Three Local Icons
When I started writing this piece, I realized someone was missing and had to be included. That someone was Sir Tyrone Guthrie. I doubt anyone would disagree that Sir Tyrone Guthrie has done more for local theater than anyone else, ever.
Without this tall, insightful Irishman, the Twin Cities wouldn’t be home to his namesake theatre. When the venue opened on Vineland Place in 1963, a popular theater couple were among the acting company: Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.
Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1971) was born in Tunbridge Wells. After earning a History degree at Oxford, Guthrie developed his career in theater and radio. In the 1930s, he introduced London audiences to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and served as director of the Shakespeare Repertory Company. He staged opera productions of Bizet’s Carmen in England and New York.
On Broadway, he directed revivals of He Who Gets Slapped, Oedipus Rex, Troilus and Cressida, and Mary Stuart. Ruth Gordon starred in his original production of The Matchmaker, and he staged the original production of Candide.
In the early 1950s, Guthrie was invited to help establish the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada. Joined by designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, the original tent theater opened with Alec Guinness and Irene Worth doing Richard III. Over the years, the Shakespeare Festival has grown to four indoor theaters: the Avon, The Festival, The Studio and the Tom Patterson, all along the Avon River, surrounded by an idyllic landscape. Guthrie was knighted in 1961.
Minnesota Theater Company
After three years, Guthrie left to pursue other projects including staging several Gilbert and Sullivan productions. However, in 1959, it was decided to establish a similar theater in the United States. A New York Times article invited cities to bid for the theater and Minneapolis was chosen. Guthrie’s full-length production of Hamlet featuring George Grizzard (fresh from the original Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) opened on May 7th 1963. The repertory also included Death of a Salesman, The Miser and Three Sisters. Guthrie remained with the theater for three years and in 1969 brought his productions of The House of Atreus and Brecht’s The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui to New York.
Hume and Jessie
While visiting Guthrie in Ontario as plans for the theater were going ahead, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn told Guthrie, that if he ever did something like this again, they’d like to be considered. When the Minnesota Theater Company was created, Tandy and Cronyn were the first actors signed.
Canadian born, Hume Cronyn (1911-2003) wanted to be a lawyer – until he decided on a theatrical career. He studied with the great Austrian director Max Reinhardt, whose 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream introduced audiences to Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind). He enrolled in New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Following a Broadway debut, he spent time in Hollywood where he appeared in two Hitchcock films: Shadow of a Doubt and Lifeboat. He also worked on the scripts for Rope and Under Capricorn.
After a short-lived marriage in the early 1930s, he met and married actress Jessica Tandy in 1942. Like the Lunts before them, the Cronyns often worked together, including 17 Broadway shows, but chose individual projects as well.
Jessica Tandy (1909-1994) was a Brit, and among the highlights of her career are Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet and Katherine to Olivier’s Henry V. She created the role of Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire, for which she shared the Tony Award for Best Actress with Catherine Cornell in Antony and Cleopatra and Judith Anderson as Medea. Like Cronyn she worked with Hitchcock on The Birds. She holds the distinction of being the oldest performer to ever win a Best Performance Oscar (for Driving Miss Daisy) and is featured in such films as Fried Green Tomatoes, The Bostonians and Used People (with Sylvia Sidney).
The Cronyns created the roles of Michael and Agnes in the first American production of The Fourposter (later I Do! I Do!), which led to a TV series based on the play titled The Marriage. (Audio episodes of this series are available on YouTube). The couple appeared in Albee’s A Delicate Balance, Noel Coward in Two Keys, The Gin Game, The Physicists and The Petition. Including Life Achievement Awards in 1994, Hume Cronyn won seven Tony Awards and Jessica Tandy won six.
When Cronyn became interested in the Foxfire series which began as a school project about preserving the traditions of Appalachian Mountain folk, he collaborated with Susan Cooper on a play with a similar theme. The first production premiered at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and then at the Guthrie prior it’s Broadway engagement. It was later filmed for television with the Cronyns and John Denver.
Tandy was married to actor Jack Hawkins (Treasure Island, Great Expectations) for much of the 1930s with whom she had a daughter. She married Cronyn in 1942 and they had a daughter, Tandy, and a son, Christopher. According to his autobiography, A Terrible Liar, Cronyn was often restless, so they lived in the Bahamas, Pound Ridge, New York, and, finally, in Easton, Connecticut. Hume Cronyn passed on from prostate cancer in 2003. Jessica Tandy died in 1994, aged 85, from ovarian cancer. After he was widowed, Cronyn married author/playwright Susan Cooper.
At the Guthrie
During the 1963 season at the Guthrie, Cronyn played The Miser and Tandy played Gertrude in Hamlet, while they shared the stage for Three Sisters and Death of a Salesman. The Guthrie established a company that also included Zoe Caldwell, Ellen Geer and Joan Van Ark, which gave audiences a strong ensemble with some star power. When the Cronyns returned in 1965, they appeared together in The Cherry Orchard and Richard III while Cronyn reprised his role as The Miser. The Way of the World and Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle were also on the bill.
During their last years together, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn appeared in such films as Cocoon, Cocoon: The Return, batteries not included, Camilla and television productions of The Gin Game and Foxfire. Cronyn won an Emmy for Age Old Friends.
Others may try, but there will never be another team like this: Tyrone Guthrie, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Minnesota is lucky to have had them!