These past few months I have spent a good deal of time in Stratford-upon-Avon, where I have been exploring further collaborations with the Royal Shakespeare Company. That’s how I know that many of the company’s leading lights, including artistic director Gregory Doran, have this week decamped to New York. The RSC opens its mega- successful musical Matilda on Broadway on Thursday, and the night before Greg’s production of Julius Caesar starts its run at BAM. (For background, see this Wall Street Journal piece.) I have also been reading Sally Beauman’s truly terrific The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades, first published in 1982 (and which I can’t quite believe I haven’t encountered before). And that is how I came to realise that this year marks the centenary of the first visit to the USA by the company that much later became the RSC.
Apart from Sally Beauman’s account, there seems to be strikingly little written about the eight-month tour of the States in 1913-14 by Frank Benson’s Stratford-upon-Avon Players. So these brief notes marking the centenary are almost entirely dependent on her history, along with the entry on Benson by J. P. Wearing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Frank Benson was one of the great Victorian actor-managers. Born in 1858, he excelled at sports at Oxford where he also began to stage dramatic productions. He worked briefly with Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, but his debut performance as a professional actor as Paris in Irving’s 1882 production of Romeo and Juliet was, as Wearing says, ‘inauspicious’. After this he took over a provincial touring company which was artistically undistinguished and barely covered its costs.
Despite enjoying only a modest reputation, Benson’s company was invited in 1886 to organise the spring festival at the recently opened Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford. The theatre had been built thanks to the energy and funds of the local Flower family of brewers, and it was the patriarch Charles E. Flower who had first opened it for a short spring season in 1879. For its first six years, the theatre relied on a ragbag of touring companies to stage productions for one or two weeks only, and Benson’s was initially one of these. But Benson became a key part of the Stratford story right through until 1916.
Frank Benson and his wife Constance were invited back time and again with their company, and as Sally Beauman relates
Benson’s finest work at Stratford was given during the 1890s, when he was in his thirties. But even then his work was not noticeable for innovatory production methods, but for the excellence of the companies that he gathered together, and the strength of their acting.
Yet Benson worked with highly traditional methods and settings, and invariably the texts extensively, both so as to accommodate numerous dances and processions and to ensure that nothing profane (such as the word ‘whore’ in Othello) was spoken on the Stratford stage.
Benson was apparently hopeless with money, but he continued to attract star performers to Stratford for the spring festival. Charles’ nephew Archibald (‘Archie’) took over the running of the theatre, and eventually, in 1911, he formed a syndicate to take over Frank Benson’s company and transform it into the Stratford-upon-Avon Players. At this point, Benson was fifty-three, although he continued to take the part of the young Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while Constance, at forty-eight, still gave Stratford her Titania as well as her Rosalind.
New approaches to the staging of Shakespeare were beginning to be explored elsewhere by producers like William Poel and Harley Granville-Barker, and for the spring festival of 1913 Poel was invited to apply his pared-back and austere style to a Stratford production of Troilus and Cressida. But Benson remained a fixture at the theatre, and that year Archie Flower decided that he should go on a tour of Canada and the United States.
Archie’s motives have their echoes even today, a century on, as Sally Beauman’s account suggests:
American tourists already visited Stratford and the Memorial Theatre in quite large numbers. Archie foresaw, with great accuracy, that support for the Memorial Theatre in America would pay dividends in the future. A successful American tour would bring the Memorial Theatre precisely the kind of notice Archie desired: an international reputation. It was also possible that it would bring in a great deal of money.
The American tour, which started after a summer festival in Stratford in 1913, lasted eight months – and it was not a success. Constance elected not to go with Frank, who instead took Dorothy Green as his leading lady. Also among the company was Basil Rathbone. They visited thirty-seven cities, and got off to a decent start in Canada with large audiences and profitable houses.
Then it was on to Chicago, and here the American critics brought out the brickbats. The Chicago Tribune characterised Benson as ‘a skittish old beldame, peaked, capricious and jerky’. Another writer described his Richard II as ‘spoken in one long howl… hard, wooden and graceless’. Audiences were frightened away and receipts dropped off. Nor were Benson’s frequent waffly and sentimental speeches outside the theatre to the American taste, with one being described as ‘verbal confetti’ by the San Francisco Chronicle. By the time Benson and his players returned to Stratford in the summer of 1914, it was clear that the tour had made a loss of £1,000.
Benson played a part in festival performances at Stratford in 1915 and 1916, the latter marking the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. But that year, his and Constance’s only son, Eric was killed in action, and the theatre was closed. Unconnected now with Stratford, he toured South Africa in 1921-22 and then his company limped around the provinces until he made his last appearance on stage in 1932. He died seven years later.
One can only wish Greg Doran and his players rather better reviews States-side as well as significantly stronger showings at their box offices. But perhaps they will take a moment during one of this week’s many parties to recall their illustrious predecessor and his attempts one hundred years ago to woo over audiences on the that side of the Atlantic.
Image: Detail from Sir Francis Robert (‘Frank’) Benson by Alexander Bassano, vintage print, 1877, NPG x85692; © National Portrait Gallery, London.