In ‘What Blest Genius?’ Andrew McConnell Stott Tells How Our Greatest Writer Was Enshrined in the Heavens

Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Who is the greatest writer in the English-speaking world? William Shakespeare, of course!

In fact, our readers so love The Bard that one of our all-time most-popular columns (published way back in 2007) is called The Bible and the Barda quiz that, over the past 12 years, has challenged thousands of readers to look at 10 famous phrases and discern which came from the Bible and which were penned by Shakespeare.

Down through the centuries, both have been elevated to the status of Holy Writ. In our collective imagination, Shakespeare is virtually Divine.

However—there was a time—many years, in fact—when Shakespeare was all but forgotten. In fact, the handful of theater professionals who tried to keep his plays in production felt they had every right to “improve” on The Bard. They shortened plays. They combined plays. When theater equipment became more elaborate, they introduced special effects like flying witches. In one era, when Shakespeare’s tragedies seemed too somber, they felt free to completely rewrite their final acts. One long-running version of the blood-soaked tragedy of Macbeth was presented with what became a crowd favorite: a happy ending! (For fans of the play, the “happy” version reveals that Macbeth’s one-time friend Banquo is not dead, after all, and Banquo returns at the end for a “happily ever after” scene.)

Now, historian Andrew McConnell Stott brings us the delightful story of the year when daring British entrepreneurs joined forces with Britain’s greatest actor to officially seal Shakespeare’s reputation for all time. After their Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, a worldwide fascination with his plays arose that eventually evolved into today’s preservation and scholarship of The Bard’s original works.

This is a true story full of all the greed, pride, envy, lust—and also the loftiest purity of passion—that are the highlights of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. This is also a true account of ruthless media professionals flocking to a public spectacle both to the detriment and to the enduring benefit of Shakespeare’s most fervent fans.

Like Freddy Mercury Performing Bohemian Rhapsody at Live Aid

In describing the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon, the author captures one of the defining moments in the history of public performance—like the watershed appearances of Joe Cocker at Woodstock, or Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, or Freddy Mercury and Queen at Live Aid.

What was the crescendo of the festival in 1769 that forever changed the world’s impression of Shakespeare? You might guess it was a show-stopping performance of one of his plays. But, no! In fact, none of his plays were performed at this jubilee.

Instead, the cultural crescendo of the 1769 festival was something so innovative that it startled the audience—a bit like Mercury’s famously over-the-top performance of Bohemian Rhapsody at Live Aid. In 1769, the festival’s transcendent moment was a long poem delivered by Britain’s most famous actor David Garrick, voiced over a soaring orchestral score. As strange as that may sound, Garrick’s “Ode” was such a huge hit that its repeated performance became the heart of a long-running stage play in London after the festival. People could not get enough of it!

This week, I talked about this book—and the lessons of the 1769 festival—with author Andrew McConnell Stott, who was born and raised in Britain but now is Professor of English at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Stott never mentions contemporary comparisons, like Mercury at Live Aid, in his book—but I did ask him about such parallels to help explain the significance to readers.

“As strange as it may sound,” he replied, “I think you’re right to compare Garrick and his performance of the Ode with something like Queen appearing at Live Aid. That is an appropriate comparison.”

A Life-Changing Performance at a Cultural Pilgrimage

Andrew McConnell Stott

Andrew McConnell Stott

“When people first hear that my book is about a Shakespeare Jubilee, they just assume it must have been like Shakespeare festivals today with lots of different plays,” Andrew continued. “But it wasn’t. In fact, they did not perform a single play. This Jubilee was more like other kinds of modern festivals with lots of events and food and souvenirs for sale and dancing. There was a lot of music at the Jubilee. There were formal orchestral performances. There were dances. There was special music written for the festival. There were even troubadours who strolled through the streets serenading the crowds. On the first night, before the rains began and flooded out some of the later events, people who were there wrote that the setting was absolutely magical.

“I can relate to that myself. When I was still a kid of 17, I remember going to Glastonbury, which is sort of a British Woodstock and that was life-changing for me. This Shakespeare Jubilee was life-changing for lots of the people who attended; and then it later made a huge impression on the thousands of people who read all about it in the newspapers; and then there were all the people who went to see the stage show in London; and, for years, there also was a lively trade in festival souvenirs.”

So, I asked Andrew: “Can you help me explain to readers how this all happened—how it rocketed Shakespeare’s reputation into the stratosphere? The crowds weren’t even going to see his plays! This whole festival was built around a famous actor standing up in the festival’s big theater and reciting a very long and flowery poem, this Ode to Shakespeare, with orchestral accompaniment. It’s hard to appreciate how such a moment touched off Shakespeare mania that’s still thriving today—more than 250 years later. What can you tell our readers about why this long poem was such a sensation?”

“The honest answer is: You had to be there,” Andrew said. “That’s the truth about festivals like Woodstock or Glastonbury or Live Aid. You had to be there. And that’s really the heart of this book: I take readers to the Jubilee. That’s the biggest challenge for a writer: Can we capture and reconstruct for readers a moment that was truly ineffable? Once it’s over and done, even the people who attended the event can’t quite put into words how it affected them.

“This is even more difficult to capture for readers, because the truth is that the language of Garrick’s Ode was a hack job. When you read the text of his Ode on the printed page, you can hardly believe anyone was moved by this.

“What was it that was so memorable? How did David Garrick create this Ode? The problem Garrick faced was that—while he was a great actor, the greatest of his age in Britain—he wasn’t a poet. So, he pasted together a tissue of lines he borrowed from Shakespeare and other sources to create this Ode. Then he and his friends devised this whole Jubilee schedule of entertaining events to attract Londoners to pack up and travel to Stratford.”

“Right,” I said. “I could hardly believe the way they seemed to throw in everything they could think of that might attract a crowd! They put on a biblical operetta that had nothing to do with Shakespeare. They even staged a horse race. And, most of the people had a terrific time, despite the fact that they had a terrible time getting to Stratford and then had horrible accommodations. It reminded me of all those legendary stories about the people who made their way to Woodstock—and then the hard time they had with the overwhelmingly large crowd and the rains.”

“I think that was part of what made the Jubilee so special for people,” Andrew said. “We’ve all heard the stories about people who went through so much to reach Woodstock—it became a pilgrimage. And, the people who made it to the Jubilee also faced all kinds of problems. No one had ever held a big public festival like this to celebrate a writer. This was a ‘first’ and the planners got lots of things wrong.

“But they succeeded in convincing people to make this pilgrimage from London to the Jubilee. And one thing that meant was: When people got to the Jubilee, they were ready to witness something historic. They wanted to see the great Garrick at his greatest—and he did not disappoint them! They were ready for his performance—and he delivered it.”

The Roots of Modern Media Frenzies 250 Years Ago

The 18th-Century Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall features (in the niche on the second story) the statue of Shakespeare that was presented to the town by David Garrick at the 1769 Jubilee.

So, one reason to enjoy Andrew’s new book is to learn about the roots of our fascination with cultural milestones in the memories of Baby Boomers—from Woodstock to Live Aid. Another lesson you’ll learn in this book is that the ravages of modern media frenzies stretch way back more than two centuries to this much earlier era when pamphleteering and newspapering were rampant in Britain.

Some Americans already are aware of those overwhelming forces. For example, millions of Methodists look back to their founder John Wesley and quickly learn that he ran his particular religious revolution through pamphlets. In the years not long after the Shakespeare Jubilee, Wesley announced to the whole world that he opposed slavery—and that he urged compassionate care for animals—through pamphlets he printed and widely distributed. As a result of such media campaigns by Wesley and others, including the ongoing work of William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist movement and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were firmly established.

Andrew’s book does mention John Wesley briefly, but he is not trying to explore those other media-fueled movements. That’s perhaps the subject for another entire book, one day. What Andrew does show us quite vividly was the already rapacious media industry that was in full swing in Britain surrounding the 1769 festival.

One of the most entertaining parts of this media-marketing sub-plot of Andrew’s book is the subject of festival souvenirs. Today, entire lavish volumes have been published for collectors of the memorabilia from our modern stars of stage and screen. What Andrew’s new book shows us is: This certainly isn’t an invention of Baby Boomer culture. The roots of celebrity memorabilia stretch back over many centuries.

The mania for Shakespeare souvenirs was so crazy, after 1769, that speculators soon were churning out fakes. For example, according to a popular story, Shakespeare planted a mulberry tree in his back yard, which was cut down by a later owner of the property.

“Today, the idea of cutting down Shakespeare’s tree would be considered a huge crime, but the owner of the property didn’t like tourists invading his back yard to take little cuttings from that tree. He was within his rights in having it cut down,” Andrew summarized in our interview. “So, that wood gets sold to a local carpenter and everybody moves on with their lives. Then, as Shakespeare’s reputation grows, thanks to the efforts of Garrick and others, people who crave some tangible contact with Shakespeare start to crave bits of mulberry.

“There’s an analogy here to the Catholic obsession with relics and things like these ‘fragments of the true cross’ held in reliquaries in churches around the world. In a similar way, there are more bits of ‘Shakespeare mulberry’ today than you could possibly extract from one tree. The trade in these items became absolutely ridiculous. Garrick himself had a chair made of mulberry. There were mulberry spoons and all sorts of other souvenirs.

“This led to another interesting cultural aspect of the Jubilee. Just like today, almost as fast as the mania spread among Shakespeare fans—detractors were ridiculing the whole idea. The obsessive existed side by side with their detractors.”

As Andrew sums up the tale in his book:

“In many respects, the ability to season the dish and adapt Shakespeare to suit one’s own palate is the lasting impression of the Jubilee. For all its paradox and absurdities, Garrick’s revel on the banks of the Avon established the terms under which Shakespeare has infused our culture through the succeeding centuries, as an enduring ghost, ever present yet insubstantial, the weightiest of cultural authorities understood as much by his name and the associations he invokes as by sustained engagement with his works. As such, the Jubilee is 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.”


Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Care to read more?

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WE ALSO CAN RECOMMEND Andrew McConnell Stott’s earlier books,
The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters as well as The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian. In our interview, Andrew points out that the Grimaldi who makes a cameo in his new Shakespeare book is the father of the main character in his 2010 biography. “During his lifetime, Joseph Grimaldi was one of the most famous performers in Britain,” Andrew said. “He was the inventor of the clown figure we know today with white-faced makeup. All white-faced clowns today trace their lineage back to him. He developed a kind of sketch comedy that Americans would be familiar with from the early films of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.”

VISIT THE AUTHOR’S WEBSITETo learn more about Andrew’s work, visit his website.

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