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The Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations

Every year the anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare is celebrated with joyous ceremony at Stratford-upon-Avon, the Warwickshire market-town where he was born on April 23d, 1564. Flags are unfurled in the main street, people buy sprigs of rosemary ("for remembrance") to wear in their buttonholes, the Town Beadle* heads a long procession through the streets to the parish church where everyone in the procession deposits a wreath or a bouquet (or a simple posy) at the poet's grave, and in the evening there is a performance of the chosen "Birthday Play" in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.** In spite of the attendance of distinguished representatives from all parts of the world, the Birthday celebrations seem essentially local, even parochial; they are the tribute of his fellow townsfolk to an honoured citizen who, notwithstanding the fame and fortune he won in the course of his career in London could think of no better place in which to spend his last years than the small country town in which he was born. He might have had a resplendent tomb in some great cathedral; instead, he was well satisfied with the prospect of a simple grave in the same church in which he was baptized. So, when his birthday comes round each year, the good townspeople may well be excused for thinking of William Shakespeare, first and foremost, as a son of Stratford.

* (Town Beadle - a mace-bearer, esp. a vice-chancellor's.)

** (Royal Shakespeare Theatre - a theatre built in Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, which stages Shakespeare's plays almost exclusively.)

This year, however, there will be nothing local about the Shakespeare Birthday celebrations. They will burst out from Avonside to engulf not only the whole country but most of the world, and they will not be confined to a single day but will extend from spring to autumn. For this is the Shakespeare Year of the century - the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of a genius who belongs not merely to Stratford or to Britain but to all humanity. There will be nothing like it again until 2064, and there has been nothing like it in all the 348 years that have passed since Shakespeare died.


But Stratford, of course, will be the focal point of the celebrations, and those who know the town will hardly recognize the familiar view across the river from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. For on the meadows on the opposite bank of the Avon a great pavilion, a hundred yards long and a hundred feet wide, will house the most remarkable Shakespeare Exhibition ever devised, illustrating Shakespeare's life and career against the contemporary background of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Painters and sculptors, stage and television designers, will re-create scenes of life in town and country, in palace and university, and in "the great Globe itself". The exhibits will include the Quartos and Folios of Shakespeare's plays, first editions of his poems and copies of the books which he read and which inspired him. There will be a "Long Gallery" (a feature of many of the great mansions of the period), with portraits of the famous personalities of Shakespeare's time, and the voices of eminent living actors will be heard in well-known passages from the plays. There will be a detailed model of the Globe Theatre in London, where many of the plays were first performed, and the music of Shakespeare's time will be heard, including the original settings for some of the songs in the plays.

The Exhibition will open at Stratford on April 23rd and remain on the banks of the Avon until August 5th. It will be re-assembled under the roof of the Waverley Market flt Edinburgh, where it will be open from August 18th (the first day of the Edinburgh International Festival) until October 5th. Three weeks later, on October 26th, it will re-open in London, and there it will remain until the early part of next year. In London, as in Stratford, it will occupy a riverside site - the open space on the south bank of the Thames which has been reserved for the building of the National Theatre.

As well as the inauguration of the Shakespeare Exhibition, there will be another "opening" at Stratford on April 23d - that of the new Shakespeare Centre which has been erected next door to the Birthplace. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre will be embarking on its annual eight-month season - which this year is likely to centre on a sequence of the Histories, "including Richard II, Henry IV (Parts One and Two) and Henry V - and other special events will be taking place throughout the summer, including the first performance of a choral work by John Gardner,* The Noble Heart: a Tribute to Shakespeare, on June 14th.

* (John Gardner - an English composer, b. 1917.)

So much for Shakespeare's town in the Shakespeare year, and now a brief look at some of the arrangements elsewhere which have been fixed at the time of writing, starting off with London. In recent years a firm link has been forged between Stratford and the capital by the establishment of a London headquarters for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre.* Here, from March 20th to June 13th, a glittering International Festival** will be given by famous companies from abroad, including the Comedie Francaise from Paris, the Moscow Arts Theatre, the Schiller Theatre of Berlin, the Abbey Theatre from Dublin, thePeppino de Filippo Company from Naples, the Theatre Wspolezesny from Warsaw and the Technis Company from Athens. Across the river, at their temporary headquarters in the Old Vic Theatre,*** Britain's newly formed National Theatre Company (under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier****) will celebrate the Quarter-centenary with a production of Othello, with Sir Laurence himself playing the name part for the first time. Other Shakespeare plays will be seen at such theatres as the Mermaid***** (during a special three-month season of Elizabethan Drama) and the charming Open-Air Theatre in Regent's Park.****** Music inspired by Shakespeare's plays will be heard in the concert halls, and a number of "Shakespeare" operas will be presented at the Royal Opera House: Verdi's******* Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff and Britten's******** A Midsummer Night's Dream. (A new production of the first-named work will open the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in Sussex on May 20th.) And at London's Guildhall Art Gallery there will be an important exhibition entitled "Shakespeare in the Theatre", which will be open for four weeks from the end of May.

* (the Aldwych Theatre - a theatre in the centre of London, built in 1905.)

** (This is an annual event in London, not a specially arranged one for the Shakespeare celebrations.)

*** (the Old Vic Theatre - a famous London playhouse in Waterloo Road. Opened in 1818 as the Coburg, later became the Royai Victoria Hall, nicknamed the Old Vic. Badly damaged by bombs in 1940. The company returned to the restored premises in Waterloo Road in 1950.)

**** (Laurence Olivier - a British actor and producer, b. 1907.)

***** (the Mermaid Theatre - the theatre in the City of London, built in 1957-1958 to a design by Elidir Davies.)

****** (Regent's Park - one of the largest open spaces in London, with an area of 472 acres, formerly a royal hunting-ground.)

******* (Verdi - Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). An Italian composer of operas. Othello and Falstaff are music-dramas, rather than operas.)

******** (Britten - Benjamin Britten, an English composer, b. 1913.)

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