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.’
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[*] 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.