Joe Dowling, Ireland and the Guthrie

Last weekend, I was in Minneapolis to attend the annual conference of the Irish Theatrical Diaspora network, which this year was about Tyrone Guthrie and the relationships between Irish and American theatre.

It was a fascinating conference. We heard a great keynote from John Harrington, who pointed out how important America had been for many Irish practitioners. He referred to the early Abbey actors, to writers like Denis Johnston and Stewart Parker, and to Garry Hynes. I’ve written a few times before on this blog about the disappointing lack of American plays on Irish stages, but Harrington’s paper reminded me that American influence makes itself felt in other ways: in innovative approaches to writing or direction or acting, for example.

There was also a very stimulating keynote by Jose Lanters about Tom Kilroy, in which she compared the Abbey and Guthrie productions of The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde. Kilroy stands out in the contemporary tradition as an Irish dramatist who is unusually open to non-Irish influences. As Lanters showed, Constance Wilde shows the traces not only of Pirandello but also of Japanese practice.

The differing approaches to the production in Ireland and America were also very interesting: the Guthrie production was much closer to dance than was the case in the Abbey production – but it also seemed to have been over-produced. As directed by Patrick Mason and designed by Joe Vanek, the Abbey Constance Wilde had a striking simplicity that forced the audience to focus entirely on the sadness of the Wildes’ life. In contrast, the Guthrie production filled the stage with eye-catching details, including beautiful androgynous costumes for the plays’ mute attendants (puppeteers who also manipulate the live actors). But in doing so it may have made it more difficult for the audience to attend fully to the action.

It was also great to see the Guthrie Theater itself – surely now one of the world’s great theatres. With three stages, shops, lecture rooms, and an education department, the theatre is unlike anything we have in Ireland. I was struck by the thought that, at a cost of $130 million, the Guthrie cost more or less the same amount as had been earmarked for the Abbey between 1999 (when Patrick Mason finished up) and 2002 (when Ben Barnes proposed to move the theatre into the Docklands). I’m not sure that Dublin could necessarily support a space like the Guthrie – with its proscenium arch stage, its thrust stage, and its studio space. But the Irish theatre would thrive with such facilities. Fintan O’Toole and others have made the point before, though, that to see what Dowling did in raising the money to build the Guthrie is to face the disappointment that we have nothing even remotely comparable in Ireland.

When Friel went to Minneapolis in the early 1960s, he found the experience liberating – there’s his famous line about the ‘parole’ from ‘inbred claustrophobic Ireland’. The cultural differences between Minnesota and Ireland have probably narrowed during the last 50 years, but as ever America can throw up some surprises. For example, I loved the announcement on the front door of the Guthrie that guns are banned in the theatre. “But no-one brings guns to a theatre,” I said to an American companion, in my best tone of European anti-gun indignation. “Tell that to Abraham Lincoln,” came the reply.

Also impressive was that the bookshop had a good stock of Irish plays, including Thomas Conway’s Oberon Anthology of Irish Plays. It’s exciting to know that people like Grace Dyas, Mark O’Halloran, Amy Conway, Neil Watkins, and others are being read abroad – along with work on Friel:

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The highlight of the conference  was a public interview with Joe Dowling, who was very interesting on his time at the Abbey. He spoke about the importance of reintroducing Shakespeare to the Abbey’s repertoire, for example (and I’ve read the press clippings for his Twelfth Night and Much Ado from 1975 and 1976 – and audiences loved them). He also spoke about how he opened up the Peacock to younger actors – and indeed to young bands, including Thin Lizzy. He recalled standing in the foyer of the Abbey and feeling the ground shake from the band playing downstairs in the Peacock – a nice metaphor for what he tried (mostly successfully) to do with the theatre.

He also spoke about the problems he’d encountered there. When asked how he’d begun directing he explained that he was appearing in The Colleen Bawn – and that on opening night only the first three acts had been rehearsed. So before going on stage, he started telling one of the other actors where to stand.

He also spoke about some of his difficulties with the Abbey Board when he became Artistic Director from 1978 to 1985. When in 1985 the Board made a decision he didn’t (or couldn’t) agree with, the Chair simply said to him that “the boss is the boss”. In other words, the Board was in charge, and his job was to do what he was told, without discussion. So he resigned.

He spoke about that feeling of despair after his resignation – the fear that he wouldn’t work again, the frustration with how things had turned out. Those feelings were alleviated somewhat when, on the day after his resignation, he got a phone call from Michael Colgan. “So what are you going to direct for us at the Gate, Joe?” Colgan asked.

Dowling also spoke at length about his direction of Donal McCann in Friel’s Faith Healer – a harrowing story about how McCann had to battle his alcoholism in order to create one of the great performances in the modern Irish theatre.

What struck me most about Dowling’s tenure at the Abbey is that he did an enormous amount to liberalise the theatre. It was he who directed Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche in the 1970s, for example – reintroducing to the Abbey repertoire one of its greatest women playwrights. He also brought McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster to the Peacock – a play that marked a new generosity not only in terms of sexuality but also sectarianism at our national theatre. Dowling gave Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross its Irish premiere – amazingly, the first and last time Mamet has been produced at the Abbey. And he also programmed shows like Murphy’s Gigli Concert, Barry McGovern in Endgame (a show now almost entirely associated with the Gate), and Cyril Cusack in Merchant of Venice. And he brought in Michael Bogdanov to do a challenging version of Hamlet on the theatre’s main-stage – only three years after Bogdanov had faced a charge of obscenity for his production of Romans in Britain in London.

Dowling attracted some criticism last year for his programming of the Guthrie’s fiftieth anniversary season, which was dominated by male authors. To be fair, I think the theatre has shown in its subsequent choices that it’s taken on board those criticisms. But there’s an interesting Irish context there – in that Dowling did more than any previous Abbey artistic director to bring new voices to the stages of the national theatre, broadening our approach to sexuality, gender and religion. When one views his career in its entirety, he certainly can’t be accused of being the kind of director who only ever wants to produce dead white heterosexual males.

Hearing Dowling talk, I found myself thinking that, like so many people of talent in 1980s Ireland, he would probably have gone mad or otherwise self-destructed had he stayed in the country. But to see what he’s achieved in the Guthrie – and to consider all he did during his time at the Abbey – was to face the realisation that he’s been a significant loss to Irish theatre too.

In other words, Irish theatre is at its healthiest when the channels are open with other cultures – when a Tom Kilroy can bring Japanese and European ideas into his very Irish play, when a Stewart Parker or a Garry Hynes can learn from American performance and then bring those ideas back home. But the career of Dowling at the Guthrie shows that there are many people who have left and, aside from occasional return visits, have mostly stayed away.

As opportunities for our theatre-makers recede – and as so many people head to London and elsewhere – I wonder who we’re losing now? And I wonder too if we are creating enough opportunities for those who have gone abroad to come home?

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