A History of Stratford’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre


The first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, completed in 1879, came about as a result of the boom in the brewing industry for which Stratford was by this time both famous, and infamous.

 And of course the brewing industry only happened in Stratford because the town had been built, back in the 12th century, alongside a clear, fast flowing river, which was, by the late 18th century, an integral part of the new canal system that carried both consumer goods, and raw materials, from the newly industrialised north directly into the river Avon where larger vessels could then ferry them south westward to Bristol, and the rest of the world. But it wasn’t until the 1830s, after the abolition of the tax on brewing, that a young man came to Stratford intent on making his fortune, and his name.

Charles Edward Flower, the founder of Flowers Brewery, was a very cultured man who, as a young child in the early 19th century emigrated with his parents from Hertfordshire, in the south east of England, to a plot of farm land in the south west of Illinois. By 1827 the teenage Charles had had enough of the American dream and, leaving his family behind, headed back to England – via New York where he observed the brewing industry – and settled in the prosperous little market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, where he married a local girl and set about making his fortune. Some thirty years later, sitting reading The Times at breakfast, Charles discovered that Stratford’s most famous son, William Shakespeare, was now being hailed by many intellectuals as a genius.

Charles’s idea of building a theatre in Stratford to honour the memory of the Bard was a high profile scheme that was, Charles reckoned, both laudable, and tax deductible.

During the first three years of the 1860s – after his visit to his accountant – Charles bought most of the land on the west side of the Avon – then extremely marshy – which he drained and landscaped. He also persuaded the council to buy the land on the other side of the river and turn it into recreational park land for the town. By 1863, the year before the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth, he also cleverly suggested that a huge, but temporary, wooden theatre – based upon the wooden Rotunda Pavilion Theatre built by Garrick in the town in 1769 to celebrate Shakespeare’s 205th birthday – be built on his side of the river bank ready for the Birthday Celebrations of the following April. To stave off the inevitable, ‘but we can’t afford it’, he also stated he would fund virtually the whole cost of the venture as long as the local council contributed their support and named him head of the committee that would decide on the design of the theatre, and the eventual programme of events; they agreed. Charles Edward Flower – five times mayor, and the single largest employer in Stratford – effectively ran the town.

By the end of June 1864, and after a hugely successful 300th Birthday Season, the wooden Tercentenary Pavilion Theatre had been dismantled, with the timber used to build not only the framework of a large new house for Charles Flower on the same site, but also a row of cottages along Waterside (opposite the RST) that are still owned by the RSC today, and used as accommodation for actors. There must also be many houses in Stratford that have floorboards and roof beams from that old temporary theatre. In a sense theatre in Stratford is, quite literally, part of the very framework of the town.

There was no stopping Charles Edward Flower now, and by the early 1870s he’d bought more land along the river’s edge between his new home and Clopton Bridge. He then donated that land to the local council on the understanding that a permanent Shakespeare Memorial Theatre be build, as long as he headed the committee to choose the design and oversee the building, and head the theatre’s board of governors who were to run the place when it was completed. And to ensure that happened he announced that it was his intention to help finance the building of the theatre and also ensure that any shortfall in the theatres operating costs, once it was up and running, would be met by him. Without Charles Edward Flower Stratford would never have had a theatre, and without his, and his family’s, continued financial subsidy there would certainly not have been a new theatre in Stratford after the 1926 fire, and consequently no theatre for Peter Hall to take over in 1961, when he created the RSC.

 From 1887, and through to 1919, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre’s annual summer festival at Stratford was under the direction of Frank Benson (he’d taken over from the original festival director Edward Compton, and more about him later), a man who created a whole new ethos of direction and acting, whilst at the same time taking over the complete running of the theatre: from the box office and the bars, to every aspect of production and promotion.

Frank Benson, who could trace his descent from the Vikings, was born in Tunbridge Wells in 1858, and educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford. Academically Benson was an under-achiever, but a formidable actor and athlete who, by 1881had hired the Imperial Theatre in London to put on his own production of Romeo & Juliet, which lasted only four weeks, was pretty much a flop, but had been seen by most of the acting royalty of the day, not least Sir Henry Irving who hired Benson to play Paris in his own production of the love story. Benson never looked back, and by the summer of 1886 was having lunch with Charles Flower, who appointed him the festival director for 1887.

As Day and Trewin describe, Stratford “…attracted Benson as no other town had done. He liked the little theatre, already with an atmosphere of its own, though only seven years old. He liked at night to walk along the river bank, and through the streets where the cross-timbered houses leaned comfortably against each other. He liked to bathe in the Avon, and row beneath Clopton Bridge. As he said years afterwards, he felt that there and nowhere else could be the chief Shakespeare shrine.”

And Stratford liked Frank Benson as much as he liked the town, and “…there was very real satisfaction when people knew that he would come to conduct the festival of 1887. Again the festival lasted only a week. It was still almost purely a local affair, depending for support upon Stratford itself, and upon people of the neighbourhood.

” The chief event of 1887, in the theatre now redecorated in gold and pale green, was what the First Quarto called:-

‘ a most pleasant and excellent conceited Comedie, of Sir John Falstaffe and the Merrie Wives of Windsor…’ “

The festival, under Benson, quickly extended, with Benson creating the first genuine company in Stratford, with an ambition to perform the whole of the Shakespearean canon, plus (to earn some much needed revenue) some pretty awful pot-boliers such as Isaac Bickerstaff’s The Hypocrit, and Joseph Lunna’s Fish out of Water, that would hopefully draw a new audience. And it worked, helping to create the so called ‘Golden Years’ of 1891 to 1914…

But nonetheless his programme for 1915 (and remember it was only two weeks long) was still an incredible achievement that wisely followed the well trodden path of Julius Caeser, Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, Henry V, Coriolanus, Twelfth Night, and Richard III; plus an evening of old nostalgic songs and ballads. That season the cast of 39 included Gerald du Maurier, Lilian Braithwaite, Frank Benson himself, Henry Ainley, Basil Gill, Arthur Bourchier, Harcourt Williams, Randle Ayrton, Ambrose Manning, Evelyn Millard, and Murray Carrington.

Benson was back again in June 1915, this time to conduct a four week festival, which included a visit by the French actress Rejane, who, in a special matinee in aid of wounded Russian soldiers, recited Emile Cammaerts poem, Le Carillon. She was supported by a lengthy list of stars, including the music hall star George Robey.

Then, in May 1916 (when Benson was starring in Julius Caesar during a Shakespeare Tercentenary Celebration Festival at Drury Lane) the actor manager was offered a Knighthood. The letter offering the Knighthood had followed Benson around the country, finally falling into his hands late one day at his London hotel. Upon reading the letter Benson realised the Knighthood was to have been presented that very day. Nothing it seemed could now be done. Nothing that is until it was realised the King was attending the theatre that very night. ” But swift action was taken. As soon as the Royal party arrived, Arthur Collins, manager of Drury Lane, explained the situation to the King’s aide-de-camp. Learning that the King had no sword, Collins sent out a messenger to buy one that would fit the occasion; the King consented to perform the ceremony, and when Coriolanus appeared during the Pageant of Shakespearean Characters which followed Julius Caesar and walked slowly down the huge black-and-gold staircase to the footlights, F.R. Benson had become Sir Frank.”

Later that month, Sir Frank and Lady Benson were greeted at Stratford railway station by several thousand people, all of whom then followed the couple’s Landau (which was pulled by members of the company) to Chapel Street where, outside The Shakespeare Hotel, Benson made an impromptu speech to the assembled crowd. The Landau was then pulled down Chapel lane to the theatre, where “…the Mayor (Alderman Flower) and the Governors waited with a more formal…greeting.”

At the end of the last performance of that short spring season over one hundred bouquets of flowers were passed across the footlights.

Sir Frank and Lady Benson didn’t return to Stratford that summer, instead they chose to run a Red Cross canteen in France, and come to terms with the tragic news that their son had died in the trenches. Theatre was no longer important.

When Sir Frank did return to the Memorial Theatre in 1919 he quickly realised his heart was no longer in the job and gracefully and quietly bowed out.

His place was taken by another Oxford man, William Bridges-Adams.

The new artistic director, William Bridges-Adams, tried to put new life into a theatre that was, like the nation, deeply depressed and in mourning; and to an extent he did, but it would take the fire of 1926, and the spirit and sense of community that came out of that experience, before Bridges-Adams could really put his mark on things.

With the ashes of the old theatre still warm Bridges-Adams moved the company to the cinema (owned by the Flower family) in Greenhill Street, from where he staged five festivals that were probably some of the best in the whole history of the Memorial Theatre. His group of actors included Gerald du Maurier, John Laurie, Randle Ayrton, Florence Saunders, and a very young Henry Worrall-Thompson, father of the TV chef, Anthony Worrall-Thompson.

By the time of the fire Charles Edward Flower was dead, with the brewery, and the Memorial Theatre, headed by his son, Sir Archibald Dennis Flower who, like his father, was a formidable character determined to build a new theatre. He immediately arranged a competition for architects to submit designs, and set-up a committee that included George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and ex-Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, who collectively asked the “…peoples of the British Isles, the Dominions, and the United States to contribute to the building and the endowment of a new theatre.”

Straight away The Daily Telegraph, Birmingham Post, Sydney Morning Herald, and The New York Times, plus many more US and Canadian newspapers opened campaigns to raise money. Within just a few weeks many thousands of pounds had been raised.

The winner of the design competition was a 29 year old architect called Elisabeth Scott – who came from a distinguished family of architects – whose art-deco design stood out against a pile of mock-Tudor and post-Gothic horrors. Her design attracted criticism from the start, especially from members of the London theatre and architectural cognoscenti, one of whom described her finished theatre as a “…dreadful peace of suburban architecture.” Scott never designed another theatre, and by the late 1940s had given up architecture altogether. Her theatre – which my grandfather helped to build – was never free of criticism, with Peter Hall describing it rather unkindly as “The Jam Factory”, even though it helped earn him a great deal of jam indeed, and a Knighthood.

Throughout the Great Depression hit ’30s the work done at the Memorial Theatre was pretty dire, with the only real high spots those productions put on by that most iconoclastic of directors, Theodore Komisarjevsky, who nevertheless could not stop the financial rot that had set in, even with the ever present support of the Flower family.

Only with the coming of WWII, and the influx of thousands of US and Canadian service personal – Stratford was surrounded by many American bases – did the fortunes of the theatre improve both financially and artistically. Between 1942 and 1945 the box office receipts increased by over 200%, with the theatre full every night with mainly American service men and women. And those young people, who were about to put their lives at risk, were not the reserved middle-class British audiences the theatre had been used to, but loud, questioning, intelligent people who had little respect for tradition, but questioned loudly any aspect of a performance that was not to their liking, or applauded loudly those aspects that were.

Their refreshing attitude made the actors and directors sit up and take notice and as a result create better, more realistic and relevant productions and performances. The effect those young fighting men and woman had on the Memorial Theatre reverberated through the building for the rest of its life, and still reverberates in today’s Courtyard theatre.

When Peter Hall first worked there in the late 1950s, and took over the theatre in 1960, he would have heard the echoes of those US and Canadian service personal.

The first British director of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot had first visited Stratford as a 16 year old in 1946 (he’d cycled the 120 miles from his home) to see a production of Peter Brook’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Twelve years later he was back again, but this time he was not in the audience but directing a very young Geraldine McEwan in Twelfth Night.

In 1959 he was directing Laurence Olivier in Coriolanus, and Charles Laughton in King Lear, and a member of Frank Benson’s 1913 company, Dame Edith Evans, as Volumnia.

Although not directed by Hall that season also saw Paul Robeson’s mighty Othello, with that formidable American actor, Sam Wanamaker, as Iago.

The railway worker’s son from Suffolk was mixing in the right company and couldn’t put a foot wrong.

What Peter Hall inherited at Stratford was a theatre that, as a building, was in pretty bad shape, and a theatre company that wasn’t really a theatre company at all, but a collection of star players – plus a handful of supporting players who’d never really been given their head le of plays- who were often miscast; plus a style of acting, and speaking, that was itself quickly becoming outdated.

Hall also inherited a faithful supporter in Sir Fordham (‘Fordie’) Flower who, alas, now ran a brewery that was almost on its last financial legs, and would soon be taken over by the Whitbread conglomerate, with the Stratford brewery itself closed within five years of Halls appointment. Something had to be done.

What Peter Hall did on taking over the Memorial Theatre from Glen Byam Shaw was get rid of the star system and start making new stars out of such actors as Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Ian Holm, Edward Woodward, Dorothy Tutin, Richard Johnson, and the aforementioned Geraldine McEwan.

He also started a regime of intellectual stimulation by employing John Barton to explain to the actors the nature of Shakespeare’s texts, and how they should be spoken. He also employed that most determined of directors, Peter Brook, to ensure that some exciting new productions would soon put Stratford back on the map, most notably A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and some of Shakespeare’s ‘History’ cycle of plays.

Most surprisingly he demanded that the name of the theatre be changed to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST), and that an acting company be created called the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and that to be able to do this, and see his ambitious artistic plans fulfilled, Hall must have state funding.

Sir Fordham Flower supported Hall from the outset – he had employed the man in the first place – and once the decision had been made to run down the theatre’s private financial reserves he was the man to negotiate with the authorities. And, as a long established member of the ruling class he negotiated well, and at the expense of Olivier’s new National Theatre on the South Bank.

The Arts Council grant to the RSC for that first year was around £125,000 which went up year by year, with the RSC and the National Theatre fighting over funds every day since.

After the departure of Peter Hall, Trever Nunn’s regime, as artistic director, of the late 1960s, through to the 1980s, saw some excellent shows, not least the superb production of Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables. But sadly the old theatre began to fall into disrepair, as would be the case when Adrian Noble took on the responsibility of artistic director, although his time there did see (apart from some excellent productions, including a memorable the Begger’s Opera) the building of the Swan Theatre within the shell of what was left of the original 1879 theatre. The Swan Theatre is Noble’s finest legacy.

Today, with the RST rebuilt, and with Gregory Doran  the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, his seasons have been, on the whole, a triumph.



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