In 2019, I visited Stratford Upon Avon, a town whose whole identity and industry is based on being the birthplace of national poet, William Shakespeare. That was not always the case. There was a time when Stratford made little of its most famous son and William Shakespeare was a popular and famous author but not a literary demigod. This apotheosis of Shakespeare happened for a number of reasons, but one of the instigators for the birth of Bardolatry was Garrick’s jubilee festival, the eighteenth-century’s own Fyre Festival.
I was excited to discover that Andrew McConnell Stott, the author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, had written about Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee because he’d already shown himself a great picker of stories and an entertaining storyteller. I knew the bare-bones of the story and was hoping that What Blest Genius would add flesh to it, it certainly did.
The Jubilee itself was an idea that started small. Having built a new town hall, the business leaders of Stratford Upon Avon want someone to donate a statue of Shakespeare to put in an alcove. They decide that David Garrick is the perfect person to ask, his career is inextricably linked with the playwright and like, “all great Men, Love to be praised.” They up the ante by giving him a box carved from mulberry wood - reportedly from the tree that Shakespeare planted himself. Garrick then decides to dedicate the statue with an ode and, the actor looking to create some spectacle, this grows into the Jubilee festival.
Garrick sends his brother George to Stratford to manage the project. He and his team spend more time drinking than working and the people of the town aren’t convinced by the attractiveness of the project. With only a few weeks to go, they’ve only just negotiated the timber to build a temporary performance space. In London, Garrick hasn’t put out any official publicity for the event, though he may have stirred up false bad publicity to get people talking. The tickets don’t go on sale until a week into the event, and what had previously been an all-event-inclusive ticket now only covers the main events, with further expenses for events like the evening masquerade.
Reactions are mixed; Samuel Johnson thinks the whole thing is ridiculous and refuses to go, Samuel Foote decides to go because there might be some comedy in it and Boswell decides not to go but changes his mind at the last minute. Because this book is about a two day event, it is padded out a little and one of the ways it is padded is with more information about James Boswell than the reader needs to know (for example, as a child he liked to rub himself on trees). The given reason is that Boswell is exactly the sort of person the Jubilee was catered for, a literature fan with a fondness for social theatre and self promotion. The unspoken reason is that he was a dorky cringelord, which creates a certain ‘car-crash’ entertainment.
Amazingly, the temporary arena, the Rotunda, was built just in time and was a beautiful and impressive sight. The Drury Lane Company had also managed to bring all the costumes and props up to Stratford for the big parade and they’d even found and trained school children to play fairies and sprites. ‘Transparencies’, paintings on a light gauze, has been created which changed depending on where they were lit and the whole town was lit up like a fairy grotto. Souvenir ribbons and medals were everywhere, booksellers from Birmingham and London ensured that you could pick up your own Shakespeare texts for yourself and there were more items made from Shakespeare’s personal mulberry tree then one tree could ever produce. All that was needed were the visitors.
Despite road improvements, there were huge traffic jams approaching the small town, and that was for those who could find a coach. The roads were also blocked with sedan chairmen, hoiking them up from London and Bath, and one coach had lost its horses, which were running around biting people. Boswell shoved his money and watch in the upholstery of one coach as a clever ruse against potential highwaymen, then changed two coaches before remembering what he’d done. Luckily, the coachman was an honest man and had handed them in at an inn.
When the visitors arrived into Stratford Upon Avon, they found a town not built for huge crowds, nor staffed with people used to guests who required a little more then a shared and lice-filled bed. Garrick had insisted that no bed would cost more than a guinea a night, so the people of Stratford had become extremely creative about what constituted ‘a bed’ and the fashionable ‘ton’ of London found themselves put up in barns, cupboards and hallways. One guesthouse supplemented these fees by charging guests an extra 18p to use the loo, more for non-guests.
The people of Stratford, rather ambivalent to the Jubilee before, suddenly became quite enthusiastic about the whole thing, charging visitors to tie their horse, borrow a coat or even know the time. It was the sardonic Samuel Foote who was charged for that and paid the 2 shillings to the enterprising citizen, partly so he could tell people when he returned that he’d had to pay for it. However, even he was surprised when he was told the hour and informed that minutes would cost extra.
The celebrations started at 6 am, with cannonfire and musicians wandering the streets playing songs from a specially written collection called ‘Shakespeare’s Garland”. There was a public breakfast in the town hall before some opera, which didn’t even have a Shakespeare theme. There were some more musical performances throughout the day, a communal lunch and a ball till midnight - but it was designated as the quieter of the three day festival.
Day two also started early with cannons, songs in the street and a communal breakfast. There was then supposed to be a parade through the town of actors and townspeople dressed as Shakespeare characters, utilising purpose build floats and all the glitz and glamour the prop and costume departments of the Theatre Royal could muster. Unfortunately, the rain, which had been pouring all day, cancelled the parade and everyone went into the Rotunda for the centrepiece of the event, Garrick’s Ode, dedicating the statue of Shakespeare to the town of Stratford Upon Avon.
This was something of an experiment and Garrick was nervous about it. He spoke the ode, but with backing from the Drury Lane orchestra, interspersed with different songs. Probably not helped that his barber had cut him mouth to chin, he seemed nervous when he started, however the pageantry, the music, his voice and everything came together and spellbound the audience. Not even one of the benches breaking and sending its sitters onto the floor, nor the door blowing off its hinges and knocking the Lord of Carlisle unconscious, could ruin what was the agreed highlight of the festival.
There followed a communal meal of venison or turtle (apparently it tastes sort of like beef) and people went off to prepare for the grand masquerade ball. Like much of the event, it was affected by logistics and price gouging, so the costumes weren’t as grand as they could have been. One man came in his ordinary clothes but with cuckold horns and many came in plain dominoes, the boring choice. Boulton, of Soho factory (and ex-fifty pound note) fame, was dressed as a Sultan but an hour before everyone else, so he just had to kick his heels. Boswell came as a Corsican freedom fighter and planned to bring handbills of a poem he wrote. As the ball continued, the rain did also and water started running around people’s ankles and then their shins. An evacuation was called and men carried women out the Rotunda. One man, dressed as a devil, discovered the woman he had on his shoulders was a man in costume and promptly dropped him. Everyone got safely out, however, and they gathered on high ground and watched the large, wooden edifice begin to float.
The next day was a bit of a communal hangover. The horse-race took place with the horses splashing about in the wet grass, the fireworks happened after a fashion and everyone tried to get home as quickly as possible - bearing many different opinions about the experience they’d just had. I liked the wag who said that if you explained to any highwaymen that you’d just been to Garrick’s Shakespeare Festival, they’d let you alone, knowing how much you’d been robbed already. Some were in raptures about the ode, or the lit up town but Garrick himself was in no way gruntled and had nothing nice to say about the town of Stratford Upon Avon.
However, it wasn’t a complete failure. The rhetoric (much of it near-religious) and the ‘pose’ of the festival had raised Shakespeare from popular writer to national legend, the attendees had been part of something special and the town had started upon its journey of the Shakespeare name as possible. (Something I’ve never really understood, as Shakespeare did everything his reputation hangs on in London, same with the Beatles and Liverpool if I’m honest). What’s more, Garrick’s play The Festival, a celebration of, and good-natured ribbing on the event ran for 91 nights, surpassing even The Beggar’s Opera’s 62 night run.
This book made me laugh out loud do many times. There were so many other funny anecdotes in this book that I haven’t managed to squeeze into this writeup; the full story of Macklin’s stabbing another actor in the eye (complete with urine and crossdressing), the sheer body of funny things said about the festival afterwards (Samuel Foote’s gag about ‘life-size’ Garrick puppets), the incredible depths of Boswell’s neediness - but I encourage anyone to read this book and discover those elements for themselves.