A marvelous account of the world’s first literary festival.
Early on in this delightful book, Stott (English/Univ. of Southern California; The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters, 2014, etc.) notes that after Shakespeare’s death in 1616 “his plays quickly fell from the repertoire.” When Charles II became king in 1660, public performances were encouraged, and works by Ben Jonson and others flourished. Shakespeare’s plays—sometimes heavily revised—and his reputation made a comeback thanks to cheap editions of his works. In 1769, the great English actor David Garrick, “fast on his way to becoming the most famous man in Britain,” decided to celebrate the Bard with a grand Jubilee in sleepy Stratford-upon-Avon. Stott chronicles in luscious detail the ups and downs of the event, from the extensive preparations to the key players involved, including Garrick’s younger brother, George. James Boswell, soon to be author of a masterful biography of Samuel Johnson, called it a “festival of genius.” Johnson “dismissed the Jubilee with scorn.” The Stratford townspeople were apprehensive. Who would pay for it? Where would the anticipated 3,000 visitors stay? Tickets, signed by Garrick, portraits of Garrick and Shakespeare, and commemorative ribbons were issued. A statue of Shakespeare was erected in Stratford, and a massive, wooden rotunda to host balls, dinners, and stage events built. Unfortunately, the event was met with unceasing rain. Roofed chairs carried visitors through the mud, and a pageant was cancelled. Garrick’s lengthy Ode to the “blest genius of the isle” was delivered by the ringmaster himself, with musical accompaniment followed by an elaborate fireworks display that fizzled in the cold rain. As Stott writes, Jubilee was “a defining moment in our cultural history, and one that goes to show how, through a confluence of intent, mishap, and grubby self-interest, the most glorious and enduring of myths was made.”
A thoroughly enjoyable and engaging literary history.