Fitzgerald, James (Jim) (1929–2003), theatre and television director, was born 13 August 1929 in Clontarf, Dublin, son of Gerald Fitzgerald and Kathleen Fitzgerald (née Keogh); his father worked in theatre as a stage carpenter, stage manager, and actor. Reared on Dublin’s northside, Jim received little formal education, but was remarkably autodidactic, reading eight hours daily in the National Library, and viewing paintings in the National Gallery. He was involved with the New Theatre Group, which staged workers’ theatre in Dublin (early 1940s), and with the Mercury Theatre Company, formed in Limerick by Alan Simpson (qv) (1947) (with which Fitzgerald’s father was employed as stage carpenter). Emigrating to England, he worked with Unity Theatre, the workers’ theatre linked with the Communist Party, and with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford East.
Returning to Dublin (1954), Fitzgerald acted with the Longford players and worked for art dealer Victor Waddington before joining the Dublin Globe Theatre Company, recently founded by Godfrey Quigley (qv), and based in the diminutive Gas Company Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, with sallies into larger Dublin venues. By 1955 Fitzgerald was directing most of the company’s offerings, and occasionally acting. The chief creative force behind the Globe’s daring, dynamic, and innovative productions, Fitzgerald was highly imaginative in adapting staging and acting to the Gas Company’s restricted space, finding the restrictions an impetus for inspiration and invention. His sensitive direction cultivated the talents of a blossoming arbour of actors, including Quigley (who described the brilliant, exacting, and unpredictable ‘Fitz’ as his ‘cross and inspiration’ (Ryan, 141)), Norman Rodway (qv), Jack MacGowran (qv), Pauline Delany (1925–2007), Genevieve Lyons, Maureen Toal (qv), Milo O’Shea (qv), Maurice Good, Anna Manahan (qv), and Donal Donnelly (qv). Fitzgerald also worked with Orion Productions, founded in 1957 by Phyllis Ryan, and with Gemini Productions, founded by Ryan and Rodway in 1960 upon the demise of the Globe.
The most acclaimed of Fitzgerald’s early directorial credits were productions of modern American and European drama, such as ‘Montserrat’ (1955), an historico‐political thriller adapted by Lillian Hellman from a French original. His first major popular success was ‘I am a camera’, by John Van Druten, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin, starring Genevieve Lyons as Sally Bowles; after concluding the Globe’s successful 1956 Gaiety Theatre season, the production played to packed houses during a ten‐week summer run in Dún Laoghaire. Fitzgerald’s production of ‘The house of Bernarda Alba’ by Federico Garcia Lorca was described by the Irish Times as ‘a triumph of teamwork’, in which the ‘sets, lighting, and costumes combine to produce a dry heat as inescapable as Fate itself’ (14 March 1957). In his staging of ‘Picnic’ (1958) by William Inge, Fitzgerald ‘got the heat going’ by backing a torrid love scene with a moody jazz track by the Dave Brubeck Quartet: ‘a strange, throbbing piano beating under an eloquent saxophone’ (Ryan, 149). He directed two plays by Tennessee Williams on the Gas Company stage, incongruously casting the aging Shelah Richards (qv) as Blanche Dubois in ‘A streetcar named Desire’ (1959). ‘Cat on a hot tin roof’, the first play produced by Gemini (1960), proved too strong a fare for some to stomach: the gas company’s chairman, distressed that a friend’s wife had fainted because of the ‘dreadful language’, threatened to terminate Gemini’s tenancy; the production transferred to Dublin’s Eblana Theatre.
In the first Dublin Theatre Festival (May 1957) Fitzgerald exercised his virtuoso command of stage technique by directing the Globe company in an ambitious programme of seven plays by William Butler Yeats (qv); his novel interpretations demonstrated the relevance of Yeats’s concept of drama to contemporary theatre. When Simpson as director of the Pike Theatre was prosecuted for producing ‘an indecent and profane performance’ in respect of the Pike’s festival offering, ‘The rose tattoo’ by Tennessee Williams, Fitzgerald courageously organised a defence fund, of which he was the only sponsor prepared to be named publicly (many contributors also insisted on their anonymity). In the second Dublin Theatre Festival (1959), he directed the Orion production of ‘Lady Spider’, a satiric reworking by Donagh MacDonagh (qv) of the story of Deirdre (qv) from the Ulster cycle of saga; his direction was ‘ingenious and admirable in the face of many technical difficulties’ (Ir. Times, 16 September 1959).
Fitzgerald was closely associated with much of the early work of playwright Hugh Leonard (qv). He directed the Globe’s production in the Gate Theatre of ‘Madigan’s Lock’ (1958), which Leonard in frustration sent to the company when the Abbey Theatre under Ernest Blythe (qv) dithered over acceptance. The Globe company’s swan song was Leonard’s ‘A walk on the water’, jointly directed by Fitzgerald and Quigley at the Eblana in the 1960 theatre festival, and revived two months later in the Gas Company under Fitzgerald’s sole direction; in the extensively rewritten revival Leonard himself took the part of a washed‐up boxer previously played by Quigley, and, under Fitzgerald’s close coaching (in pugilistic technique as much as thespian), turned in an acceptable performance.
Fitzgerald scored his biggest artistic and popular success with ‘Stephen D.’, Leonard’s adaptation from the autobiographical novels Stephen hero and A portrait of the artist as a young man by James Joyce (qv), starring Norman Rodway in the title role. Produced by Gemini at the Gate Theatre, initially for the 1962 theatre festival, and followed by an extended run, the play made a huge impression, both for the audacity of the material and of the staging. Leonard’s script – which concentrated thematically on Stephen Dedalus’s rebellion against ‘the four great “Fs” of Ireland: faith, fatherland, family, and friendship’ (Leonard, 5) – had an episodic construction within a flashback framework (beginning and ending at the moment of Dedalus’s emigration); the spare stage directions left much to the creativity and resourcefulness of the director. Credited with direction, lighting, and sound, Fitzgerald contrived a minimalist set (a four‐foot‐high platform placed on a bare stage against the background of a deep blue cyclorama), relying on the acting, blocking, lighting, and a few readily moveable properties to create the illusion of the play’s seventeen locations. A college dormitory was represented by a single bedstead cut in half; the celebrated hellfire sermon was spoken from the platform, addressed directly to the audience; a dialogue between two characters was conducted as the actors walked into the auditorium and completed a circuit of the stalls. Such devices shattered the prevailing conventions of realist set design on the mainstream Irish stage, and subverted the expectations of audiences. One of the seminal productions of mid‐twentieth‐century Irish theatre, ‘Stephen D.’ was lauded by domestic and foreign critics. Transferring to London’s West End (February 1963), the production drew effusive praise for both director and set (Fitzgerald faced down the London producer’s wishes for a more traditional and lavish set, and for a ‘name’ star in the lead role).
In the 1963 Dublin theatre festival Fitzgerald directed Marius Goring and the Gemini company in Leonard’s ‘The poker session’, which also transferred to England, first to Brighton and then to the London Globe Theatre. He collaborated with Colm Ó Briain in organising Project 67, a three‐week festival in the Gate Theatre in November 1966; among the first events in Ireland involving cross‐fertilisation of the arts, the venture evolved into the Project Arts Centre. His last major stage production was ‘The death and resurrection of Mr Roche’, the first produced play of Thomas Kilroy; rejected by both the Abbey and the Gate, the controversial play was performed at the Olympia Theatre in the 1968 theatre festival, with Niall Toibín in the lead. Kilroy acknowledged the influence that Fitzgerald’s productions exerted on his own sense of theatre and his approach to play writing, and called Fitzgerald ‘a terrific reader of the text’ of a play, with a particular genius for directing actors in ‘close, intimate, physical situations’ (Grene, 18).
Throughout the 1960s Fitzgerald worked prolifically as a director and producer in Telefís Éireann. He served one year as head of television drama (1964–5), but was ill suited for such a management position, his talent being in hands‐on direction. His tenure saw the launch of RTÉ’s first serial television drama, ‘Tolka Row’ (of which he directed several episodes during the serial’s four‐year run). His work as a director was eclectic and uneven, and represented the range of drama produced by the station throughout the first decade of the television service: plays from the Irish and international theatrical repertoire, both classic and contemporary; plays written for television; and dramatic series and serials. His first RTÉ production was one of his best: ‘Public enemy’ (1962), an adaptation by Eoin Neeson in a contemporary Irish setting of Ibsen’s ‘An enemy of the people’, was unflinching in exploring the themes of the individual conscience challenging social conformity, and the moral duty to resist public corruption and cowardice. Fitzgerald revisited such issues of public morality and individual responsibility in the ‘The fire raisers’ (1968) by Max Frisch, and ‘A change of management’ (1970), adapted by Eugene McCabe from a short story by John Montague. Notable Irish plays that he directed for television included ‘The whiteheaded boy’ (1965) by Lennox Robinson (qv), ‘Autumn fire’ (1965) by T. C. Murray (qv), and Brian Friel’s (qv) ‘The loves of Cass Maguire’ (1969), in an acclaimed production starring Siobhán McKenna (qv).
Much of Fitzgerald’s television work, however, consisted of light, conventional, undemanding drama and comedy. He directed two serial situation comedies (‘Me and my friend’ (1967) and ‘Killyraggart 17’ (1968)), and the courtroom drama series ‘Justice at large’ (1969), written by Rex Mackey (qv). As a producer, he worked on the magazine programme ‘Broadsheet’ (1962–3); a programme of Irish biographies, ‘In camera’ (1963); and the arts series ‘Spectrum’ (1963), a notable instalment of which examined the work of Samuel Beckett (qv), and included a performance by Jack MacGowran of Beckett’s ‘Act without words’. Fitzgerald’s work in RTÉ was attacked by conservatives who contended that it undermined traditional values and propagated a subversive leftist agenda (the Catholic Standard published his photograph and home address over the caption ‘This man is dangerous’), and by disappointed progressives who accused him of diluting, if not abandoning, his political and artistic principles. Fitzgerald himself retrospectively described the constant pressures and struggles that he faced within RTÉ regarding the content of his programmes, outlining an ethos of pervasive clerical influence and indirect censorship by the device of cutting budget. After 1970 his work with RTÉ was limited to occasional acting spots. He played the school caretaker in the controversial drama series ‘The spike’ (1978); set in a secondary school in an economically deprived area, the programme was axed amid a public uproar over a brief glimpse of a nude model in an art class. Fitzgerald publicly condemned the decision as censorship, and claimed to have been assaulted by ‘a fat elderly lady’ enraged by his involvement with the programme. He also acted in several episodes of the drama series ‘Bracken’ (1980, 1982).
For the ten‐year period from the mid 1950s to mid 1960s, Fitzgerald was the most exciting director in Irish theatre, ‘the outstanding director of the era’ (Fitz‐Simon, 190). A consummate master of all the arts of stagecraft, he not only directed but often did lighting, sound, and set design, forging a composite whole to create a spellbinding stage illusion. Often cited as an actor’s director, he was also a writer’s director, and a designer’s; no one part overwhelmed the others. His productions were said to evidence a ‘filmic’ sense of timing, and a deep caring for literature, ‘giving full value to the author’s words and intentions, conveying subtleties without having to labour them, building effortlessly to every climax, and never losing sight of the main theme’ (Ir. Times, 25 September 1962).
Lean, wiry, and agile, of less than middle height, Fitzgerald had fair crinkly hair and pointed features, his long chin ‘curved like a scimitar’ (Leonard, Sunday Independent, 21 September 2003). Forceful and tough-minded, he was, in Kilroy’s words, ‘deeply subversive of all conventional thought and practice’ (Grene, 18). David Nowlan painted a vivid portrait of Fitzgerald rehearsing ‘Stephen D.’: ‘Quick as a flash, sharp as a blade and a divil for repartee, he darts hither and thither, rushes on stage, moves an actor, fetches a prop, does the sound effects, scuttles to the back of the auditorium, curses volubly and smokes incessantly. Small, vulpine and intensely perceptive, Jim Fitzgerald coaxes and blasts his cast with an energy and enthusiasm that is a joy to behold’ (Ir. Times, 21 September 1962). Addressing the brevity of Fitzgerald’s prime, Leonard asserted that the massive international success of ‘Stephen D.’ was too heady: ‘he tasted success, and gagged upon it’ (Sunday Independent, 21 September 2003). Failing thereafter to conjure ‘hits’ of equivalent critical acclaim and mass appeal, convinced that others perceived him as a ‘has been’, he retreated, Leonard argued, into a defensive pose in which failure was a mark of artistic integrity and success was proof positive of selling out. Alcohol was also a significant factor. Anecdotes abound of Fitzgerald’s strenuous drinking binges and their consequences; Phyllis Ryan recounted many a tale of the headaches endured in handling ‘our wayward genius’ (Ryan, 195). By the latter 1960s alcohol had the upper hand, and Fitzgerald’s career suffered from his increasingly self‐destructive behaviour and reputation for unreliability.
Fitzgerald was married, and was survived by three daughters and grandchildren. He died 9 September 2003 in a nursing home in Bray, Co. Wicklow.