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Staging and Storytelling, Theatre and Film: ‘Richard III’ at Stratford, 1910

  • Russell Jackson
Abstract

The film of F. R. Benson's company in scenes from Richard III, released in 1911 and now available on the BFI's Silent Shakespeare video, was shot on stage in Stratford-upon-Avon, using stock scenery from the Memorial Theatre. Because of this, it is a unique document of Shakespearean production in the period, exemplifying the uneasy relationship between stage and film. The settings can be documented from a number of other sources: the original designs; a photograph of the stage set with the medieval street which appears in two episodes; and a series of postcards – the latter apparently ‘production stills’ of the film. Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, and Julius Caesar were also filmed, but have not survived, though the Stratford archives contain some photographic evidence of them. Russell Jackson is Deputy Director of the Shakespeare Institute, the University of Birmingham's graduate school of Shakespeare studies in Stratford-upon-Avon. Recently he has published a translation of a work by Theodor Fontane, Shakespeare in the London Theatre, 1855–58 (Society for Theatre Research, 1999), and he is editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film.

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Notes and References

I am grateful for the enthusiasm and support of the archival and photographic staff of the Shakespeare Centre Library and the Records Office of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and for suggestions by colleagues and students at the Shakespeare Institute, particularly Mary Allen, Lauren Bergquist, and John Jowett. All illustrations in this article are reproduced by kind permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

1. The BFI's video Silent Shakespeare (BFI VO46) was issued in Spring 1999. Richard III was originally released in 1911, and appears to have been made in 1910, although the evidence for this is not conclusive. The notes accompanying the video, by Luke McKernan, give 1911 as the film's date and the video transfer is headed – probably wrongly – with the theatre's 1911 cast list, which is also included in Walking Shadows (see below). On the film itself, see Rothwell, Kenneth S. and Melzer, Annabelle Henkin, Shakespeare on Screen: an International Filmography and Videography (London, 1990), p. 237–6 (No. 498); McKernan, Luke and Terriss, Olwen, Walking Shadows: Shakespeare in the National Film and Television Archive (London, 1994), p. 136; Ball, Robert Hamilton, Shakespeare on Silent Film: a Strange Eventful History (London, 1968), p. 84–8, 322–33; Low, Rachel, The History of the British Film, 1906–1914 (London, 1949). On the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre: Pringle, Marian J., The Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1875–1992: an Architectural History (‘Stratford-upon-Avon Papers’, No. 5, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1994); Beauman, Sally, The Royal Shakespeare Company: a History of Ten Decades(Oxford, 1982); Trewin, J. C., Benson and the Bensonians (London, 1960).

2. Ball, Shakespeare on Silent Film, p. 83. Like other commentators, Ball draws attention to the film's technical limitations: it consists largely of ‘incomprehensible illustrations of subjects described by titles, of unrecognizable people doing unintelligible things’.

3. Low has no precise date for the release of Richard III, but indicates release dates for Julius Caesar (25 March 1911), Macbeth (9 April), and The Taming of the Shrew (22 April). The BFI copy of Richard 111 is 1,324 ft long: Low lists it as ‘two reels’, and gives lengths of 1,120 ft and 1,360 ft for the Shrew and Macbeth respectively, but no figure for Julius Caesar (The History of the British Film. 1906–1914, Appendix).

4. On filming techniques and conditions c. 1910–14 and the use of scenery from stage productions of plays, see Low, Rachel, The History of the British Film, 1906–1914 (London, 1949) and 1914–1918 (London, 1950.) As Low observes, the fixed camera and one-shot-per-scene composition of this film are primitive, even for 1910.

5. Album of scene designs, Shakespeare Centre Library, Stratford-upon-Avon. Some designs have been removed for display, and a stock list corresponding to the album's contents appears to have been lost. It nevertheless constitutes an impressive and unusual record of the stock scenes needed in the period for the production of the standard repertoire (Shakespeare, ‘old English comedy’, and the odd Victorian play). John O'Connor (who died in 1888, aged 58) was at one time ‘stock scene-painter under [J. B.] Buckstone at the Hay-market’ in the mid-1860s, and was the uncle of the scenic artist Harker, Joseph, who refers to him in his Studio and Stage (London, 1924). See Southern, Richard, ‘Scenery at the Book League’, Theatre Notebook, V (19501951), p. 35–8.

6. Other photographs of stage settings in the old theatre include the scenes from Richard II and As You Like It reproduced by Beauman (both plays) and Trewin (Richard II). Few of the portrait photographs show stage scenery, although Trewin reproduces (opposite page 128) an image of Benson as King Lear in front of one of the stock stone wall flats. The four snapshots taken by the theatre's librarian, Brassington, W. Salt, showing what has been assumed – quite reasonably – to be a rehearsal for Julius Caesar, c. 1909, are in the collection of his papers in the Record Office of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, files DR860/176–9. Crosse's, GordonShakespearean Playgoing, 1890–1952 (London, 1953) includes one of the Richard III postcards (Richard and the princes).

7. Benson Company Julius Caesar promptbook, Shakespeare Centre Library, 72.915. Ripley, John, in ‘Julius Caesar’ on Stage in England and America, 1599–1973 (Cambridge, 1980), reproduces (p. 187) another photograph of the company, clearly rehearsing the forum scene – but not, it seems, at Stratford.

8. Talbot, Frederick A., Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked, ‘Conquests of Science’ series (London, 1912), p. 114.

9. Low, The History of the British Film, 1914–1918, p. 225.

10. Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Governors' Minutes, Shakespeare Centre Library. According to a one-page leaflet in the theatre's archive (Shakespeare Memorial Theatre: an Account of the Act Drop, n.d.), the act-drop, first seen when the theatre opened in 1879, was repaired in 1895, and ‘restored and in part repainted’ in 1903. Its imaginary scene of Queen Elizabeth on her way to the Globe theatre ‘form[ed] a prelude to the plays of Shakespeare as acted upon the stage of the Memorial Theatre’.

11. Electric stage lighting was installed in 1907 (Pringle, p. 22). On film lighting (and the use of purple closed arc lamps), see Low, The History of the British Film, 1914–1918, p. 224–5.

12. On paintings on this subject by Millais and others, see Strong, Roy, ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ The Victorian Painter and British History (London, 1978), p. 119–21. The context of ‘classic’ film subjects (historical, literary, biblical) in popular culture of the period is discussed by Uricchio, William and Pearson, Roberta E., Refraining Culture: the Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films (Princeton, New Jersey, 1993).

13. On the stage traditions accumulated by this play, see Sprague, A. C., Shakespeare and the Actors (Cambridge, Mass., 1944), and Shakespeare's Histories: Plays for the Stage (London, 1964); Colley, Scott, Richard's Himself Again: a Stage History of III‘Richard 111’ (New York, 1992); and Hankey, Julie, ed., Plays in Performance: ‘Richard III’ (Bristol, 1988)

14. Gordon Crosse, ‘Shakespeare Plays I Have Seen’, MS diary, 21 vols., Birmingham Shakespeare Library, III, p. 96 (subsequently referred to as ‘Crosse, Diaries’).

15. Crosse, Diaries, in, p. 92. Reviewing his responses five decades later, in Shakespearean Playgoing (London, 1953), Crosse wrote that ‘after wiping his sword on his victim's coat [Richard] seized him by the ankles and lugged him out over his shoulder like a sack of coals’ (p. 32).

16. Scott Colley quotes from other accounts of Benson's ‘mesmerism’ in the scene with Lady Anne in Richard's Himself Again, p. 147.

17. On the process of filming Richard III and the other ‘lost’ films of Benson's company, as described by Eleanor Elder and Violet Farebrother (Queen Elizabeth), see Trewin, Benson and the Bensonians, p. 176–7. See also Manvell, Roger, Shakespeare and the Film (London, 1971; revised reprint, 1979), p. 19: his informant was ‘Mrs. Basil Rathbone’. The hectic procedures of film acting and directing are described in Talbot's Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked. The cinema needs experienced professional actors from the theatre, ‘though at times it demands indescribable patience and perseverance, if not bullying, on the part of the producer to compel the professional to adapt himself to changed conditions and realize the differences between the two phases of the histrionic art’ (p. 150).

18. , Crosse, Diaries, I, p. 35–8 (1893); III, p. 94 (1901).

19. The backcloth of the forum set, dimly perceived, may be that designed by Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema. See Trewin, p. 85–6. Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema had provided some of the designs for an Oxford amateur production in 1889, and Benson seems to have acquired these: see also Rosrron, David, ‘F. R. Benson's Early Productions of the Roman Plays at Stratford-upon-Avon’, Theatre Notebook, XXV (19701971), p. 248–54. Trewin's note implies that the Julius Caesar production had survived the disastrous fire that destroyed most of the company's stock scenery and costumes in 1900.

20. Thomas, Lindsey, in her study of the Memorial's Art Gallery (M.Phil, thesis, Shakespeare Institute, 1999), points out that Brassington made the first photographic record of the collection's contents.

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New Theatre Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0266-464X
  • EISSN: 1474-0613
  • URL: /core/journals/new-theatre-quarterly
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