A History of The Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations
Shakespeare had been dead for 130 years before one of his plays was ‘allowed’ to be performed in his home town…
All performances of Shakespeare’s plays were banned in his home town from as early as 1606, a ban that remained in place during the playwright’s last years in Stratford, and which, in 1624 (eight years after Shakespeare’s death), resulted in the Town Council paying a fee of 6 Shillings to prevent members of The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s old London Company), from performing the playwright’s work in Stratford.
Obviously theatre, in the early 17th century, was not Stratford’s business, and with the coming of the Civil War in 1642 there was no time, space, or energy for theatre. The works of Shakespeare, and the man himself, were virtually forgotten.
Not until the reign of George II did Shakespeare’s work once again surface in Britain, and this time in the hands of a brilliant young actor called David Garrick, who transformed Shakespeare’s by now virtually moribund dramas into sprawling, colourful, noisy theatrical hits. Suddenly every actor, and theatre company in England, wanted to perform Shakespeare. As a result — and a staggering 130 years after Shakespeare’s death — Stratford saw the first ever performance of a play by the ‘peoples poet’.
The play was Othello — a brave choice for a first offering — and was produced by the extrovert actor/manager, John Ward, at the old Town Hall in 1746. The occasion was a colourful fund-raising event to help restore a crumbling bust of Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church.
John Ward, born in 1703, was a well known strolling player of his day, and later the grandfather of the hugely popular actress Sarah Siddons. And that warm, and rather wet, Tuesday evening in September must have been a splendid affair, with the blacked-up Ward playing Othello with histrionic relish and dash. Between each act — and perhaps as a way of lightening the unfamiliar, and hugely emotional, dramatic load — there were “several entertainments of singing” by Mrs Elrington (who played Desdemona, as if she hadn’t got enough on her hands), with violin…