The College Shakespeare Society
The First Hundred Years
The story begins in 1854, the year of Balaclava. The first players to tread the stage in hall under the inspiration of Dr. Lowe, the first Headmaster, and under the direction of Mr. Martin, who appeared himself, were only able to give a medley of excerpts from Richard III, Hamlet and Julius Caesar. They had not yet earned the title Of Shakespeare Society. There was no scenery or stage properties: but it was a beginning.
At first staff and boys alike were members of the “Corps Dramatique”, as they were called, resembling in this the earliest school cricket teams. even after 1864, when the cast consisted for the first time entirely of boys, OJs continued to play leading roles after leaving school, or even repeated their memorable performances several years later. Many may have helped to swell the spectacular production of 1866, when seventy costumed performers thronged a stage even smaller than our present (1954) one. And such large numbers were by no means unusual.
When we consider the difficulties of those days, it is hard to picture the immense enthusiasm generated by the early plays. The audiences were lavishly entertained. In addition to the play itself, often with a prologue specially written, they might expect musical entr’actes with an orchestra of twelve players, and even an “afterpiece”. farces such as ‘Cox and Box’ and ‘Dr. Pillicoddle’ regularly followed the main item of the evening. They were finally given up in 1902, such descents to the ridiculous being thought unworthy of the poetry of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Popularity also meant discomfort. There was only one performance, and the dress rehearsal was often thrown open to the public. Winter was perhaps a better season for a crowded hall than summer, but there are frequent references to audience being restricted and children ruthlessly excluded. Whether the boys were as patient and well-conducted as their elders is dubious. At least one play night was marred in those early days by the cracking of nuts. The fiftieth play in 1903 was given for two nights and this arrangement continued.
We may picture the Hall as it was on a December evening just before the turn of the century. Lined with flowers and gaily festooned, it presented a splendid setting for one of the major events of the school calendar. The audience, many of whom had come far in their carriages, might settle down in cheerful expectation of being amused until one o’clock in the morning, sustained by the copious refreshments displayed on the tables before them. Stage lighting had greatly improved by this time and the standard of costumes and scenery was high, although the Johnian is not without its criticisms of the settings and we read of steam yachts adorning the scene for Macbeth. And there was always the prospect of the unexpected and the unrehearsed. Macbeth was enlivened by the imminent combustion of the effects man lurking within the cauldron, when one of his more splendid fireworks was accidentally thrown back on to him; and The Merchant of Venice by a magnificent Doge, revealed by an over-hasty curtain, still enjoying a snack between scenes. Distinguished visitors were welcome and the last-minute illness of Queen Emma of Hawaii, who had promised her patronage in 1865, caused some disappointment.
By 1914 the Shakespeare Society was a Hurst institution: a series of performances only once broken by illness since 1854 was a legitimate cause for pride. How much the Society owes to its early producers and stage managers, who worked so hard and created so much! But now there came an enforced interval of five years and the difficulties of resumption in 1919 were almost as great as in the distant days sixty five years before A fine production of Twelfth Night by the Reverend V. R. Rogers was the first of a series of outstanding plays. The trend of production was now gradually towards the less extravagant and the Romeo and Juliet of 1926, with its twenty-four scenes was the last of the spectacular plays. the erection of the gallery may have simplified the seating problem, but little could now be done to improve the amenities of stage and auditorium. But the tradition was worthily upheld between the wars by M. Wright, Mr. Thomas and, latterly, Mr. Bury, culminating in a very fine production of in 1939.
Once more war came to interrupt, not to destroy, a tradition. A fresh start was made again in 1944, and two years later the play was transferred to its present position in the summer term. New difficulties have arisen: the comfort of the audience now requires fans rather than fur-coats, and it is still a problem to accommodate all those who wish to come, even with three nights. The stage manager no longer tears his hair over the wooden framework of the stage, but blesses his tubes of steel, and after a long interval, the orchestra has returned, the notes often still wet upon the music-paper, to accompany or introduce the action on the stage. In 1952 Cymbeline, a rarity even in the professional theatre, was presented for the first time and this year we return to Romeo and Juliet, in its third Hurst presentation.
We are attempting to commemorate some of the glory that duly belongs to a hundred years and a record which we believe to be shared by no other school. Perhaps we should do well to remember the thousands who have contributed to the Shakespeare Society’s annals: not only the immense casts of bygone days, but the stage-hands, the costume-makers of the first plays and the skilful corps of electricians of today. All of them deserve their due share of our gratitude and admiration.
M. I. Bailey (a master at Hurst in the 1950s). Written on the occasion of the Centenary.