There are thought to be only three other Shakespeare Societies outside London in this country. One is in Nottingham, holding fortnightly meetings like us. Another in Derby still puts on productions. The third is in Richmond and was founded in 1934 by Mrs Gladys Eriksen who had been a member at Plymouth. This Society owns its own small theatre on the banks of the Thames and puts on 10 plays per year.
On 21st December 1887, 22 enthusiastic people thought it “desirable to establish a Society to be called the Plymouth Shakespeare Literary Society, for the reading and critical study of Shakespeare and other authors.” This initial meeting was convened by the Rev. William Binns, who became the first President. A profound student of Shakespeare, Rev. Binns had already founded similar societies in Birkenhead and Blackpool. The ‘Western Morning News’ of 21st January 1888 reported that about 100 members had attended the opening Conversazione . The entertainment included excerpts from ‘Julius Caesar’. For many years the Society met in the Unitarian Schoolroom, as Rev. William Binns was a Unitarian Minister, and later in the Masonic Hall in Princess Square.
The Society had a large celebration of the Bard’s birthday on 23rd April 1888 with music provided by an orchestra and chorus under the direction of the organist of St. Andrew’s Church, Harry Moreton. Rev. Binns was President until he retired in 1893. Various well known local and some nationally known celebrities became President, including Queen Victoria’s son, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was President when resident as Commander in Chief at Mount Wise. He also led the orchestra at a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream as in the words of the local press he was “no mean violinist”.
In this period the emphasis was for academic lectures rather than dramatic performances.
Early days of 20th Century
The Society held many readings and scenes from Shakespeare to raise money for the forces and had a large celebration of the tercentenary of his birth in 1916. Meetings were then suspended until 1919 when they resumed at the Athenaeum. The period of regular performances of complete plays commenced after the war. Plays were produced at the Theatre Royal and Princess Square Theatre until the Society moved to the new Globe Theatre in Stonehouse. For 20 years from 1920, the Society also closed the City Library Lecture Season with condensed versions of the plays.
In the 1930s the Society built up a large wardrobe and the membership rose to 300 after the removal of the word “Literary” from the Title. Four full productions a year were put on at the Globe and many famous people took part in performances and took office in the Society during this period.
The challenging years
The Society went on as normal after the outbreak of war in 1939 but the Blitz destroyed the Headquarters of the Society at the Athenaeum along with the whole wardrobe, Minute books and Accounts, stage properties and over 600 books.
A play reading group was formed, meeting in private houses. Also a small company was formed to perform modern plays with small casts. A.P.Herbert, who was Entertainments Officer at Devonport, and Vivian Ellis then combined to produce a sparkling series of musicals which led to members undertaking tours to Service camps all over Devon and Cornwall.
Twelve plays were also produced in Plymouth including “The Corn is Green” which had a run of over 50 performances.
In 1945 a full session of meetings was resumed and productions started again in the Globe. In addition performances were given in Ashburton, Saltash, Tavistock, Torquay, and Dartington. 1951 saw the advent of professional producers from outside the membership and some professional actors joining the Society. Julian Glover appeared in “The Apple Cart” in 1954 and took the role of Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew”.
To Be Or Not To Be
The coming of television to Plymouth in 1954 marked the start of a slow change in the leisure habits of the public. It became difficult to attract men to act, even though the Society continued to offer three plays a year. Membership, and the number of potential actors, were both decreasing.
In 1963 the Globe could not be used as Service security meant alterations had to be made to Stonehouse Barracks in which the Theatre was situated. The Society continued at the Athenaeum, just rebuilt, and the Hoe Summer Theatre. Soon 3 per year became 2 and then one performance a year. In 1975 the Society admitted defeat and abandoned full scale productions. A new way was needed to keep the Society alive. Schools were contacted as the Society offered to help with the set books examinations for each year. This produced large audiences for lectures but few new members. Gradually a system of theatre visits to Bristol and to the brand new Theatre Royal, films and talks evolved , which made the loss of members slowdown.
In this period, well attended meetings included a famous talk by Sam Wanamaker on his plans for the new Globe Theatre by the Thames in London
The nineties and the turn of the centuries saw visits to the Globe in London and to Stratford. Whilst furthering the interest in Shakespeare members of the Society certainly knew how to enjoy themselves.
As to the present time, the Society wishes to remain a vibrant and enjoyable part of Plymouth Cultural life. It recognises the need to master the internet to encourage new members, to further its main aim of increasing interest in the works and life of Shakespeare and to reach out to the wider community.