Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Doubling the Swan Recipe: The Transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Doubling the Swan Recipe: The Transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Article excerpt

ON JULY 29, 1926, addressing a correspondent who shared his opinion "that the only possible theatre in which to act Shakespeare is the E[lizabethan] P[layhouse]," William Peel wrote:

I am glad to find that you are so optimistic about the E.P. at S[tratford]-o[n]-A[von]. Why I am not, is because I don't believe the Governors care one rap about the suggestion, and therefore would soon regard the E.P, if they built one, as a white elephant.... (1)

Poel's pessimism concerned debate over a replacement for Stratford's Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which had been destroyed by fire five months earlier. (2) Designed by E. J. Dodgshun and W. F. Unsworth, that theater had opened in 1879; a wing containing a library and art gallery was added in 1881; and an observation tower containing a water tank was inserted in 1884. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium initially seated 711, distributed as 53 in the stalls, 158 in the dress circle, and 500 in the gallery and in the pit at the back of the stalls. From there, behind the stalls, iron girders and brick piers supported the dress circle, from which in turn slim pillars in turn supported the gallery, and through that, a dome. Seating in the dress circle and gallery curved around the auditorium wall, following its "U" shape; but at ground level, in the stall seats and the pit benches behind them, theatergoers sat in straight lines parallel to the stage, from which the front row of the stalls was separated by a shallow orchestra pit. (3) At 26 feet wide by 27.5 feet high, the proscenium opening was nearly square, but its height was reduced by a third and its decoration simplified in 1913 when the dress circle was also modified. Behind the opening was a stage just over 53 feet wide and just over 48.5 feet deep, with 46 feet above to the scenery grid and 18 feet below to the basement floor. (4) Limited evidence indicates very good sightlines between the stage and the more expensive seats in stalls and dress circles, albeit initially not from the cheaper ones in the gallery and the pit. Acoustics were excellent: the word of William Shakespeare, from whose work a quotation was painted at the base of the dome over the auditorium, was audible throughout. Surviving photographs suggest that the overall appearance of the building was somewhat garbled: an abundance of vaguely Gothic arches, both inside and out, competed with mock-Tudor brickwork and external half-timbering. (5) The total cost of the theater, library, picture gallery, and tower was about 20,000 [pounds sterling]--equivalent to some 966,000 [pounds sterling] in 2005. (6) Almost all of that sum had come from the pocket of single benefactor: Charles Flower, childless head of his family's firm of brewers in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Although successive measures (including that water tank in the observation tower and asbestos paint on both sides of the stage curtain) had been taken to protect it from fire, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre burned down to a shell on March 6, 1926. Costumes and scenery perished in storage under the stage; but books and paintings were rescued from the library and art gallery, which, physically separate from the theater, remained standing. Since 1919 the theater had had its own resident company, engaged to play festival seasons in the spring and summer of every year and led by Walter Bridges-Adams. While arrangements for their spring 1926 season went ahead in a converted cinema, an appeal was launched for funds to build and endow a new theater: gifts from the United States of America would make up the greater part of the sum which was eventually raised. (7) As had been done for the building of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, the design for its successor was put to competition. Despite--or perhaps because of--his youthful directorial experience in the Globe Theatre reconstruction at the 1912 World's Fair, Bridges-Adams opposed any such simulacrum for Stratford-upon-Avon. (8) Among the various specifications that the Governors of the theater laid down for competitors, repeated reference was made to a proscenium stage. …

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