The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon opened in 1879 and produced an annual summer Shakespeare season. When the theatre burnt down in 1926 it was replaced with a new building officially opened on Shakespeare's birthday in 1932 by the Prince of Wales and former Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Despite the large-scale celebrations which included a broadcast by the BBC of Richard II, the new theatre met with much criticsm from the theatre profession.
Frank Benson as Shylock, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, early 20th century
Frank Benson was an actor-manager who's touring company and acting school were important influences on contemporary theatre. Not the least of his contributions is that out of the week long summer Shakespeare Festivals which he presented at Stratford-upon-Avon grew the permanent Shakespeare company that we now know as the RSC. His ideal was 'to train a company, every member of which would be an essential part of a homogeneous whole, consecrated to the practice of the dramatic arts and especially to the representation of the plays of Shakespeare'.
Benson made his debut 1882, under Henry Irving, but formed a company of his own the very next year. His wife Constance, whom he married in 1888, acted in his company and played leading parts with him. From the outset of his career, Benson devoted himself largely to the production of Shakespeare's plays. From 1888 he organised 26 of the annual Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare festivals. He founded an acting school in 1901 and was knighted in Drury Lane Theatre in 1916, during the Shakespeare Tercentenary performance of 'Julius Caesar'. George V did the honours using a 'property' sword.
Actor from the F R Benson Company, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, early 20th century
In 1875, Charles Edward Flower, a local brewer, launched an international campaign to build a theatre in the town of Shakespeare's birth. He donated a two-acre site on the banks of the Avon for the purpose.
With an initial season of eight days, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1879 with a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. From 1888 actor-manager F R Benson presented an annual Shakespeare Festival, which, by 1910, had extended into a month long summer season. Frank Benson had acted at the Lyceum under Irving and was able to attract star visitors like Ellen Terry and Herbert Beerbohm Tree to guest with his company, who otherwise spent the year touring.
This young actor may well have been selected as much for his sporting ability as his acting experience. Benson emphasised physical fitness as an important part of actor training, and auditions for the company apparently often involved finding out where the hopeful applicant might fit in to the Benson Hockey Eleven, or whether he was a batsman or bowler.
Memorial Theatre on fire, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, 1926
Stratford-upon-Avon is famous the world over as the birthplace of William Shakespeare. In 1879 William Frederick Unsworth built the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre on the banks of the Avon. It was a large Gothic building, after designs by W F Cusworth, including a theatre wing, a library, and a museum wing, linked by a galleried bridge. In this picture you can also see its distinctive central tower.
Disaster struck on March 6th, 1926 when the theatre was almost completely destroyed by fire, leaving only a shell. Festival productions went ahead in a local cinema. A worldwide fundraising campaign was launched as well as an architectural competition and in 1932 the new building, designed by Elisabeth Scott, was opened by the Prince of Wales. Scott incorporated the remaining shell as a conference centre and rehearsal rooms, but in 1986 it was rebuilt as a theatre by Michael Reardon. It reopened as the Swan Theatre, a smaller house to complement the main theatre.
Constance Benson as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, early 20th century
In 1886 Frank Benson married Gertrude Constance Featherstonhaugh and, as Constance Benson, she would play opposite him in most of the company productions from then on. They partnered each other as nearly all the major Shakespearean couples. There was certainly an added frisson for the audience in seeing a husband and wife team play together. The fascinated gossip about Henry Irving and Ellen Terry shows that Victorian audiences were just as curious about the offstage relationships of their stars as we are today.
Constance is pictured here in The Merchant of Venice. On this occasion, the couple weren't playing precisely opposite one another. That would have required Frank to take on the somewhat thankless role of Bassanio. Instead, he preferred the show-stealing Shylock, which did of course give them one lengthy and crucial scene together: the court scene where, disguised as a male lawyer, gets the better of Shylock with his bloodthirsty contract for a pound of Antonio the Merchant's flesh.
Murray Carrington as Oberon, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, 1906-14
Murray Carrington was a stalwart of the Benson company for eight years from his debut with them in 1906. He played over a hundred parts during that time, and returned occasionally even after 1914. He is pictured here as Oberon, against the curved wall of the old Memorial Theatre (a wall which remained after the fire and today forms part of the Swan Theatre).
In the decades either side of 1900, Oberon was often played by a woman. Carrington's large dark eyes and surprisingly thin legs, about which the company used to tease him, make for an otherworldly, ethereal, fragile Fairy King. In 1914 Carrington's name was being mentioned as possible leader of a breakaway company, but plans were suspended owing to the outbreak of World War I.