How Frank R. Benson helped revive Shakespeare’s popularity

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Frank R. Benson. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Folger Finds delivers delightful and insightful moments with the Folger collection. Sarah Hovde, a cataloger at the Folger Shakespeare Library, shares the story behind the announcement of a turn-of-the-century “Shakespearean season” in London.

It’s London in 1900. Is Shakespeare ready for a resurgence on the English stage?

Shakespeare, since the rise of “Bardolatry” in the early 1700s, has never truly been out of favor on the English stage. But by the end of the 19th century, certain factions of the English theatrical and literary communities worried that public interest in Shakespeare had declined, due to the various re-writes, adaptations, and “improvements” of the plays that had abounded throughout the last two centuries.

Literary and artistic figures such as poet Reginald Buckley and composer Rutland Boughton drew inspiration from William Morris’ aesthetic ideals, emphasizing traditional forms in their work, and sought to make the arts, especially Shakespeare, accessible to all. They advocated, as Buckley put it, “the full renaissance of the Shakespearean drama on the stage under the enlightened rule of the more literary of our modern actor-managers.”

One of those “modern actor-managers” was Frank R. Benson, a prolific thespian who had founded his own company in 1883. During his career, he staged all but three of Shakespeare’s plays. At a time when Shakespeare productions were often filled with lavish sets and elaborate costumes, Benson’s “rough-and-ready methods” with his simplistic costumes and sets were seen as a return to the plays’ unadorned forms, and several writers and journalists of the time saw Benson as helping to bring Shakespeare back to popularity on the English stage.

Benson prospectuses (front covers)

These two prospectuses (advertisements of proposed commercial ventures, such as a book, play, or even an insurance company) announce a turn-of-the-century “Shakespearean season” at London’s Lyceum Theatre. Seven out of eight plays performed over the season’s two-month run would be Shakespeare (the eighth being Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals).

Their shared cover image was designed by Walter Crane, a popular British illustrator associated with the Arts & Crafts movement (you can see his insignia in the lower left corner – a small crane inscribed in a large “C”). The prospectus with accents printed in red ink was produced in November 1899, and was meant to stir interest in the eight-week run by Benson’s company. The prospectus in plain black ink is undated, but may have been produced slightly later, as precise times and dates for each play have been set.

Benson prospectus 2 (interior)

Contemporary reviews were mixed on Benson’s own acting capabilities – “He is not a good actor,” one critic stated right out, “but he has mounted, with the finest intelligence, more Shakespearean plays than any other” – but all acknowledged his prowess as a manager and impresario. The same critic referred to the “genuine artistic success” of Benson’s Shakespeare performances at the Lyceum.
Benson prospectus 1 (interior)

The journal Outlook commended Benson’s advertising strategies in particular, which hearkened back to the early days of printing: a society of subscribers was formed – the “London Committee” referred to in the November prospectus, above – who agreed to purchase tickets in advance for a fixed price, ensuring that the plays would have funding to get off the ground. (This may also sound familiar to anyone who has backed a project on a “crowdfunding” site such as Kickstarter!) The notions of advance tickets and season tickets were not new ones, but Benson apparently used them very effectively, and the published “London Committee” list allowed subscribers to be publicly known as patrons of the arts.

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