Though there is no recorded proof, by tradition April 23 is commemorated as William Shakespeare’s birthday. There is a record of his baptism on April 26, 1564 and the custom was for a new born to receive the sacrament within two or three days of the mother giving birth so the 23rd is as good a date as any. Also it happens to be the Feast Day of England’s patron Saint, the Blessed George – so why not celebrate the two at the same time. Though given that the poet is also recorded as having died on April 23rd things could get a bit awkward when planning the party/wake.
I saw my first Shakespeare play when I was ten years old the summer of 1957. My father and I headed out one Friday night into a wild July storm to see, appropriately enough, The Tempest performed by the Earle Grey Shakespeare Players. For some reason I thought it was at Hart House only for us to trudge the five blocks from the Bloor Street streetcar stop in driving rain and be redirect by the porter across the U of T Campus to Trinity College. We arrived at Trinity looking like two drowned country mice. My father was a saint! Normally the performances were outdoors in the beautiful quadrangle but that tempest outside meant The Tempest moved inside to the mock-Tudor splendour of Strachan Hall*.
Earle Grey’s troupe had to be one of the last actor-manager companies in Canada, if not in the English speaking world. He and his wife, Mary Godwin, were English actors who had immigrated to Canada in 1939. They were thespians in the old style and there was nothing Freudian or modern about their productions. Both their manner of playing and productions would probably seem quaint, and sadly perhaps laughable, today as even back in 1956 a new style of playing Shakespeare was taking hold miles away in the little town of Stratford. But they were honest attempts at performing Shakespeare in an uncluttered simple manner. According to Grey his only concept was “to produce historical accurate plays according to the author’s intentions …” and in that to my 10 year old eyes he succeeded.
I can’t honestly say how good or bad that production of The Tempest was, it was long ago and I was ten years old but it was theatre and it was exciting. No doubt Grey’s Prospero was of the old declamatory school and his farewell to his art probably throbbed of the theatrical but I was captured. So much so that I convinced my long suffering father to take two friends and I to see The Taming of the Shrew two weeks later. That night there was no rain, we were under the stars, Kate was tamed, and my love of theatre and Shakespeare deepened.
All’s Well That Starts Well, an article in the Trinity College magazine recounts the story of how a casual stroll along Philosopher’s Walk led to the beginnings of the Festival. It paints a colourful portrait of Grey, Miss Godwin and the company of actors, aspiring young actors, artists, and volunteers that struggled to bring Shakespeare to the Toronto of my childhood and the school rooms of Ontario. It also tells of the melancholy demise of the company that by 1959 appeared to on the edge of better funding, a more adaptable stage and expanding audiences when it lost its home at Trinity College. That and the move of audiences who they had introduced to Shakespeare to the more professional and adventuresome Festival in that little town outside of Toronto. And I must admit I was amongst those who headed off to the lure of Christopher Plummer and Eileen Herlie in Much Ado About Nothing in 1958. Grey and Miss Godwin attempted to find a new home for their Festival but finally gave up and returned to England.
They had left behind a legacy that unfortunately is largely unknown today but tonight at dinner we just may raise a glass not only to the Bard on his 465th birthday/413th death day but also the pioneering couple who planted the seed of my love for Shakespeare and the theatre.
*While researching this post I uncovered the possibility that it was the opening night and there were problems with the lighting in the temporary venue. I seem to have a vague recollection of flickering lights and a period of darkness during the Masque scene.
The word for April 23 is:
Bard /bɑːd/: [archaic noun]
1.1 A professional poet and singer, traditionally one reciting epics and singing verse in praise of princes and brave men.
1.2 A poet
Middle English of Celtic origin from Scottish Gaelic bàrd, Irish bard, Welsh bardd. In Scotland in the 16th century it was a derogatory term for an itinerant musician, but was later romanticized by Sir Walter Scott.
The Bard of Avon (or simply The Bard) is a fairly recent compound noun appearing somewhere between 1880-85.