THE SHAKESPEARE READING SOCIETY 1875 – 2014

A Brief History

The Shakespeare Reading Society (the SRS) is the second oldest surviving Shakespeare Society in the UK. In April 1875 a group of female students at University College, London, under the tutelage of Prof. Henry Morley, decided to open a Society to read and study Shakespeare’s plays. At first membership was restricted to women and they met in private homes but by 1882 they met in the Somerville Club, London WC1 and invited male readers. The founder was Miss Phoebe Darton and the first Hon. Sec. a formidable woman, Sarah Marshall. They hoped to attract three distinct types of members – professional actors and elocutionists, ‘superior’ amateurs and well-read members who would listen and read occasionally. The first recorded reading in public was ‘Romeo & Juliet’ in 1876.

In 1877 Sarah Marshall persuaded Henry Irving to be the first President of the SRS. One year later William Poel became the first professional ‘coach’. In the second decade of the 21C Poel is clearly perceived as a major influence on subsequent Shakespeare productions, amateur and professional. He had been stage manager at the Royal Victoria Coffee House (later the Old Vic) and stage manager for Sir Frank Benson. His SRS productions were put on at the London Institution and other major halls. George Bernard Shaw was often in the audience. Sam Johnson, one of Irving’s Lyceum Company, played Dogberry in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in 1890. Earlier in 1881 Maud Holt (later Lady Tree, the wife of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree) played Ofelia (sic) in Poel’s production of the First Quarto Hamlet at St.George’s Hall. Poel was the lachrymose Dane who spoke very fast. The earliest photographs come from an outdoor reading at Cole Hill House, Fulham.

In 1893 Poel put on ‘Measure for Measure’ at the Royalty Theatre. He built a replica of an Elizabethan theatre on the stage. The list of patrons include Tennyson, Swinburne, Pinero, Oscar Wilde and Henry Arthur Jones.

Poel now founded the Elizabethan Stage Society but the SRS flourished. New readers included Lillah McCarthy as Lady Macbeth and her future husband, Harley Granville Barker, also read. In 1897 Sir Henry Irving unveiled the first public statue to an actor, Sarah Siddons, on Paddington Green and the SRS helped to raise funds for the memorial. The younger members and readers at this time included the actor Esme Percy and Elsie Fogerty who opened and ran the Central School of Speech and Drama.

On Irving’s death in 1905 Lord Lytton became President to be succeeded by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Tree unveiled the bronze plaque (still to be seen), paid for by the SRS on the site of the first Globe Theatre on London’s Bankside. In 1915 Ellen Terry became a Vice-President and in 1919 she read Beatrice in ‘Much Ado’ . In the audience was her 15 year old great–nephew, John Gielgud. During the next decade Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson read Hamlet. He was to be the next SRS President.

Regular readings took place in the 1920s and 30s. The SRS inaugurated competitions for L.C.C. schools. Despite the Second World War the SRS met, albeit spasmodically. Lord Dunsany became President . After Dunsany’s death in 1957, Sir John Gielgud became the longest serving President; forty-three years until his death in 2000. In the 1980s the Society met in Lord Leighton’s House in Kensington. The Centenary of the Society was celebrated in 1975. In the 1990’s the SRS branched out again with readings at Bankside in support of Sam Wanamaker’s re-creation of Shakespeare’s Globe and in 1994 there was a Gala Evening at Leighton House to celebrate Gielgud’s 90th birthday. Many distinguished guests came including Sir Ian McKellen, Michael Williams, Dame Dorothy Tutin and Dame Judi Dench who became our first female President in 2000. Our Vice Presidents in recent years have included Sir Donald Sinden and, until his recent death, Richard Briers.

As Shakespeare said ‘Society is the happiness of life’!

Frances Hughes