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).