The Guthrie Theater opened to a packed house 50 years ago today in Minneapolis. The first production on Vineland Place: “Hamlet,” with Sir Tyrone Guthrie directing and George Grizzard in the lead.

The Guthrie moved to its new building on the Mississippi River in June 2006. “Hamlet” brought the curtain down on the old building, with Joe Dowling directing and Santino Fontana in the lead. Here's a link to a review of that final production. And below is the Minneapolis Tribune’s May 8, 1963, review of the theater’s first production.

[Originally posted May 7, 2006; reposting to fix formatting and update the introduction and links.]

‘Hamlet’ Is

Minneapolis Tribune Staff Writer

Tyrone Guthrie’s production of “Hamlet” is always interesting, often compelling and sometimes great.

Guthrie's opening night
Theatergoers in formal attire gathered in the Guthrie’s lobby on opening night. (Photo by Gerald Brimacombe, Minneapolis Star)

Some feared – you had the feeling that some almost hoped – it would be gimmicky. It isn’t.

Despite the tennis rackets and umbrellas, it is in the best, nonacademic sense of the word, a traditional performance.

Guthrie has done us a very great favor by presenting “Hamlet” virtually uncut. In a little less than four hours it unfolds like a novel in a pattern of tension, relief (often comic relief) and greater tension. No minor character from Cornelius to Fortinbras is eliminated, and the result is a balanced picture of a world off-balance.

If the play seems at times incoherent and tedious, the reviewer will mention the heresy that this may be more the fault of the author than of the director.

“Hamlet” is a great poem, trapped inside a bulky melodrama, and you can’t cut the melodrama without hurting the poem.

Nor, since its hero does not quite know what to make of himself, it is surprising that he leaves us a little puzzled, too.

Guthrie’s Hamlet is George Grizzard. It is an excellent performance, conveying best the hero’s youth, his sense of fun, his basic decency, and most important, his strength.

Grizzard’s Hamlet is no moony sentimentalist dripping self-pity at every pore. He is a sturdy, fine young man for the first time up against one of the ugly facts of life. That he is unable to cope with them illustrates more their power than his weakness.

Though Grizzard’s rhetorical force is considerable, his performance is basically realistic. The famous soliloquies, for example, are not set pieces; they flow naturally from the mind of the man.

Grizzard’s performance lacks the extra dimension of greatness, but is masculine, sympathetic, consistent and very, very intelligent. It should deepen as the season progresses.

Tyrone Guthrie
Tyrone Guthrie chatted with theatergoers after “The Miser” opened on May 8, 1963. Dressed to the nines were Mrs. Frank Bowman of Minneapolis and Mrs. Henry Rea, right, of Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo by Powell Krueger, Minneapolis Tribune)

“Great” is the word for Ellen Geer’s Ophelia. The girl shows backbone in her early interview with the prince (“Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so” is delivered without the customary whimper) and in the mad scene she is actually mad.

Hair in dirty disorder, gown stained with grass, she falls to her knees with a sob and claws the floor of the palace with her fingernails. She is raking her garden – or is it the grave of her father? This double image of fertility and decay is one of the finest moments in the play.

There are several others. Gertrude (Jessica Tandy) enters in her wedding finery in Act One. She looks at Hamlet; Hamlet looks back; his eyes drop; her eyes drop. The situation is revealed as it could not be on the picture frame stage.

Guthrie makes audacious use of his semi-arena stage in the play-within-the-play sequence. The lords and ladies ringing the platform hush Hamlet’s taunting of Ophelia; they came to see a show. The bone-white beam of a portable spotlight makes the Player Queen’s “None wed the second but who killed the first” a shocking breach of social decorum. Claudius (Lee Richardson) purples as he gets the point. He lunges at his nephew and the stage – the theater, too, it seems – and explodes in panic. The final duel scene also is beautifully staged.

Guthrie’s invention extends to characterization. Robert Pastene’s Polonius is, within his limits, a rather capable adviser. Ken Ruta’s Ghost is a very substantial figure suffering very substantial pain in the next world and bitterly resents it. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (University of Minnesota graduate students Alfred Rossi and Michael Levin) are two thoroughly modern sellout types whose fate we do not regret.

Tanya Moiseiwitsh’s splendid 20th century costumes are almost always an asset, clarifying relationships and, since they are mostly formal, illustrating the “royalty” theme as well as costumes from any era might.

The cast is well spoken; Miss Tandy and Richardson are excellent; Nicholas Coster (Laertes) and Graham Brown (Horatio) are capable. The Guthrie Theater is off to a happy start.


Guthrie's opening night crowd
The Guthrie filled all 1,437 seats for opening night, according to Barbara Flanagan’s Page One account the next morning in the Tribune: “By 7:10 p.m., five minutes before showtime, everybody was seated. Old theater hands, used to the late-coming Broadway audiences on opening nights, were amazed.” (Photo by Gerald Brimacombe, Minneapolis Star)