Outdoor Shakespeare: The pioneers of a summer tradition

Shakespeare by the sea, on the river, in the park or garden, on the common – in the summertime Shakespeare’s plays are everywhere outdoors! High-profile shows in New York’s Central Park or at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival may come to mind for active theatergoers today, but the inspiration for this kind of outdoor performance actually came from semi-amateur theatricals, often led by women, in England and America in the late 19th century.

Lady Archibald Campbell, Agnes Booth, and As You Like It

One of the earliest and most influential of these productions was organized by Janey Sevilla Callander, better known as Lady Archibald Campbell. A society woman who mingled with artistic types such as painter James MacNeil Whistler, theatrical designer E.W. Godwin, and writer Oscar Wilde, Lady Archibald organized a group of professional and amateur actors called the Pastoral Players. In 1884 and 1885, they put on productions of As You Like It at the Coombe Warren estate in Surrey, with proceeds going to charity. (The Folger Shakespeare Library owns an archive of images and reviews of their performances.)

Illustration of a scene from As You Like It in the forest
Illustration by W. Hatherell for As You Like It at Coombe Warren, Art Journal, 1885. Folger ART Inv. 293

The idea originated with American actress Eleanor Calhoun on a summer visit to Coombe after she had been performing Rosalind in London. Later in her memoirs Calhoun wrote, “Lady Archibald entered with heart and soul into the plan, taking entire charge of the financial and business part of the venture,” and also taking on the role of Orlando, which according to Calhoun, she studied not as a dilettante, “but as an artist works.” Oscar Wilde called it “a really remarkable performance.”

Photograph of a woman lounging under a tree
Lady Archibald Campbell as Orlando, c1885. Folger ART Inv.293

Calhoun herself played Rosalind, and the two had complementary costumes, hers “the tint of autumn leaves” and Orlando’s “gray-green.” (Lady Archibald’s portrait by Whistler in her costume is now in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.)

Photograph of a woman leaning against a tree
Eleanor Calhoun as Rosalind, c1885. Photo slightly cropped, Folger ART Inv.293

Lady Archibald started a trend that was followed by others, including Agnes Booth, the actress wife of American actor Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. The Illustrated American magazine in June 1891 mentions this woman-to-woman influence, as Agnes starred in her own outdoor staging of As You Like It in 1887 at Masconomo House in Manchester-by-the-Sea, near Boston. She followed this up by playing Audrey in another outdoor production, given at Castle Point mansion in Hoboken on the Hudson, in 1891. Fellow professional actresses who starred with her included Rose Coghlan as Rosalind and Viola Allen as Celia.

Professional and University Theater Groups: Ben Greet and Frederick Koch

It should be noted that traditional theater at the time was just as intent on bringing the outdoors inside, whenever possible, as seen in this photograph where an entire forest has been recreated for As You Like It on the stage of Wallach’s Theater, New York in 1898!

As You Like It at Wallach's Theater
Julia Arthur as Rosalind, As You Like It, Byron Co. photographer, Folger ART File S528a4 no.125

According to scholar Michael Dobson, actor-manager Ben Greet “was the single most important popularizer of outdoor Shakespeare” for professional theater. He formed the Woodland Players, who took a variety of Shakespeare’s plays on the road during the 1880s and 90s, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Tempest, and that old standby, As You Like It. They performed all over Britain, including a venue in Regent’s Park in 1901. (The Regent’s Park Open-Air Theatre as we know it today wasn’t founded until thirty years later.) Greet’s company also toured in the US, from the University of California at Berkeley to the White House lawn, during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency – perhaps a bit chilly in November 1908!

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Mr. Greet as Falstaff; Miss Matthison as Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor; Regent’s Park
Charles A. Buchel, charcoal and gouache, 1901 Folger ART Box B919 no.24
Outdoor performance of As You Like It
Greet’s production of As You Like It, South Field, Columbia University, 1903. Byron Company, photographer, Folger ART File S528a4 no.131

Greet’s work inspired others such as Professor Frederick Koch at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who founded the Carolina Players in 1919, a group for his theater students that staged plays throughout the state. Here is an undated photograph from one of their productions.

Outdoor performance
Carolina Players in the Forest Theater [n.d.] Folger ART File C291.8 no.38
Not surprisingly, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were two favorites for outdoor performance. In each play, Shakespeare’s characters find themselves changed by entering a green world. As we saw with Greet’s production in Regent’s Park, Merry Wives, partially set in the woods around Windsor, also lent itself to outdoor performance for those who wanted an actual wooded area as their setting.

Dorothy Rowena Cade and The Tempest: Shakespeare By the Sea

But what about The Tempest? Theaters have tried with various degrees of success to bring the ocean indoors, whether for The Tempest or Twelfth Night, as seen in this photograph of a New York production in 1903, where Viola Allen looks horrified in front of a shipwreck on a painted backdrop.

Photograph of a stage production of Twelfth Night
Viola Allen in Twelfth Night, New York, 1903. Byron Company, photographer. Folger ART File A431 no.22

It was another woman entrepreneur who found the perfect outdoor setting for The Tempest. Dorothy Rowena Cade was a costume designer who moved to Cornwall after the First World War. She purchased the Minack headland near Lands End, and working hard along with her gardener and one local craftsman, turned a natural rock amphitheater into the outdoor Minack Theatre. The theater opened in 1932 with a production of The Tempest. Viewed from 90 feet above the sea, the play had found its perfect setting. Indeed, on one occasion, an actual shipwreck occurred on the rocks just below the theater during a production! Except for a break during the Second World War, plays have continued to be performed in that spectacular setting to this day, with the improvement and upkeep of the theater supported by a trust set up by Cade.

Outdoor performance at Minack Theatre
Minack Theatre, Cornwall. The Minack Theatre Trust CIO

Lady Archibald Campbell, Agnes Booth, and Dorothy Rowena Cade, along with Ben Greet and Frederick Koch, were all pioneers of Shakespeare outdoors, their visions continued by such as Joseph Papp in New York, Richard L. Hay in Ashland, OR, and Sam Wanamaker in London, as well as many others. They opened the way for thousands of people to find they can enjoy Shakespeare when his plays are seen in a shaded wood, by the sea, or under the stars – the perfect summer entertainment.

Further Information

Calhoun, Eleanor. Chapter II of Pleasures and Palaces: The Memoirs of Princess Lazarovich- Hrebelianovich. London: Evelyn Nash, 1916. Illustrated edition available from Hathitrust in full online here.

Dobson, Michael. Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. (Deals mostly with the British history.)

Dugas, Don-John. Shakespeare for Everyman: Ben Greet in Early Twentieth-century America. London: Society for Theatre Research, 2016.

Learn more about Americans’ fascination with outdoor Shakespeare performances by listening to the Folger radio documentary Shakespeare in American Life.