‘The Bard of all bards was a Warwickshire bard’: Reviving David Garrick’s Stratford Jubilee

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By David Chandler, Retrospect Opera.

Garrick and Dibdin

2019 will witness the 250th anniversary of David Garrick’s great Shakespeare ‘Jubilee’, the most talked about cultural event of the British eighteenth century. This took place at Stratford-upon-Avon, amidst an unprecedented blaze of publicity, between 6 and 8 September 1769.

The series of events leading to the Jubilee began in 1767, when the Stratford Corporation decided to approach Garrick (1717–79), by far the most famous actor of the day, as well as the manager of Drury Lane Theatre, in hopes he would give them a portrait and statue of Shakespeare to adorn their projected new Town Hall. Garrick worshipped Shakespeare and had even constructed a Temple to Shakespeare in the gardens of his house at Hampton; he was known for his collection of Shakespearean portraits and relics. The central figure in London’s Shakespearean world was thus brought into regular connection with Stratford, a sleepy country town (sometimes still called a village) with a population of some 2,000 souls. Toward the end of 1768, Garrick glimpsed the possibility of combining the opening of the new Town Hall with a great festival paying homage to Shakespeare in the very place where the great writer had been born, schooled, and spent his first two and a half decades or so – until, in the standard eighteenth-century biography, he fled to London after getting in trouble for poaching deer.

After months of frenetic media attention, in which plans for the Jubilee grew and grew, Stratford was invaded in early September 1769, much of London’s Shakespearean world decamping there, along with devotees and the simply curious (including Garrick’s enemies) from all over the country. Stratfordians quickly discovered that their most marketable product was not wool, but Shakespeare. Souvenir sellers had a field day, especially those selling wooden items supposedly fashioned from the mulberry tree that Shakespeare, according to legend, had planted in the garden of his final home, New Place, and which had been cut down in 1756. When Garrick was given the freedom of Stratford, it was in a special box carved from this prodigious tree. Anyone in Stratford who could offer accommodation also made a fortune, and the man best placed to benefit was John Payton, owner of the White Lion, the town’s leading inn, where Garrick and his wife stayed. To mark the occasion, he renamed the rooms in his inn after various Shakespeare plays – the bar becoming ‘Measure for Measure’.

Garrick had no intention of placing Shakespeare on a lofty pedestal, remote from popular culture; quite the contrary, part of his plan was to establish the Bard as a sort of folk hero, the people’s poet – the literary equivalent of Robin Hood, the traditional darling of the ballad makers. To this end, Garrick penned the lyrics of a number of songs celebrating Shakespeare not just as a literary genius but also as the ‘first of all swains’, ‘the lad of all lads’, and a likeable rogue – he had, after all, poached those deer!

These songs were exquisitely set by Charles Dibdin (1745–1814), the immensely talented young composer whom Garrick had brought to Drury Lane in 1768, and who would go on to become by far the most successful songwriter of his age. (To get some idea of how Dibdin came to dominate the world of popular song, try to imagine Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Elton John combined into a single, dominating cultural presence.) The Garrick and Dibdin songs, the lyrics of which were published in a key souvenir booklet called Shakespeare’s Garland, contributed very significantly to the atmosphere of the Jubilee, being sung on several occasions, both indoors and out.

Dibdin’s songs had a very significant second life, too. Although the Jubilee was famously rained off half way through, and Garrick lost a lot of money on it, his resourceful mind soon saw a way to make rich amends. The great pageant of Shakespearean characters he had intended for Stratford, cancelled because of the rain, could instead be presented, in even more spectacular style, on the Drury Lane stage. He thus wrote a musical comedy called The Jubilee, set in Stratford and centred on the pageant.

Garrick was rewriting history here in the sense that The Jubilee suggests the pageant did take place at Stratford, but in a comically brilliant nod to what actually happened, his central character is an Irishman who manages to fall asleep at the wrong time and misses it! The Jubilee, containing all the songs set by Dibdin, was premiered on 14 October, just five weeks after the Stratford celebrations. It was an immediate and lasting success, playing for 91 performances in its first season alone, an eighteenth-century record. ‘There never was an Entertainment produc’d that gave so much pleasure to all Degrees, Boxes pit and Gallery’ wrote William Hopkins, the Drury Lane prompter. The profits recompensed Garrick for his Stratford losses several times over.

This year, Retrospect Opera, a British charity, is reviving The Jubilee in the form of a recording, to mark the 250th anniversary of these seminal events in Shakespeare’s reception history, the evolution of Bardolatry, and the establishment of Stratford as the ultimate destination for literary tourists. They are recording all the delightful songs from The Jubilee with enough of the connecting dialogue to make a coherent dramatic work. This will allow listeners both to experience something of the atmosphere of the original Stratford Jubilee, while also enjoying what became the greatest theatrical triumph of Garrick’s extraordinary career. This is a crowd funded project. Anyone donating £25 or more is listed as a supporter on the Retrospect website, and anyone donating £50 or more will also have their name included in the booklet issued to accompany the CD recording.

For more information on the project, see: http://www.retrospectopera.org.uk/DIBDIN/Shakespeare.html To donate, see: http://www.retrospectopera.org.uk/Donate.html And for a list of the Shakespeare and Garrick enthusiasts from all over the world already supporting this project, see: http://www.retrospectopera.org.uk/DIBDIN/Shakespeare_Supporters.html


The opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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