Housed under the umbrella of Shakespeare 400 is a panoply of exhibitions, readings, performances, talks, tours and films marking this year’s quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616. Among the stand-outs are the offerings from the British Library, the National Archives/King’s College London, , and the Corporation of London.
A sift through the collections at Westminster City Archives finds some earlier tributes to the Bard.
The Annual Register and Gentleman’s Magazine (available to view at the Archives Centre) of 1769 provide a commentary on the Shakespeare Jubilee of that year and on its enthusiastic promoter, the great Shakespearean actor David Garrick. Rebuilding their town hall, the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon sought the help of Garrick to fund the raising of a statue of the poet to beautify the new civic building. Garrick, a Shakespeare devotee (and of whom it’s been said that the Bard was “the only man he honestly believed to be more talented than himself”) answered the Corporation’s petition – and went much further in devising a grand ‘Jubilee’ to commemorate (a few years late) the bi-centenary of his hero’s birth in 1564.
The Jubilee took place 6-9 September 1769, and saw the construction of a rotunda to house festivities, the dedication of the new town hall, and the unveiling of the statue – together with a portrait of Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough as a companion piece. The three days events included 30 canons sounding from the banks of the Avon, serial bell-ringing, fireworks, musical performances directed by Thomas Arne (a hundred musicians from Garrick’s Drury Lane Theatre had been coached-in), a pageant of Shakespearean characters in costume, a horse race, a banquet and masked ball. No play was produced. Torrential rain on the last two days compelled the cancellation of most of the planned outdoor events, not least the colourful pageant. The Jubilee and Garrick were roundly mocked in the press. And whilst the venture was well-attended by the London beau-monde and theatre world it saw Garrick £2000 out of pocket. But he was to more than re-coup his losses by successfully re-staging a version of the pageant under the shelter of the Drury Lane Theatre.
A newspaper cutting in our Ashbridge Collection of St Marylebone local history depicts a celebration held on Primrose Hill in 1864, part of the wider tercentenary (of birth) commemorations taking place in Stratford, London and other British towns. The events were organised by sundry bodies, including the National Shakespeare Committee and the Working Men’s Shakespeare Committee – the latter championing him as the people’s playwright and satirist of kings and courts. In London, concerts and readings were held in the Royal Agricultural Hall, St James’s Hall and the Crystal Palace. Several of the plays were performed at the Haymarket, Drury Lane and Sadler’s Wells theatres. The largest gathering was for a tree planting (an oak sapling donated by Queen Victoria), speeches and much cheering on Primrose Hill. The crowd was estimated at 15-20 thousand (by the press) and 70-100 thousand (by the Working Men’s Shakespeare Committee).
The planting was performed “in the name of the workmen of England” by the highly regarded Shakespearean actor Samuel Phelps – who had revived the Sadler’s Wells theatre with productions which were faithful to the original texts. Following the ceremonies a splinter group of several thousand massed for a rally in support of another people’s hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had just left Britain, it was believed, under government duress…
The tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death was marked at Drury Lane on 2 May 1916 by
“A tribute to the genius of William Shakespeare …. humbly offered by the players and their fellow-workers in the kindred arts of music & painting”.
The eulogy in the programme’s preface acknowledged the shadow cast by the Great War:
“In honour of Shakespeare this performance has been arranged by actors, painters and musicians who have united in paying such tribute as lies in their power to the Master-Intellect of the ages. To all artists the memory of the Great Englishman is as dear as to those who recall with gratitude his patriotic love of his native land … for all his countrymen alike the deathless art of Shakespeare – especially at a time like this, so unpropitious to the higher levels of imaginative creation – is at once a vindication and a pledge that Art itself is immortal”.
The evening included a performance of Julius Caesar, a programme of music arranged by Sir Hubert Parry, and a Shakespeare pageant.
A ‘Shakespeare Birthday Festival’ held on 25 April 1938 at the Old Vic (People’s Opera and Playhouse) presented scenes from a dozen of the plays and George Bernard Shaw’s one-act comedy The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. Among the Festival’s better remembered actors performing were Marius Goring, Jessica Tandy, Michael Redgrave, Donald Wolfit, Sybil Thorndike, William Devlin and Tyrone Guthrie.
The Archives Centre, keen to join bardolators past and present, is currently displaying a selection of portraits and likenesses, views of Tudor and Jacobean Bankside and its theatres, London memorials to Shakespeare, theatre programmes and playbills of historic West End productions, and a gallery of noted Shakespearean players.