Later today (Friday 25th April) a new exhibition will be mounted in the Anderson Room at the UL celebrating William Shakespeare‘s 450th birthday featuring a variety of music inspired by the works of the Bard. While doing some background research for the exhibition I came across the story of David Garrick‘s 1769 Shakespeare Festival – the first of many Festivals which reinvigorated interest in the work of Shakespeare; and which proved to be an unexpectedly complicated affair.
In May 1769 a delegation representing the Corporation of the Borough of Stratford-upon-Avon visited the famous Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, to confer upon him the Freedom of the Borough, and to ask him to open the new town hall. In 1764 Shakespeare’s 200th birthday had been celebrated, and it was perhaps with the memory of this in his mind that Garrick suggested a Shakespeare Festival, which would take place, unusually for the time, in Stratford itself. There had been festivals and Shakespeare related events before, but this was to be the Festival that would place Stratford-upon-Avon firmly upon the Shakespearean map.
A three-day event was planned featuring a parade of Shakespearian characters, a horse race, dances, and with music provided by the complete orchestra and chorus of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. A stage was erected beside the Avon with room for 100 actors, and 1,000 seats. David Garrick wrote an ode with music by Thomas Arne (MR260.a.75.1), which included Thou soft flowing Avon, which was to feature as the centrepiece to the celebrations. The Festival started off promisingly enough but by Day Two the British weather was to emerge triumphant as events were rained off, and there were insufficient carriages to remove bedraggled and increasingly frustrated Festival goers from the small town.
However, thanks to Garrick’s shrewd business-sense there was to be an unexpected revival. After all, in eighteenth century England no-one need know immediately of the disastrous events at Stratford-upon-Avon…..
So, a new work was concocted, The Jubilee featuring music by Charles Dibdin, with “New scenes, Dresses, and Decorations” and the resurrected Shakespearian pageant. Critics thought the writing was of little or no merit, but all were thrilled by the spectacle of the work (it reputedly featured 320 individuals, 3 horses, and a dog), and set a stage record for the period, being performed in London 153 times between 1769-1776. One German tourist, Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, so enjoyed the play that he went to see it twenty-eight times; and wrote enthusiastically about the technical innovations that enabled one scene to morph into another without a break in proceedings on stage.
The debacle at Stratford meant that Garrick made a loss of £2,000, which he paid back in installments to the Corporation; but his canny head for a theatrical success meant that his folly was turned into a glorious success at Drury Lane. For more information on the 1769 Shakespeare Festival read Garrick’s Folly by Johanne M. Stochholm, and do remember to come and see our rather less extravagant birthday celebration.