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’.

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