The Bard’s Dramas

The Bard’s Dramas

In May 1916, the La Jolla Woman’s Club put on a production of Shakespeare plays to commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of the bard’s death. Similar events took place all over the English-speaking world, from great cities like London and New York to small towns throughout England and the USA. At a time when World War I threatened to eclipse “the light of civilization,” ordinary people turned to Shakespeare to express their hopes, fears, and dreams.

The Drama League of America first conceived plans for a national Shakespeare tercentenary celebration at their convention in 1914. Over the next two years, thousands of groups began to organize performances of plays, talks on Shakespearian themes, tree and garden plantings, as well as outdoor pageants and masques. Hollywood, meanwhile, produced both Antony and Cleopatra and two rival versions of Romeo and Juliet. By 1916, the country had erupted into “a veritable Shakespeare frenzy,” according to one historian.

The La Jolla Woman’s Club (LJWC) embraced the idea of bringing Shakespeare to the village. Started as a book club, the organization had been drawn into civic activism, continuing education, and volunteer work. At the start of the Great War in 1914, members collected clothing for Belgian refugees and knit socks, balaclava helmets, and other items for soldiers in the field. The 1915 opening of a new clubhouse, equipped with dressing rooms and a stage, made it possible for LJWC to return to its literary roots by hosting a pageant dedicated to Shakespeare.

The LJWC Pageant took place on Monday, April 24, 1916. Mary Richmond and Margaret Knudsen, chair of the drama committee, succeeded in putting one hundred people in Elizabethan costume. The afternoon event began with a procession through the clubhouse headed by Queen Elizabeth I (played by club president Dr. Mary Ritter), Shakespeare, and members of the royal court. Clubwomen, together with their relatives and friends, performed short selections from sixteen plays including Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cymbeline, and Julius Caesar. Ellen Browning Scripps told her sister Virginia, “The tableaux was very good, and the actors splendid both in dress and action.” Afterwards, club loaned their costumes to girls from The Bishop’s School who performed at the exposition grounds in Balboa Park the following Saturday.

La Jolla’s pageant proved so popular that the club reproduced it for the public two months later, on May 19. People packed the streets and sidewalks to see an open-air procession at twilight. According to one journalist, it appeared as if Elizabethan characters had come to life under the graceful arches and arcades of the modern concrete clubhouse.

A year later, in 1917, the US had entered the European war. No doubt, the words of Shakespeare echoed in the minds of many La Jolla women as they considered their nation’s sacrifice. Ellen Browning Scripps, for one, prayed that someday the world’s battles would not be fought with cannon and shells, overhead zeppelins and submarines, but through athletic competitions. “And I think we would all echo Shakespeare’s cry,” she wrote, “May God hasten the Day!”

[This article was published in the La Jolla Historical Society’s Timekeeper, vol. 35, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2016): 8]

Photo courtesy of The La Jolla Historical Society.