Friday, April 15, 2016

The Hiartville Shakespeare Club

Belle Marshall Locke (1867–1933)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

Abilene Shakespeare Club, 1910. Image courtesy of the Grace Museum of Abilene, TX.
The July 23, 1898, issue of The New York Times, published a reply to a previous query about “how to conduct a Shakespeare Club.” The author of the response, Henry Perkins Goddard, was a Civil War veteran, former journalist, and insurance executive, and—as the president of the Shakespeare Club of Baltimore for twelve years—he offered these words of advice:
We took care that at least half the members were unmarried and that the men were bright and brainy and the women pretty and intelligent. We met fortnightly at each other’s houses and made it an invariable rule to read at least one act of a Shakespeare play and then a paper upon a play or upon some other Shakespeare subject. . . . The secret of our success, to my thinking, lay in the insistence upon the reading of the play, for altogether too many people talk about Shakespeare without reading him, and upon our having refreshments after the literary exercises, no matter of how simple a nature. Here in Baltimore, as one of our lady members said, “It would be impossible to run a flirtation club of two, much less a Shakespeare club of forty without something to eat.”
There were hundreds of Shakespeare clubs formed in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. Unlike the group in Baltimore, however, most were established by and for women. Although contemporary academics often scorned women’s reading groups and similar organizations, literary scholar Katherine West Scheil avers in a recent book that “such tensions seem relatively nonexistent for Shakespeare clubs”; she notes that Harvard professor Francis James Child and Shakespeare editor William J. Rolfe, among others, “actually encouraged women’s study of Shakespeare through editions, works of criticism, and even sometimes club lectures.”

Amateur theater groups of all stripes, however well intended, have long been a target of parodists—and the Shakespeare clubs proved to be no exception. In 1896, shortly after completing a stint as the instructor of the Dartmouth Dramatic Club, acting coach Belle Marshall Locke wrote The Hiartville Shakespeare Club: A Farce in One Act for Girls. It proved to be a small-scale hit; Locke’s skit was a staple of community theater and school thespian groups for more than four decades, and the script went through several editions and printings. Additional information about Locke and about the rise of Shakespeare clubs can be found in James Shapiro’s headnote on the first page of this week’s selection.

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