-forgotten plays, interminable journeys on the Belfast to Heysham ferry, etc.

I typed up the more vivid and comprehendible letters – those dealing with professional visits to, e.g., Tel Aviv, Helsingfors, Düsseldorf, Melbourne, Montreal, New York  – not forgetting Ballymoney and Sioux City, Iowa!  – etc; letters that dealt with relationships with the famous theatrical and operatic personalities of the time – the Oliviers, Alec Guinness, Sybil Thorndike, Benjamin Britten, Renata Tebaldi, Siobhán McKenna, Micheál MacLíammóir, etc; work on the creation of new plays with Thornton Wilder, W.H.Auden, J.B.Priestley, Sean O’Casey, Eugene McCabe, Robertson Davies, etc; and his concern for the family home at Annaghmakerrig and the people supported by the agricultural estate. As expected, this resulted in twice the number of words required by The Lilliput Press so I invited kind friends to tell me what was boring and what was definitely not. The important thing was to create a balance between the domestic and the professional, the local and the cosmopolitan, and it will be up to readers and critics to decide if this aim has been achieved.


Q. What advice would you give now to creative talent and writers on how to be their own editor, given your odyssey through Guthrie’s life and work? Should all their correspondence be edited/slashed with a view to posterity?

I think potential editors should have no hesitation in slashing what seem them to be the less interesting or arresting sections of any late person’s letters: after all, the letters will still exist in their places of origin and will probably be available to those who wish to investigate the total unpublished or unpublishable collection. Naturally, a great deal depends on the requirement of the potential publisher. The same would be partly the case with biography. I had experience of biographical writing when working on The Boys, the life stories of Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLíammóir, founders of the Dublin Gate Theatre, and as a consequence was aware of the niceties of delving into public archives – as well as the niceties of approaching survivors of the period, some of whom were so anxious to talk that much editing of their reminiscences was needed.


Q. Can you tell us what brought Guthrie to the US and Canada? Could you share what inspired him to create modern theatre buildings such as at Stratford, Canada, and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis?

Gutherie TheatreGuthrie, the earliest studio-assistant at the BBC in Belfast when in his early twenties, as well being the author of several very early radio plays, was invited to Canada in 1930 to produce a broadcast serial based on Canadian immigrant life; the contacts he made there resulted twenty years later in his being invited to produce a Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario. By this time he had been the Artistic Director – the term in use then was ‘Producer’ –  of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells theatres in London and he had also directed several plays for West End and Broadway managements. Both the West End and Broadway experiences convinced him that a far more satisfactory relationship between players and audience could be achieved by companies where theatre staff and actors were permanent – or as permanent as possible – and it was chiefly his dissatisfaction on artistic grounds with the Broadway system that drew him to help create a major repertory theatre in Minneapolis – later named The Guthrie – in 1962.

He had also become convinced that plays of European antiquity, and plays from the Elizabethan and Jacobean repertoire, would be better served in an auditorium where the performance was not separated from the audience by the proscenium and curtain, and that a thrust stage surrounded on three sides by the audience would bring the elements closer together. This he had achieved by accident in 1937 at Elsinore with a production of Hamlet, and shortly afterwards, with due purpose, in a mediaeval Scottish morality play called The Thrie Estaitis on an open stage in Edinburgh. The experiment was continued at Stratford, Ontario, in 1953, in an enormous marquee which, after three years,  was replaced by a permanent building. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis followed the same plan, with refinements.


Q. Guthrie had a formidably talented sister Margaret (who recommended he gift Annaghmakkerig to the Irish people), and brother-in-law, Hubert Butler. Can you give us some insights into Guthrie’s work with Hubert Butler who translated the text for Guthrie’s 1934 production of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard for perhaps the first English-language production. What further collaborations might have followed if WWll hadn’t intervened?

HUBERT3003When Guthrie was Producer at the Old Vic he commissioned his brother-in-law Hubert Butler, a Russian language scholar, to translate The Cherry Orchard in 1934. The production, with Athene Seyler as Raneveskaia and Charles Laughton as Gayev, was an immediate success. Earlier Chekov productions in Britain had been of a somewhat morose nature, directors and actors not understanding that they are comedies. Butler’s text was easy-going in comparison with stilted previous translations. The production was revived in 1941 when Guthrie was in charge of the Old Vic and the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet companies which were evacuated to the Victoria Theatre, Burnley, as a base for touring in parts of Britain unlikely to be Luftwaffe targets.