Lunching with Shakespeare: Stratford’s Birthday Celebrations

It’s recently been announced that Stratford’s traditional Birthday Luncheon for 500 people will not be held this year. It’s an event that has been part of the annual festivities for as long as I can remember.

In fact celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in Stratford has always involved eating and drinking: The Garrick Jubilee in 1769 didn’t actually take place on Shakespeare’s Birthday, but with a specially-built rotunda and festival that spread over three days it was the first major event to mark Shakespeare’s association with Stratford. And banquets were a big feature.

The next commemoration took place on 23 April 1824, when Mr Thomas Hynde of the Falcon Inn held a dinner with “a dozen or more worthy citizens of Stratford” to mark the day. This proved so successful that the Shakespeare Club was founded, within a short time achieving a membership of 400 and in 1830 receiving Royal patronage. Four hundred people could not all dine in the Falcon Inn, or indeed anywhere in the town, and it became the ambition to hold a celebration every three years. In 1827 they hadn’t solved the problem of where to hold a large gathering, and the birthday celebrations took the form of a grand procession fromHoly Trinity Church to the garden of New Place, where the cornerstone of Stratford’s first permanent theatre was laid. In 1830 for the first time a specially-constructed Pavilion was erected in Rother  Street, and another pageant was held featuring the actor Charles Kean while the 1827 theatre was used for performances.

The 1864 Pavilion under construction

For the next few decades the birthday celebrations seem to have been a local affair, the Shakespeare Club organising annual dinners. But it was 1864, the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth, that galvanised Stratfordians. It has always been overshadowed in the history of Shakespeare festivals by David Garrick’s Jubilee but the Tercentenary was actually a much more successful affair, and one which had far-reaching consequences.

A magnificent wooden Pavilion was built on a paddock in Southern Lane. It was a twelve-sided building, containing a pit area, two tiers of boxes, and a stage to one end while an orchestra area was at the other. The stage was 74 feet wide by 56 feet deep, large enough to receive scenery brought from London for the planned performances of Shakespeare’s plays. The orchestra was similarly generous, holding 530 performers. Apparently the acoustics were excellent and the whole building was designed to be flexible with a maximum audience capacity of 5000.

The banquet

On the very first day at 3pm there was a banquet: the high table stood on the orchestra area and the pit and stage held 700 diners in all. Sitting in the boxes were “spectators, who looked on with all the gratification that is to be derived from witnessing enjoyments which one is not permitted to share”. They paid 5s to watch, 21s to eat. The celebrations continued for a week, and performances in the Pavilion included a musical concert of The Messiah with 500 participants, performances of Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It, and a grand fancy dress ball. Many events attracted capacity audiences and the popularity of the Shakespeare plays undoubtedly planted the idea in the mind of chief organiser, the local brewer Edward Flower, that a permanent theatre to stage regular performances of Shakespeare might be a success.

Richard Foulkes, in his definitive book The Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1864, suggests that the celebration was a success because it “was the creation of Stratfordians themselves”. The adaptable large Pavilion was the key. Yet the irony is that by the end of May it was no more. Everything was sold off in an auction that made back only a fraction of the cost of building it.

The town was again without a venue which could be used to seat hundreds of diners or stage big events. Until a few years ago the Birthday Luncheon was sited in a large marquee put up in the theatre-owned gardens just across the road from the site of the 1864 Pavilion. The expense of this structure caused the Luncheon to be moved, a few years ago, to the Levi Fox Hall at King Edward’s School. But it’s still a costly event which requires sponsorship.

The Birthday procession

The Luncheon is only one element of the Birthday Celebrations, the most important part of which is the delightful procession which anyone may join, carrying a floral tribute to be placed on Shakespeare’s grave.  Local businessman Tony Bird has been one of the sponsors of the Luncheon for many years and in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald of 7 February he identified the need, which has been felt in the Birthday Celebrations from 1769 onwards, for “a facility to seat up to 500 people … to produce an event with the style and panache fitting for the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday”.

This year there will be a smaller reception for 180 invited guests at which speeches will be made and the annual Pragnell prize to an outstanding Shakespearian will be awarded. Large-scale celebrations are planned for 2014, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and 2016, the 400th anniversary of his death. It’s to be hoped that a way will be found to allow even more people to enjoy this traditional part of these most English of celebrations.

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