A Shakespeare Festival in 1769

August 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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The three actors on your left are performing this summer in New York Classical Theater‘s production of Much Ado About Nothing presented in Central Park.  (The handsome gent in the middle is my brother-in-law, Christopher Cass, playing Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon as a Naval officer!)

Shakespeare festivals have been going on so long, their organizers are constantly searching for new interpretations–and certainly new “settings” for some very old plays. This Much Ado is set in 1945 during World War II.  (Well, why not?)

It got me thinking as I am readying a new edition of my historical novel, Wicked Company for publication in October of this year from Sourcebooks Landmark. My book centers on the life of the women playwrights whose works were produced to great success at London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane theaters in the last half of the 18thc.

David Garrick, the actor-manager of Drury Lane, was not only credited with mentoring women playwrights, but also with being the finest Shakespearean actor of his day.  As one wag put it, “Garrick elevated the Bard from able dramatist to a God.”

Recently I was proofing the section dealing with the heroine Sophie McGann’s role assisting at  Garrick’s famous (some say infamous) Shakespeare Jubilee held on the banks and in the village of Stratford-Upon-Avon in September of 1769.  Sadly, the skies opened up and it virtually poured buckets of rain during the entire three-day event, nearly drowning the actors and audiences alike.

Garrick had summoned the finest thespians of the day to join him in the tribute held in Shakespeare’s birthplace, and redeemed the soggy disaster by presenting his “Ode to Shakespeare” –a performance that eyewitnesses said brought down the house (a rotunda, actually) as the water was rising and soaking the slippers of the entire audience.  The scholars and intellectuals of the day, including Garrick’s supposed friend, Samuel Johnson, boycotted the event.

On the left is a highly idealized image of Garrick reciting his Ode.  Ever the entrepreneur, he re-staged the washed-out “Parade of Shakespeare Characters” back in London, and whenever the billboards trumpeted the most famous actor of his day was–again–to deliver his Ode to Shakespeare, the house was packed.

Last week, my poor brother-in-law performing Shakespeare outdoors had a similar experience to Garrick ‘s and his actors in 1769.  Chris’s Sunday, August 15th performance of Much Ado on the grass in Central Park was just that: nothing.  It  was rained out!

So what’s new?