Bonfire in Merrie England
Richard Wilson on the burning down of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre
On Saturday, 6 March 1926, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon was closed. But around 11 a.m. a girl called Eileen White noticed ‘an awful lot of smoke’ pouring from the back of the building. When she told her aunt she was reassured that it was only ‘Mr Gisbourne’s bonfire’. An hour later, the theatre manageress, Alice Rainbow, was finally warned that the building was on fire. She ran through the theatre opening all the doors and windows in the misguided hope that this would curb it. By early afternoon, as Sally Beauman records in her history of the Royal Shakespeare Company, every available fire engine in the county was racing to the scene, including a horse-drawn wagon from Warwick, ‘but their efforts to douse the flames met with little success.’ Half a century’s worth of padded costumes, varnished props and canvas sets fuelled the conflagration, while the mock Tudor half-timbering provided perfect tinder and the Gothic observation tower, ‘with its water-tank for use in the event of fire, became a hundred-foot chimney, funneling the flames’. ‘Great crowds gathered to see the spectacle,’ according to Nicholas Fogg in his history of Stratford: ‘At four o’clock in the afternoon the roof fell in, and by the following morning the building was a blackened shell.’
Afterwards a telegram arrived from George Bernard Shaw: ‘You must be delighted. Congratulations. It will be a tremendous advantage to have a proper modern building. There are a number of other theatres I should like to see burned down.’ Shaw had opened the final season in the old building, proposing the traditional toast ‘to the immortal memory of William Shakespeare’. ‘When you propose a man’s health on his 359th [it was actually the 361st] birthday,’ Shaw said, ‘you may be sure that … what his health requires is country air … But Stratford wants a new theatre. The Memorial is an admirable building, adapted for every conceivable purpose – except that of a theatre.’ Shaw’s fellow governors felt it necessary to make clear their whereabouts at the time of the fire because the fulfilment of his words looked too good to be true.
The Stratford blaze has all the marks of a developer’s fire. ‘Destiny took control of events’ was the way it was explained in Brave Enterprise, the official history of the Memorial Theatre ‘issued by the Governors’ to celebrate its rebuilding. Brave Enterprise was written by the theatre’s publicist, Arthur Kenneth Chesterton, who had moved to Stratford in 1925, after being appointed drama critic of the Stratford Herald on the recommendation of his famous second cousin, G.K. Chesterton. Born in 1899 in South Africa, where his father supervised a gold mine, A.K. had a romantic view of Shakespearean England, writing in one of his first Herald articles that Stratford on May Day, with its morris dancers and may poles, furnished ‘an imaginative picture of the very soul of England’ that he had carried with him from Africa.
Chesterton had been an underage volunteer on the Western Front, where he won the Military Cross for an attack made ‘over a carpet of dead bodies’. Perhaps as a result of his wartime experiences, he was an alcoholic. In The Immortal Shrine, the official tourist guide to Stratford, he described his postwar ‘Odyssey’, portraying himself as a warrior betrayed by ‘cads and cowards’.
The chairman of the theatre, Archibald Flower, a brewing magnate and head of the dynasty that had founded the Memorial, became ‘the most important figure in Chesterton’s life’, according to David Baker in Ideology of Obsession: A.K. Chesterton and British Fascism. The two met when Chesterton went to interview Flower, ‘whose reign over Stratford-upon-Avon came as near absolutism as made no odds’. Flower was impressed by Chesterton’s refusal to use the tradesman’s entrance: ‘Archie Flower offered me his apologies,’ Chesterton wrote. ‘Thus began a friendship that lasted until Archie’s death. He was good to me in many ways and for my own part I believe I contributed services which helped him, among other things, to obtain the knighthood he so richly deserved.’
Chesterton’s family were all virulently right-wing. G.K.’s brother Cecil was notorious for propagating the ‘blood libel’ during the prewar Marconi Scandal over alleged Jewish insider dealing. A.K. was ‘convinced’ that Cecil ‘was the man I must choose as exemplar’. After he died in December 1918, Cecil’s proto-fascist ideology, a combination of English nationalism, guild socialism, racism and conspiracy theory, continued to be propagated in the Catholic Distributism preached by his widow, Ada, G.K. and their ally Hilaire Belloc.
For Belloc, ‘the Jewish nation intermixed with other nations alien to it presents a permanent problem of the gravest character’; G.K. agreed, proposing ‘every Jew should be dressed like an Arab’ and live in a ghetto, ‘giving them a definite dwelling place and a definite dress’. A.K. told his cousin that his journalism involved ‘keeping a close watch on the Marconi crowd’, who ‘would not have had a moment’s peace if Cecil had lived’. It seems improbable that Flower was unaware of the values with which he was affiliating the theatre when he took on A.K. to deal with its public relations, or that he was oblivious to his protégé’s obsession with Jews, as ‘blood-cousins of the maggot and the leech’. By 1939 A.K. was telling the Nordic League to rig lampposts to ‘string up the Jews’.
A.K. was constantly confused with G.K. ‘The shadow cast by Gilbert Keith Chesterton was … enormous,’ he quipped: his cousin was famously obese. ‘Having lived under it all my life, I can claim to be an authority.’ This shadow never loomed larger than in the Chestertonian vision of Shakespeare’s England. For G.K., ‘Will from Stratford’ was ‘spiritually a Catholic’, who confounded Puritanism with the mirth of the Middle Ages. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was ‘the greatest of his plays’ and ‘the best description of England’ ever written; Bottom the Weaver was ‘greater and more mysterious’ than Hamlet, that ‘superficial’ conscientious objector, because ‘the English mechanic’ stands ‘as firm as a tree’ against the metropolitan elite. The play is the ‘last glimpse of Merrie England, that distant but shining … country, which … unlike the England of today, could conceive of … a merry supernaturalism’.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] No Hamlets: German Shakespeare from Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt (Oxford, 352 pp., £55, July 2016, 978 0 19 871854 3).
Vol. 39 No. 10 · 18 May 2017
Readers interested in the connections between Shakespeare and fascism, discussed in Richard Wilson’s illuminating piece, may have come across Hirt’s Englandkundliches Lesebuch für die Oberstufe an Oberschulen, an English-language textbook published in Germany in 1942 and intended to introduce German schoolchildren to the culture over which it was assumed they would soon rule (LRB, 4 May). Hirt’s Englandkundliches Lesebuch (‘English Studies Reader’) had a picture of Stratford-upon-Avon on its cover and celebrated Shakespeare’s poetry along with other aspects of English culture. Many English people, the book claims, are secretly fascists; what a shame their country has been taken over by the Jews.
Hitler’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare is well known (he was the only enemy playwright not proscribed by the Nazi regime), but unlike Chesterton and his fellow fascists in the Shakespeare Club, whose love of Timon of Athens is scrutinised by Wilson, Hitler found in Coriolanus a truer reflection of his worldview. German school textbooks contained passages pointing out the resemblance between the Führer and the play’s protagonist and after the war the American occupation forces banned performances of it.
Vol. 39 No. 11 · 1 June 2017
By quoting Dame Elizabeth Chesterton’s fond filial belief that her father, Maurice Chesterton, and not Elisabeth Scott, had been the real author of the design that won the competition for the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1928, Richard Wilson is reviving contemporary gossip (LRB, 4 May). In the very masculine profession of architecture, few could then accept that a young woman could possibly have been responsible for a sophisticated modern design chosen by independent British and American assessors out of 72 entries. It is true that Scott preferred working in collaboration, and she was happy to admit that two fellow former students at the Architectural Association, Alison Sleigh and J.C. Shepherd, had helped her with the competition entry. To execute it, Scott entered into the partnership of Scott, Chesterton & Shepherd and, for what it’s worth, at the time her former employer, Chesterton, disclaimed ‘any personal share whatever in the successful design’. Scott herself was clear: ‘While mine was the design chosen for the theatre, the actual work has been carried out by my partners and myself as a firm.’ Geoffrey Jellicoe, who had been in partnership with Shepherd, later recorded that ‘Scott provided the initiative, Chesterton the administration and Shepherd the flair.’ Wilson is correct to observe that Scott was never associated with another major building (although the Marie Curie Hospital in Hampstead and the Fawcett Building at Newnham College, Cambridge were scarcely negligible commissions), but, then, nor was Chesterton. He eventually gave up architecture and devoted himself to painting.
Vol. 39 No. 16 · 17 August 2017
In his response to my discussion of the suspicious burning and rebuilding of Stratford’s Memorial Theatre, Gavin Stamp intriguingly cites ‘contemporary gossip’ at the time of the design competition in 1928 (Letters, 1 June). One would like to know more about these rumours, which Stamp links to a misogynistic architectural establishment that refused to believe the 29-year-old Elizabeth Scott was the true author of the new building. By contrast, the newspapers were effusive, with headlines such as ‘Woman Wins’, ‘Girl Architect Beats Men’ and ‘London Girl’s Winning Design’.
As Sarah Collins Howard discovered in the course of her research on Scott, none of the media reports ‘was disparaging, quite the reverse’. The Morning Post may have been making an insinuation by comparing the young winner to Shakespeare’s Portia, whose male cousin likewise ‘gave her some useful tips’. But the coverage effectively suppressed any embarrassment about the fact that Scott was a mere ‘bottle washer’ in the firm belonging to the cousin of the Stratford publicist A.K. Chesterton, who may have been responsible for a ‘developer’s fire’ and had engineered the rebuilding competition.
Stamp points out that Scott credited her colleagues in Maurice Chesterton’s practice with a share in her success, but that Geoffrey Jellicoe would say no more than that she ‘provided the initiative’. In fact, Howard found that ‘Jellicoe’s role in the theatre was greater than everyone was led to believe,’ which was why he remained ‘reluctant to mention Scott as sole winner’. Stamp is therefore incorrect in claiming that Elizabeth Chesterton held a ‘fond filial belief’ that her father was the real architect of the theatre. As I reported in my original piece (LRB, 4 May), what she said in her interview for the British Library in 1997 was that Maurice worried that the competition had been falsely entered under Scott’s name – ‘at which point she paused, then added: “erm … which is, I think, all I will say about that.”’
Howard deduced that ‘while Chesterton did involve himself in the technical side’, it was another partner, John Shepherd, ‘who did the designs’. But if the entry ‘was a team effort, why did they choose to put Scott’s name on it?’ she asked, reasonably. It ‘may never be known’ why Scott continued to assert that the design was hers, even when it was so heavily criticised as a ‘monstrosity’, Howard concluded. The answer, I suggested in my original piece, lies in the part played by the sinister A.K. Chesterton in the destruction and reconstruction of the Shakespeare Theatre, and thus in his own papers in the archives of British fascism.
Vol. 39 No. 23 · 30 November 2017
It was disappointing to read Richard Wilson’s assertion that Elisabeth Scott was not responsible for the design of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (LRB, 4 May and Letters, 17 August). Attribution is always a difficult matter, especially in a collaborative discipline. But it is also true that someone must have the starting idea (not necessarily the architect: it could be a client or a collaborator) and that women designers are disproportionately disregarded when it comes to receiving credit for their work.
Whatever the gossip at the time may have been, Scott herself said that she ‘spent two months creating the building in my mind. I used to go for long tramps in the country, the hillier the better. And then I worked it out on paper in about six weeks.’ She then worked, as Gavin Stamp noted (Letters, 1 June), with Alison Sleigh and J.C. Shepherd to complete the drawings required for what was a major international competition (in which all entries were anonymous). When she was short-listed, she again played the lead role in developing the design. Amanda Minett records in her dissertation about Scott: ‘She worked most weekends on it until about a month before the submission date, when she worked 12 to 14 hours a day preparing the final entry.’ Once she had won the competition, she joined forces with an established office, which could give her the technical support that was needed to bring a major project to fruition.
Elizabeth Darling, Oxford Brookes University<br />Lynne Walker, Institute of Historical Research, London WC1