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’.

‘Shakespeare never rose higher’ than in this play, which with its ‘silliness and violence’ leads us to think the ‘rowdies’ have ‘climbed over the footlights’. This mob rule is offered as the common sense of the man in the pub: ‘If ever the son of a man in his wanderings was at home and drinking by the fireside, he is at home in the house of Theseus.’ G.K.’s dystopian novel The Flying Inn prophesied that the English alehouse would be outlawed under Islam and his sinister poem ‘The Secret People’ (much quoted by Brexiters) pitches the folk who know that ‘beer is best’ against the ‘cringing Jew’. ‘What Shakespeare suggested about the Jew’, Chesterton writes, ‘millions of plain men’ attest: ‘they think he is simply immoral, or has a different morality.’

There is ‘as good thought as Hamlet’s’ in Bottom, G.K. insisted, for ‘Hamlet had been taught to think at a German university.’ The Catholic Kulturkampf with Prussia would complicate the Chestertons’ reactions to the rise of Hitler. In his study of A.K., David Baker claims that the cousins were importing a form of German Romanticism that judged the world against ‘values drawn from Shakespeare’, together with ‘a cultural despair similar to that among pre-Nazi völkisch reactionaries’. In No Hamlets, his recent survey of German Shakespeare after Nietzsche, Andreas Höfele writes that ‘in the flicker of their forest campfires the idealistic youths of the Wandervogel’ took poetry for ‘a beacon of hope and a prophecy of national rebirth: the dawning of a New Reich’.[*] Flower’s brewery advertised Stratford as England’s answer to Bayreuth.

‘History will accept Mr Shaw’s view of what seemed to everybody else to be a calamity of first-class magnitude,’ Chesterton wrote of the fire in his history of the theatre, ‘for very great good has sprung from that mighty blaze.’ He hoped that the ‘dry rot’ that was ‘sapping our national sanity and virility’ would be cut out. ‘Now that there is to be a new and larger theatre building on the banks of the Avon, it is certain that the work will be charged with an even greater significance,’ he declared. Chesterton was rather too fond of fiery metaphors. Flower, he wrote, had ‘succeeded in keeping alight the flame of Shakespeare’. ‘We wish to awake the spark of enthusiasm in the minds of youth,’ he wrote of his proposed torchlight parades. ‘We wish to throw the utmost light upon the truth, and beauty, and enduring sanity of Shakespeare’s works, that they may blaze as a beacon in the dark.’

A.K. was certain that ‘cleansing swords’ would soon be raised against the ‘shuffling, futile world’ of parliamentary democracy, and promised that ‘they will scorch you with their fires when they come to claim this land in the name of the master-singers who have felt for England a love that flames.’ Fascism, he claimed, ‘is the spirit of the men of action’ such as Shakespeare and Beethoven: ‘It is the spirit of the nations in the fire of their greatness.’

The correspondence between Chesterton and Flower is redacted from the archives of the RSC, but in her authorised history Beauman says little about their relations at the time of the blaze. When the fire broke out ‘Archie had been on the golf course,’ she makes clear, and arrived at the scene in plus fours. She does say that Chesterton ‘unfortunately’ became Flower’s friend, which meant that when he spoke about the theatre, he seemed to do so ‘with Archie’s voice’. Beauman’s book gives no sense of A.K.’s involvement in the fundraising for and design of the new building. But according to Baker, A.K.’s papers show that ‘Flower made every effort to promote Chesterton’s career’ and ‘consulted him about important decisions’. One of Flower’s first acts after the fire was ‘to pack Chesterton off’ to get treatment for his alcoholism. The next was to launch a monthly journal, the Shakespeare Review, in which Chesterton would publicise the reconstruction: the first issue, which appeared in May 1928, was almost entirely written by the Chesterton clan.

The journal was stuffed with opinion pieces by A.K. and reviews by Cecil’s widow excoriating the ‘sensational crudities’ of the London stage; its opening article was by G.K., who mocked Shaw for lacking Shakespeare’s sense of humour (Shaw declined to contribute, saying he could not serve an editor he had ‘dangled’ as a baby on his knee). The ‘militant nature’ of the Shakespeare Review was trumpeted by A.K. in an editorial proclaiming that ‘our first concern will be to do whatever lies in our power to combat the demoralising futility of our times.’ The journal’s purpose, he went on, was ‘to herald the fame of the world’s master-singer in such a manner that the purveyors of pornographic filth will fly before the vanguard of a renaissance which will redeem the sacrifice of a million brave Englishmen on the fields of France’.

As Cary DiPietro observed in Shakespeare and Modernism, in Stratford ‘aesthetic idealism’ was turning into ‘political idealism’, and a shift in policy towards ‘artistic control’ and ‘production values’ provided a model not only for a national theatre but a possible totalitarian state. According to A.K., it was the brief of the theatre’s director to restore a ‘vision of England, as though everything that Englishmen ever thought or felt about England, all their aspirations and yearnings, their hopes and their sorrows, their very sense of the past, were returned to them as a tangible possession’. In the Shakespeare Review the rebuilt Memorial Theatre was envisaged as a war memorial, superior to the Cenotaph in Whitehall, where ‘a tawdry, rapacious, cut-throat, incompetent age, disgustingly unworthy of the sacrifices made for it’ by the ‘phoenix generation’ of 1914, would be shamed by ‘the vision of a world purified by fire’. Abetted by the old regime, in the person of Flower, Chesterton’s culture war was typical of the conservative revolution sweeping Europe in the 1920s, when the myth of the stab in the back was used to justify the treasonous politics of the conscripts’ revenge. This revanchist ideology explains the surprising prominence given to Timon of Athens in the Shakespeare Review.

Wyndham Lewis’s drawings had represented Timon as a superman among subhumans, ‘ensnared in the mechanical world’ of the metropolis. This Vorticist imagery, which aligned with Marx’s view of the play as a satire on capital, framed Timon of Athens as an allegory of mass democracy. Lewis’s book on Shakespeare, The Lion and the Fox (1927), may have been on A.K.’s mind when in April 1928 he gave Stratford’s Shakespeare Club his ‘revolutionary theory of Timon’, which held that the play is concerned with separating animals from humans, and that its story is about a failure to discriminate. ‘When the crash comes’, Timon mistakes ‘the rats he has gathered round him for human beings’ – and condemns too unselectively. It’s hard to imagine what the club made of being warned that if they did not learn to tell men from rats they too would ‘become excrescences on the earth’s surface’. The talk was printed as the main piece in the Shakespeare Review’s first number. ‘If he wished the destruction of his fellow men,’ Chesterton declared of Timon, ‘it was not to satisfy his outraged feelings, but because his intense loathing prompted him to believe that they should be exterminated for the sake of the purer products of the earth.’

Timon of Athens was chosen at A.K.’s prompting to be Stratford’s 1928 ‘Birthday Play’. This tragedy of betrayal seemed to him to be a fable about war profiteering. ‘When we first meet Timon he is drinking popularity like wine,’ Chesterton wrote. ‘He imagines he is making friends: actually he is breeding a loathsome circle of parasites.’ His regard for the play was shared by Chesterton’s new acquaintance G. Wilson Knight, a schoolmaster and fellow ex-serviceman who sent him essays and accompanied him to plays, after which they would repair to the ‘Dirty Duck’ (the pub was really called the Black Swan). Half a century later Knight recalled these jaunts as formative events, and hailed ‘the vivid imagery and trenchant critique’ of Chesterton’s pieces on Timon. ‘He could have been a very great power in dramatic criticism if things had gone that way in his life,’ Knight told Baker in 1978. Inspired by his conversations with Chesterton, Knight wrote an essay published in the Anglican magazine Churchman; ‘The Pilgrimage of Hate: An Essay on Timon of Athens’ flared luridly beside adverts for A Girl’s Week of Prayer. When the essay was reprinted in Knight’s once famous collection The Wheel of Fire in 1930, his acknowledgment of the ‘admirable’ and ‘sensitive criticism’ of ‘Mr A.K. Chesterton, for whose comments on Shakespeare I have a deep respect’, was cut. This has contributed to the slowness of critics to appreciate the influence on the book of Chesterton and his views. The ‘fiery wheel’ of the title must have been intended to refer to the Aryan ‘sun wheel’ that Knight defined in his essay ‘The Sword and the Swastika’, which was published after the war: a ‘spinning Catherine-wheel’ of ‘whirling fire … twisted’ by the Nazis. Occultists like Knight distinguish the anti-clockwise Hindu sauvastika from Hitler’s clockwise Hakenkreuz; others, like Kipling, who in 1935 was ‘so disgusted by the Nazis’ he wanted the swastika logo erased from his books regardless of direction, felt it was ‘defiled beyond redemption’. Knight didn’t share Kipling’s concerns and his allusion to Lear’s purifying ‘wheel of fire’, which will ‘burn the enhampering body’ and ‘scald like molten lead’, is disquieting in the context of his exhilaration at ‘the ignition of the dynamite’ that ‘indicts an overplus of humanity’ in Timon’s genocidal wish to see ‘the race die’. ‘The profoundest problems of racial destiny’, he writes, are here ‘symbolised and fought out’.

In The Wheel of Fire, the ‘overplus of humanity’ to be forced ‘towards death’ is the same ‘ingrateful and effete generation’ Chesterton marked for incineration, and this ‘purgatorial pilgrimage’ is similarly said to express ‘a race’s longing’ for the flame. If the races are vague, the anti-Semitic tropes of ‘greed and usury’ are plain. Knight’s rhetoric of the wheel of fire has been connected to modernism’s cyclic concept of time, but it’s hard not to think too of Chesterton’s talk of extermination. As Janet Clare wrote in an essay on ‘Hamlet and Modernism’ published in 2008, Knight’s denigration of Hamlet’s ‘Embassy of Death’ and his endorsement of the ‘kindly confident’ Claudius show the ‘trace’ of a mindset ‘congenial to a fascist view of existence’. When he applauds the end of Timon of Athens as a victory for ‘heavenly justice’ he seems to come closest to the fascism of his drinking partner:

A man of blood and war, strong-handed, with an army at his command, he comes on Athens, accusing. He is youth and strength armed against old age, dotage, greed … He is the new generation … effacing a worn-out and effete civilisation, bringing retribution for its crimes, restoring harmony and health … Timon’s curse has breathed immortal fire into his army, and set heaven’s lightning on his sword … Alcibiades … assumes dictatorship as heaven’s minister on earth, to right the balance of a civilisation grown effete.

Some now wonder how a critic so eccentric as this spiritualist and nudist, who in his late eighties still performed Timon stark naked in the belief that he was conducting a homoerotic séance with the poet, could ever have been taken seriously, let alone read by generations of schoolchildren. As Jeffrey Kahan writes in Shakespiritualism, hostility to Knight ‘centres on his spiritualised writings and practices, which … academics deem … taboo’. In his essay on Knight, Michael Taylor quotes the critic on the political theology that lay behind his poses – the thought that ‘the religious importance of literature’ should be proclaimed ‘in a voice of authority’ – and concludes that this phrase can be used to ‘sum up the direction and impact’ of his work. Knight’s entrée into academia – he became a professor at Leeds – was helped by T.S. Eliot’s preface to The Wheel of Fire, in which he thanked Knight for revealing how Shakespeare ‘leads us to the same point’ as the ‘Catholic philosophy of Dante, with its stern judgment of morals’. Chesterton’s influence endured. In Knight’s 1948 book Christ and Nietzsche, he wrote that when we judge the Third Reich ‘we should remember the bronze virility’ of Arno Breker’s statues, ‘the browned bodies of young workers’ and ‘the guards mounting watch over the memorial of Nazi martyrdom at Munich’, and reclaim ‘what was positive within the Nazi movement’. Hitler, Knight went on, was a ‘burning positive’ who ‘may have been absolutely needed for … that world order which Great Britain would never have herself dared so bloodily to inaugurate’.

Knight’s first two essays had appeared, alongside articles on folk drama and German Shakespeare, in the Shakespeare Review in September and October 1928. His manifesto on ‘Shakespeare Interpretation’ developed a piece by Chesterton in the Johannesburg Star, which had claimed that ‘the flaming beacon’ of Shakespeare’s genius shines in incandescent images. Even more Chestertonian was ‘The Poet and Immortality’, where Knight laid out his theory that Shakespeare’s plays comprise a mystery cycle, in which ‘lightnings of spirit values shoot, evanescent perhaps, yet winged to immortality.’ ‘You have so powerful a style of thought,’ Knight gushed to A.K., ‘there is no barren intellectuality: of which I am often afraid.’

*

The new theatre was to be ‘magnificent by virtue of its simplicity’, Chesterton declared, ‘the architect having eliminated all traces of that pretty prettiness’ that disfigured its Victorian precursor. The design ‘somewhat resembles a fort’, which was appropriate, because the function of a fort was ‘to guard valuable possessions’. ‘Englishmen would be able to rest assured that here at the heart of Merrie England, there is a stronghold which will stand for the most enduring things in life.’ The Memorial Theatre would shine for all time, Chesterton foretold, ‘leaving the futilities of the moment to flicker and expire’. ‘An excellent design,’ he went on, ‘has been selected by assessors appointed by the Royal Institute of British Architects.’ He didn’t mention that the contract to build the new theatre had been awarded to the practice of Maurice Chesterton, yet another of his cousins.

The announcement in January 1928 that the winner of the competition to rebuild the Shakespeare Memorial was a 29-year-old woman, Elisabeth Scott, who according to Beauman worked as ‘a junior architect in a small London practice’, came as a shock. The press focused on the fact that she was related to George Gilbert Scott, the architect of St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial, and Giles Gilbert Scott, who designed Battersea Power Station and Liverpool Cathedral. No one mentioned at the time, and Beauman ignores it too, that Scott worked for Maurice Chesterton. His firm was an offshoot of the company of estate agents that managed the development of much of West London, and still covers it with its signboards today: Chestertons. Cecil, G.K., A.K.’s father and A.K. himself had all worked there at some time. At the time of the competition, Maurice was completing the Node, a model dairy in Hertfordshire (destroyed by fire in 2015) built in a retro-modernist style that anticipated the Stratford design. Scott was what she termed a ‘bottle washer’ at the firm. When she was declared the surprise winner, Beauman says ‘she acknowledged her own inexperience by taking into partnership her employer.’

Maurice Chesterton took his trainee to Germany, where the fan-shaped auditorium at Bayreuth and the curved frontages of the theatres designed by Oskar Kaufmann influenced the reactionary modernism of a theatre that William Bridges-Adams, the director of the Stratford theatre until 1934, complained was the hardest in England in which ‘to make an audience laugh or cry’. When he was shown around, Edward Elgar swore it was ‘so unspeakably ugly and wrong’ he would not be able to eat for a month, and could never step inside the theatre again. Generations of actors and audiences have puzzled how this ‘jam factory’ came to tower over the Avon like a mausoleum by Albert Speer. ‘The whole structure is typical of the direct, honest, open, modern mind,’ A.K. wrote, ‘compelling by its stark boldness.’ Chesterton’s fascist aesthetic had triumphed. But by the time the foundation stone was laid in July 1929, A.K. had left a town that, as he’d written a few months before, was ‘smarting from the forthrightness of my tongue and pen’.

In the absence of the theatre’s papers, the reason for his departure can only be guessed. There had been press protests at his ‘gloomy view’ of the mass media, to which he retorted that he ‘made no apology for questioning the effect of this insidious poison upon the future of our race’. English fascism would become fixated on the ‘cancer’ of ‘Jewish’ cinema, ‘a paranoia epitomised by Chesterton’s warning that statues of Shakespeare might be replaced by ones of Samuel Goldwyn’, Roger Griffin wrote in The Nature of Fascism (1991). A.K. was outraged that the cinema was run by ‘American Jew financiers’, and scandalised that Elizabeth Bergner’s name ‘took precedence’ over Shakespeare’s when the Jewish actress was directed as Rosalind by her ‘nancy’ husband Paul Czinner. He can’t have been happy when Flower took the actors on an American fundraising tour in the winter of 1928, and as Beauman puts it, mortgaged the theatre to ‘a covey of … rich financiers’ led by Otto Kahn, of bankers Kahn, Loeb & Co., and Solomon Guggenheim.

In his last editorial in the Shakespeare Review of October 1928 Chesterton looked forward to ‘accepting America’s contribution with gratitude untinged with shame’, and hoped that matching funds would ‘wipe out a slur on our national self-esteem’. Given his fantasy that ‘the Jew stands on the verge of world domination,’ Chesterton could never have stayed in his job after ‘Archie was outmanoeuvred,’ as Beauman puts it, and control passed to the American Shakespeare Memorial Fund. ‘The glory for me had departed’ was the way Chesterton explained his departure; and when Flower offered to reappoint him in 1933 he refused, having bigger things in mind. In November that year he joined the British Union of Fascists, and, still salaried by Archie, soon became editor of its journal, Blackshirt, its director of publicity, and the biographer of its leader, Oswald Mosley. A.K. thought that in Mosley he had at last found a ‘Shakespearean’ hero. In 1936 Mosley paid for him to take another cure for alcoholism in Germany but the next year Chesterton resigned from the BUF in protest after it formally renounced anti-Semitism. He served in East Africa during the war and in 1954 founded the League of Empire Loyalists. In 1967 he became the first chairman of the National Front.

On 23 April 1932 Chesterton had returned to Stratford to hear the Prince of Wales declare the Memorial Theatre open. The prince, who had piloted his own plane to Stratford, spoke of Shakespeare as ‘above all things, an Englishman’. His populist speech was written, at Flower’s request, by Chesterton. After he’d finished speaking Elisabeth Scott gave him a golden key to open the theatre. Maurice Chesterton’s daughter, Dame Elizabeth Chesterton, herself an eminent architect who died in 2002, confided in a late interview that the competition entry had been falsely ‘submitted under Scott’s name’, and that her father never ceased to worry about the fraud: ‘Obviously, he had a conscience.’ Elisabeth Scott was never associated with another major building, but her portrait now looks out shyly from the Memorial Theatre, beneath the head of Shakespeare, on the new UK passport.

[*] No Hamlets: German Shakespeare from Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt (Oxford, 352 pp., £55, July 2016, 978 0 19 871854 3).