Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling would have you believe that his Irishness is not an important factor in his running of our most prestigious theater. “I am not the Irish artistic director; I am the artistic director,” Dowling told a crowd of 200 or so people at the College of St. Thomas’s O’Shaughnessy Education Center yesterday evening. The remark drew a ripple of knowing laughter from this crowd, however, because Dowling had spent the previous ninety minutes lecturing on the history of Irish theater and his direct connection to his homeland’s struggle for national and artistic independence.
Sponsored by the Minnesota International Center, the talk, “From Farquhar to Friel: Irish Theater in the World,” was a rare opportunity to hear Dowling speak passionately and at length about a subject so close to his heart. Most Guthrie-goers know, for example, that before he took the helm at the Guthrie, Dowling was artistic director of Dublin’s legendary Abbey Theatre, where he helped develop the reputations of such world-renowned playwrights as Brendan Behan and Brian Friel. Fewer may be aware that in 1963 Friel was an apprentice with Sir Tyrone Guthrie (himself an Irishman) in Minneapolis during the founding year of the theater, after which Friel wrote Philadelphia, Here I Come, one of the first plays Dowling directed at the Guthrie, in 1996. Not many people know, however, that when Dowling was sixteen, he saw Philadelphia, Here I Come so many times (nineteen by his count) at the Abbey that they started letting him in for free. Nor are many people aware of how deeply Friel’s play—about a young man in the 1950s who is leaving his family and moving to America—ended up shaping Dowling’s own life.
“That play spoke directly to me about how conservative and stagnant Irish life had become,” Dowling told the St. Thomas crowd. “It also taught me how subversive theater can be, and how in need of subversion our culture was.”
It may sound odd to hear the leader of our most mainstream theater speak so enthusiastically about the subversion of society, but Dowling clearly sees himself as an inheritor of the counter-cultural theatrical tradition handed down from the grandfather of Irish theater, George Farquhar, to Richard Brinsley Sheridan (School for Scandal), Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, Samuel Beckett, and many others. Indeed, one of the enduring mysteries of the creative universe is why Ireland, of all places, has produced so many great writers and actors relative to its size, population, and location. According to Dowling, the answer has to do with Ireland’s love of language and oratory combined with political realities that, for much of the country’s history, have sought to either extinguish or undermine Ireland’s national identity. This continual struggle for cultural independence is the fire in the belly of Ireland’s greatest writers, says Dowling, even though their instinct for social mischief often resulted in riots by Irish nationalists who felt that the purpose of theater, and the Abbey Theatre in particular, should be to spread pro-Irish propaganda.
Philosophically, Dowling clearly identifies with this tradition of theater as a sometimes incendiary catalyst for social change. To what degree it influences his current artistic choices is debatable, but it’s worth keeping in mind when George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara opens at The Guthrie on May 11, and Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa hits the main stage this fall. In Dowling, we have a director whose connection to Irish theater is so deep and personal that it can’t help but seep into the marrow of his work at the Guthrie, even when he isn’t directing. It’s a fair bet he did not choose these plays simply to please Guthrie patrons. Chances are, he has something else in mind—something a little less benign than an evening of pleasantly distracting entertainment. No one is going to riot over these productions, but one gets the feeling from listening to Dowling that he wishes they would, at least once, if only to keep a time-honored tradition of Irish theater alive.