Performing commemoration in wartime: Shakespeare galas in London, 1916–19

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Celebrations for Shakespeare’s Tercentenary in 1916 in London barely resembled those planned and discussed before the outbreak of war. Official commemorations of Shakespeare were suddenly reassessed in a wartime context and adapted to be frugal and patriotic, selective and pertinent. As a result, the gala revue format, selecting as it could the smallest of textual fragments or the stylised ‘Shakespeares’ expressed in songs and tableaux, was, perhaps, bound to flourish. In 1916, a flamboyant yet tactfully (ostensibly) inexpensive gala took place to mark the Tercentenary at Drury Lane. In the same year, the Shakespeare Hut, a YMCA respite Hut for Anzac troops on leave, was built on the land acquired for the building of a Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre. In its purpose-built performance space, this Hut continued the gala commemorations for the rest of the war and into 1919. Its annual ‘Shakespeare Day’ gala performances configured Shakespearean fragments into a performance to build morale, showcase the war support of theatrical superstars (such as Ellen Terry, Johnston Forbes Robertson and Gertrude Elliott) and revive, each year, the Tercentenary ‘spirit’ that the Hut was built to represent. While the Drury Lane gala brought together a range of theatrical luminaries to produce an extravaganza to mark Shakespeare’s Tercentenary, the performance was also itself commemorated via a sumptuous ‘souvenir’ book, a newly-discovered copy of which, annotated by the event’s literary advisor, provides a unique insight into this performance and its relationship to the War. Programmes for the Hut galas were considerably more modest, but copies still survive and this article examines these alongside previously undiscovered private letters and autobiographical accounts from some of those working and living at the Hut. Hitherto neglected manuscript sources revealing the involvement of performers who appeared there are also re-examined in the context of the Hut performances, which have, until now, remained largely forgotten. This range of sources provides a means by which to scrutinize the de- and re-construction of Shakespearean texts into new wartime shows. While the Drury Lane production was primarily for the (predominantly English) general public, the Hut performances were, almost exclusively, for (predominantly Australian and New Zealander) servicemen. The re-constitution of de-contextualised fragments into a single ‘Shakespeare’ performance to suit wartime sensibilities contributed to the development of a wartime national and Allied identity. The relationship between the ‘civilian’ (Drury Lane) versus ‘service’ (Shakespeare Hut) performances offers a uniquely relevant comparative case via which to examine this phenomenon. This article analyses how such a difference in audience may influence – or be influenced by – the construction of ‘Shakespeare’ in the performances and how, in turn, these case studies can elucidate our notions of commemoration via performance on a broader level. The article presents the significance of these performances in relation to the changing nature of public commemoration during the Great War and the problem, specifically, of commemorating a long-dead civilian in a time of mass grief and unrelenting loss. Overall, the article considers how we can theorise the commemorative function of performance in wartime, specifically in terms of the unique case of how England ‘remembered’ Shakespeare during the Great War.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCelebrating Shakespeare
Subtitle of host publication Commemoration and Cultural Memory
EditorsC. Calvo, C. Kahn
Place of PublicationCambridge, UK
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781107337466
ISBN (Print)9781107042773
Publication statusPublished - 18 Nov 2015

Bibliographical note

This material has been published in Celebrating Shakespeare: Commemoration and Public Memory edited by Clara Calvo & Coppélia Kahn. This version is free to view and download for personal use only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works. ©


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