Guthrie Analyzes Director's Job

The world-renowned director Tyrone Guthrie proved to be a gifted comic actor as well at his talk in New Lecture Hall last Thursday. After being introduced (or "eulogized," as he put it), he asked permission to doff his jacket, did so, undid his tie, rolled up his sleeves and unbuttoned his shirt. With navel displayed, he gave his ideas on "The Director in the Theatre," after assuring his large audience that "there ain't no one right way of doin' anything."

The director's job has two main facets, he said: (1) his work on the script; and (2) his work with the people involved.

"First," Guthrie said, "the director must get to know the play thoroughly. He should read it again and again. I personally work more by ear than by eye; I find it best to read a script aloud to friends or family, because it compels me to go slowly. Any one of you could doubtless stump me on a fact about Hamlet in three seconds; but not six of you know the play as well as I do."

"Ninety percent of a good script, like an iceberg, is beneath sea level. And the better it is, the less its author will know about what he has written. Library statistics show that more has been written about Jesus, Hamlet and Napoleon than any other persons. Shakespeare didn't know what he had created. He probably thought to himself, 'I'll wow 'em with a court melodrama about the highest classes with the lowest morals, in which everyone gets killed at the end.'"

"On the other hand, take Ibsen, who was primarily a thematic writer, consciously arguing theses. Ibsen was greatest when he got away from his theme--as in Peer Gynt, compared with, say, Enemy of the People. Peer Gynt is enormously his greatest work."

"Any production of a play," he went on, "is bound to be a comment on the play. Now anything that has not been done before is likely to be branded as impertinent, especially by the elderly and the scholarly. But you can't have a production that is not a comment; and to think that you can is the real impertinence. It is an illogical and serious mistake to envision one pure, ideal performance.

"This comment is not entirely the director's. He is simply the chairman of the proceedings. He must have an imaginary picture of the work in terms of choreographic style, but it ought to be one that can be changed during rehearsals. The keyword to a director's approach should be 'flexibility.'"

Turning to the second facet of directing, Guthrie said a director "must not bore the people involved. And the biggest bore is waste of time. The director should be scrupulously punctual himself, and insist on it from everybody else. If Sir Lawrence Olivier is late, down with his pants and give him six of the best with your slipper!"

"Actors are not very profound or articulate thinkers as a rule, but they are quick on the uptake and highly instinctive. It's not like dealing with a pack of engineers, for example. Don't keep actors just sitting on their behinds and reading the play a la Stanislavsky. Dame Edith Evans says she has to move on her feet in order to think and react imaginatively. You might be able to take your cast off to a farm for six months to read Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard, but you can't do that with Tunnel of Love."

"All the collaborators in a production must feel that they are partners and not servants--and I don't mean just the people with big parts. Everything hangs on everybody. Hence the need for a flexible attitude. Of course the director must criticize--and he shouldn't spare the actors. But he must not criticize them for anything that they can't help or change."

"Most guidance is needed in vocal problems. Few actors, for instance, know how to keep up a long series of big opera breaths. Unfortunately, though, these are things that many directors know little about."

"The director mustn't show off, and embarrass his actors by getting laughs at their expense. Nothing reveals people so much as when they are trying to be something they are not. Actors have to perform a spiritual strip-tease in rehearsals, and the director should handle them on a clinical basis and with antiseptic sympathy--like a doctor with neurotic patients."

After outlining the director's relations with the producer and designer, Guthrie said, "The really crucial thing is casting. Suppose I want to do Macbeth. Who is my first choice for the lead? Lawrence Olivier. But the Oliviers are more in demand than any other players in the world. So harassed are they with mountains of marvelous offers that they must feel as though they had to decide whether to tear up the Magna Charta before breakfast or put the Crown Jewels down the lavatory and pull the chain. So it is that a director almost never can get a whole cast of first choices. And he faces the dilemma of whether to get big names that he knows can't play the part or to gamble on unknowns who just possibly might achieve good performances. A good audition doesn't necessarily mean a good performance, either."

"The most important work on a play is done in the last 10 days--when the actors can actually feel the steps they have to walk on and the costumes they have to wear. There should always be at least four full dress rehearsals before the opening. But I find this is rarely possible in the United States. Over here you don't get the sets and costumes till the day before the opening--hence the necessity for out-of-town tryouts."

In the question period that followed his talk, Guthrie said he felt it was "disastrous" to keep casting people in the same type of role, but that commercial pressures led directors to indulge in such "safe" casting. He added, "The seriously interesting and the wildly money-making rarely coincide."

Why was Candide (which Guthrie directed this season) not a success? "The show was not quite good enough to justify its pretensions. And the public was not ready to take it seriously when offered up as light comedy."

How does directing opera differ from directing plays? (Guthrie staged the renovated Carmen at the Met.) "In opera there is far less inventing to be done by the director. The chief problem is dealing with people who are not actors and who resent acting, and with an ultra-conservative public. Also, a musical score says more about the finished product than the script of a play. Play actors have a more imaginative, personal contribution than musicians. Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy is actually a musical aria, but the 'score' gives only the meaning, not the melody and rhythm."

What about the versatility of American actors compared with British ones? "Actors in the United States don't have a chance to develop versatility as they do in England. One reason is that the profession is too much centralized in New York. Also the acting profession in England is smaller, so that one person can get a crack at many different types of role. In New York, however, there are 1500 actors for any one available part."

Much of what Guthrie said was reworked from the talk, "An Audience of One," which he delivered in London before the Royal Society of Arts five years ago. This lecture was printed in the highly informative anthology Directing the Play: A Source Book of Stagecraft. Those interested in more of Guthrie's ideas or in the opinions of many other eminent directors can find them here.

The third and final lecture in this drama series will take place tonight at 8:30 in Allston Burr Hall (not the New Lecture Hall as previously announced). Entitled "The Playwright in the Theatre," it will be given by writer Denis Johnston.