‘My Folly’: Garrick and the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769

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Portrait of David Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough

When the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon rebuilt its new Town Hall in 1767, the Council approached David Garrick with an irresistible proposal. Garrick was the foremost Shakespearean actor-manager of the day, a Bard worshipper and the self-appointed guardian of the Shakespeare flame. It was proposed that he should donate to Stratford ‘some very handsome bust, statue or picture of Shakespeare’. In return, Garrick would be made an Honorary Burgess of the town.

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Garrick received the honour in an elaborately carved mulberry wood chest, made from the very tree which had stood in the garden of New Place, Shakespeare’s last home.  Inspired with a new idea, he decided to stage a formal tribute to Shakespeare in the form of a Grand Jubilee in Stratford itself. This would last several days and might convince a wider audience of the pre-eminence of his great hero among dramatists.

He began by mounting a massive country-wide publicity campaign. In May 1769, he spoke at Drury Lane inviting all the world to meet ‘on Avon’s banks’ where ‘first breathed our matchless Bard’. The news provoked a flood of satirical attacks: Garrick and the Stratford Council were accused of money-grubbing and even heathen idolatry. But adverse publicity was still publicity and the Jubilee was set for August 6th.

The prospective programme included an oratorio, various grand meals, a ball, fireworks display, masquerade and a pageant featuring a procession in Shakespearean costume. Garrick would use the singers and full orchestra from Drury Lane Theatre, as well as its costumes and props. He would also employ the new ‘transparencies’ – large illuminated paintings on silk – as special effects.

Meanwhile, Garrick was painted by Gainsborough and, in return, offered a leaden bust of Shakespeare and a portrait of his hero to be hung beside his own. He began to compose the long Ode upon Dedicating a Building and Erecting a Statue to Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon – the centrepiece of the Jubilee which he himself would deliver. He also composed a number of songs which, when set to music, would become Shakespeare’s Garland.

Carpenters from London arrived to construct the octagonal Rotunda, modelled on the building in the Ranelagh Gardens in London. It was to be erected on the site now occupied by the RST complex and would host the important events of the Jubilee.  Supplies of timber ran out, however, and the August deadline was not met. The Jubilee would now begin on September 6th.

Accommodation for a huge influx of visitors to Stratford also had to be considered. There was only one inn – The White Lion – and this was already booked. Canny locals began asking inflated prices not just for rooms but for attics, cellars and even hen-houses. A number of empty properties in town were kitted out as makeshift dormitories but the whole exercise demanded a huge expenditure of time and money by the organisers.

It had also become clear that a number of townsfolk were anti-Jubilee – hostile, uncaring or uncomprehending. Fear and uneasiness was produced by the sight of people in costumes and weird garb. There were mutterings about house-breaking and looting. When, as Steward of the Jubilee, Garrick flourished his mulberry wood wand, it was thought that black magic was involved and that he might fly around the town. And to confirm the general unease, Halley’s comet was seen in the September skies. Comets, in popular imagination, suggested ill omen or divine punishment and their tails carried a great deal of water. One flick of the tail and….  But for now, all seemed set fair.

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The Jubilee began on schedule with the thunder of thirty cannons from the riverside and the ringing of hand- bells on every street. People emerged, many from lawlessly parked carriages which had acted as overnight accommodation. Townsfolk aside, the catalogue of nobility present read like a selection from Burke’s Peerage. Literary figures, dramatists and actors also attended, though it was, on the whole, a theatrical rather than a scholarly gathering. The event had been shunned by Samuel Johnson and his circle – Goldsmith, Burke, Reynolds  – but the young James Boswell, supporting Corsican Independence, put in an extraordinary appearance dressed as a chief of that island, in scarlet waistcoat and breeches, and wearing a hat with Viva La Liberta embroidered in gold.

After breakfasting at the new Town Hall and receiving the regalia of Steward of the Jubilee, Garrick led the company to Holy Trinity Church for a performance of Thomas Arne’s Oratorio Judith, though its relevance to Shakespeare was unclear. Then, at the Rotunda, dinner was served to around seven hundred people. In the evening, the whole town was lit up and the Rotunda hosted a Grand Ball. The first day had gone well.

The second day began with heavy rain. Garrick awoke with a cold, which did not bode well for his delivery of the Ode. His barber, probably hung-over from the night before, slipped mid-shave and cut him from mouth to chin. Outside, two hundred costumed characters stood ready to march, but the rain had intensified. Clearly props and costumes would be ruined. Reluctantly, Garrick rejigged the day, cancelling the Pageant and rescheduling the Ode for midday in the Rotunda.

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A damp audience gathered and became damper under a roof that was leaking like a colander. Garrick performed the Ode in magnificent style, however, managing to rise above the mishaps of the day and turning to praise of the ‘silver’ Avon. As the words were given, Garrick threw open the great doors at the side of the Rotunda facing the river. This bold coup de theatre disclosed a muddy brown torrent and water creeping ever nearer.

Undaunted, the audience cheered causing a number of benches to break under the strain. In some places, walls began buckling, a large door fell inwards injuring Lord Carlisle and water began coming up through the floor. The Masquerade was to come in the evening.

Guests had been encouraged to wear Venetian-style masks for the event, but it seemed that a fleet of gondolas might be more appropriate. Rain continued and the Rotunda was now surrounded by water. Horses drawing carriages had to wade knee deep and planks were laid down to allow people to alight. The dancing commenced and went on all night in an increasingly leaking and crumbling space, with the water rising to cover the dancers’ shoes.

Outside, the fireworks display which had promised a number of pyrotechnic marvels, was eagerly awaited by a large crowd. But touch papers were sodden, fuses and matches fizzled out and rockets failed to ascend. The display was a washout.

At dawn the situation was becoming critical: planks again had to be used to reach carriages. Some took their chance by wading through the flood, others floundered in muddy ditches. The river continued to rise. So ended the second day.

The rain poured down all night but stopped at noon on the third day. There was no hope of staging the Pageant and the Rotunda was marooned in floodwater. Garrick had envisioned it as a permanent temple to Shakespeare but it was now dangerous and unusable. It was later demolished and the wood sold off in lots.

At noon, the horse race for the Jubilee Cup took place at Shottery. Despite water up to the horses’ knees, five raced, the winner swimming to victory with his jockey Mr Pratt on board. After receiving the prize of a silver cup, Pratt disappointingly declared that he knew little about plays or, indeed, Master Shakespeare.

A very weary and disallusioned Garrick thankfully yielded up the insignia of his office as Steward. The Jubilee had been one of the worst set-backs of his career. Among the many criticisms he was now forced to endure was the fact that no Shakespeare play had even been planned, much less performed, throughout the entire three days. He was heard, ever afterwards, to refer to the event as, ‘My folly’.

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Portrait of David Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough

If the Jubilee was in the short term a failure, a fiasco and a folly, great things were to come of it. It had held the attention of England for three days but its influence rapidly spread to Europe, immediately influencing the works of Herde and Goethe in Germany, and eventually giving rise to hundreds of other worldwide Shakespeare festivals following 1769. In Stratford-upon-Avon, every major Shakespeare anniversary has been celebrated there, including the annual birthday event. The very existence of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre complex owes something to Garrick , the 1864 Festival having inspired Charles Edward Flower to begin campaigning for a permanent Memorial Theatre in the town.

As a year of special commemorations on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death gets underway, it is remarkable that Shakespeare is one of the major figures of the English-speaking world. The language is permeated with his vocabulary and expressions, his plays are performed in even the most inaccessible-seeming parts of the world and his work has had a huge influence on generations of artists of all kinds, spawning works in every possible genre and medium. And books, books, books about the man and his works – perhaps more then have been devoted to any other human being – continue to come and show no signs of stopping.  David Garrick was certainly one of the catalysts that created the God of Literature he had worshipped for most of his life.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

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One thought on “‘My Folly’: Garrick and the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769

  1. Garrick’s visage nauseates, reminding me of every pretentious male actor with whom I ever worked at the Stratford Shakepearean Festival of Canada, and regional companies thereto fawning. What a self-satisfied, pseudo-intellectual POOP!

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