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Friday, 1st Feb 2019
The forgotten county
By Tim Porter
Stones in his pockets
Wednesday 24th April 2019
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With the special 400th anniversary Shakespeare celebrations having taken place in Stratford-upon-Avon earlier this year, we were very pleased to welcome Sylvia Morris – a lady closely connected with the town’s celebrations. From a 10 year-old schoolgirl with flowers on the street to having taken the roles of Desdemona and Portia in the street processions and more recently working as one of the many volunteer street marshals, Sylvia was well equipped to describe the town’s involvement in these special celebrations. From being a newly-qualified professional librarian in the renowned Shakespeare Centre Library she went on to become Head of Shakespeare Collections and Head of Library and Archive at the Shakespeare Birthday Trust and currently has co-authored “The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon” – a club established nearly 200 years ago.
Sylvia described how the early ‘elitist’ celebrations went on to become widely popular ones, staged by and for the people of Stratford, with rivalries and political differences emerging along the way.
Stratford’s rise from being a typical market town into an international tourist destination is said to start in 1769 when David Garrick, the greatest actor of the day, staged a 3-day celebration of Shakespeare - intended, albeit 5 years late, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the playwright’s birth. He had originally been invited to dedicate a statue of Shakespeare for the newly-built Town Hall but, as a true showman, he decided to use the opportunity to mount an entertainment on a great scale in which he would take the starring role! He had a wooden rotunda building erected for the event, seating 1,000 with a stage for 100 performers. Garrick brought all the actors, musicians and even hairdressers with him from London and the ‘Festival’ included elaborate balls, breakfasts, recitals etc. for the major figures from London’s cultural, political and economic world who came to Stratford especially for the event – immediately doubling the town’s population. As is so often the case, however, the vagaries of the British weather took a turn and the ensuing torrential rain meant that the Avon burst its banks and flooded destroying the rotunda - and the planned street procession of dignitaries, actors in character and events was impossible to stage and had to be cancelled.
'Shakespeare celebrations memorial in local church'
The celebrations of Shakespeare’s birthdate on April 23rd had important connections with St. George’s Day and patriotism (especially in the early 19th century after the victory at Waterloo and with a ‘King George’ on the throne). In 1824 the townsfolk of Stratford formed “The Shakespeare Club” set up specifically to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday and to stage a 3-day Festival of his characters in procession but this time with locals taking the roles. In fact in 1827 a local butcher played the role of St. George with grocers, teachers and others all involved. That same year the foundation stone of a Shakespearian Theatre was laid in Chapel Lane, sponsored by members of the Shakespeare Club; but in 1834 the Club’s direction changed to concentrate on preserving Shakespeare’s monument and grave and it became more of a preservation society.
‘Rustic’ sports events were introduced in the 1877 celebrations for the people of Stratford including bicycle races, ‘jumping-sack’ races and boys’ races for plum cakes! 16 years later a delegation of boys from the local school took humble flowers to lay on Shakespeare’s tomb on the playwright’s birthdate and from that time onwards the school still heads the birthday celebration procession by laying floral tributes and in which everyone is invited to take part.
'1911 Shakespeare Festival'
Sylvia then explained how the early 20th century celebrations grew with huge street decorations, entertainment, music, banners, national flags and the introduction of international visitors. Indeed, 1957 saw a more corporate event with Pathe News showing ambassadors attending from around the world. However, after political and anti-apartheid demonstrations followed there was a bad feeling in the town that the happy day of celebration was being somehow ‘hijacked’ and spoiled and after 1989 the diplomats and politicians were no longer invited. A deliberate change in the style of celebrations followed to recreate more the earlier style of 1827 with locals taking the part of Shakespeare’s numerous characters in costume in the procession – leading to the current day when everyone somehow wants to be involved in some way and take part. Sylvia added that unfortunately no one organisation has overall artistic control of the event; the Council, Church, theatre and Birthplace Trust all have their individual input – but no one body is willing to foot the bill for the enormous event the celebrations have now become but which undoubtedly helps to promote Stratford-upon-Avon as an international visitor destination as well as celebrating the life of Stratford’s most famous son.
This year’s event will take place on Saturday 22nd April with further celebrations on the Sunday. If you haven’t already had the chance to visit the Shakespeare celebrations may I encourage you to try them!