Home » A few figs from thistles » One of a kind

One of a kind

James T. O’Rourke, late director of the Rourke Art Museum at Moorhead, Minnesota, died on March 3rd. He was seventy-seven years old. I wonder if James was more than a lttle like someone who died recently at Agincourt. 

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

One of a kind

In the 1950s Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” reference to a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many little things,” Archilochus tells us, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin’s essay expands on this simple observation, separating thinkers into two groups: foxes, who draw upon a broad range of experience because the world cannot be reduced to a single unifying concept, and hedgehogs, who see the world through a single lens that foxes cannot imagine. The application here may be strained, but I’d like to make a case that our friend James Edward Tierney, who died March 3rd, was a hedgehog.

We celebrate because James had a singular vision: that theater could not only survive but might actually flourish in a small Midwestern community, and that all our lives would be better for it. Since the summer of 1960 when he founded the Prairie Playhouse in an old warehouse, James worked tirelessly to make quality theater an integral part of our lives. He saw the world in Isaiah Berlin’s terms—through the lens of a single defining idea—and pursued it with passion that attracted true believers, like many of us who remember him today, and very likely offended others with its single-minded tenacity. Luckily for this community, Jim’s persistence seemed not to acknowledge the possibility of failure, or even compromise. With the recent completion of his fiftieth season, let’s hope he took some satisfaction in a half century of success. He set the bar and we are challenged to carry his vision toward its 75th anniversary and beyond.

Isaiah Berlin’s essay uses a figure of speech called syzygy—a would-be Scrabble word if only there were three Ys among the tile. Syzygy is one of those words we should know but don’t: it means a yoked pair; two concepts linked in tandem or in opposition, like yin and yang, law and order, death and life. My worldview has become increasingly binary—syzygetic—in recent years; it has guided my understanding, for example, of distinctions between justice and the law, education and training, acceptance and resignation, contentment and happiness. Open rehearsals at the Playhouse explore those and other fundaments of being in the world, lubricated with dreadful coffee; exciting conversations that found their way onto his stage. Ultimately, the largest difference between James and me may be this simple syzygy: I’m a dog person, while Jim preferred the company of cats.

We often measure the worth of a life with a table of statistics; Jim’s is notable in that respect. He loved statistics, always in the superlative, each entering Jim’s Book of Playhouse Records as the largest, longest, latest. Five productions per season means that he has directed at least 250 plays. Few of you know, however, that Jim also studied architecture for one semester at Ames, but it was probably the math that did him in–a shortcoming for which we should all be eternally grateful. Yet architecture was his constant companion in the design of every production, each an essay on the relationship between narrative and environment.

Several years ago I went to the post office on Bainbridge Island, Washington; I was vacationing there and wanted to mail several postcards home. In the post office lobby wall there were two slots for outgoing mail: one was labelled “Island” for local mail to the its upscale residents; the other read simply “The World.” A syzygy of sorts and one that reminds me of Jim. His cosmology was constructed in a similar binary way. There is the Prairie Playhouse. Can we imagine it without Jim? And then there was the world of everything other–all else that had little or nothing to offer his agenda. I, for one, am grateful that Jim may have been one of Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehogs.

One of a kind–but one at a time.

Too bad they never met. I think next week’s column will fill us all in on the history Tierney’s Prairie Playhouse.


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