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Sir Frank Benson and the town of Stratford-upon-Avon

Find out about actor and manager, Sir Frank Benson, and his relationship with the townsfolk of Stratford-upon-Avon, in this blog post inspired by the 'Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war' - The First World War, Shakespeare, and Stratford exhibition at Hall's Croft.

Rebekah Owens

Sir Frank Benson (1858 - 1939) was greatly admired in Stratford-upon-Avon. Many times in the Stratford Herald, tributes are paid to his efforts on behalf of the town - how he restored the Shakespeare canon to the stage, how he rescued theatre from the grip of the late Victorian actor-managers, and how he restored the tradition of British acting in his training and mentoring of young performers.

Sir Frank Benson as Coriolanus. He stands facing the viewer but looking upward to our left. He is wearing traditional Roman costume, with a wide belt from which a sword hangs centrally; he has a chain of office, and his right hand, holds a staff of office
Frank Benson appearing in William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, 1893.

Occasionally, the Herald prints stories of how this appreciation manifested itself and not just in the normal formal votes of thanks and presentations. There are, buried in the dense text of the Herald, stories of Benson that provide an insight into his relationship with the town. They show it to be one of good fellowship and camaraderie. The town was not above teasing Benson and he took it in great good humour.

For example, when Benson received his knighthood in 1916, during the First World War, the town's reception was a lively affair. The bestowal of the knighthood had been a formal one. Benson, still dressed in costume as Julius Caesar, had been knighted in the Royal Box at the Drury Lane Theatre by King George V on the night of a gala performance for the Shakespeare Tercentenary (300th anniversary of his death). When the newly-knighted Benson returned to Stratford with his wife, Constance, they were met at the station by cheering crowds. He was then escorted to the theatre in a landau (a four wheeled carriage) drawn by, not horses, but 'over a score of lusty human beings'.

Even more amusing is the story of his attendance at a concert for wounded soldiers. On arrival at Clopton House War Hospital in Stratford, Benson was escorted to a decorated bath chair drawn by a donkey. He sat astride the donkey and was led to the entertainment by a small band of patients playing on improvised trumpets and a 'drum major', dressed in blue and white hospital pyjamas. The procession marched solemnly on; at least until the donkey, perhaps fed up with its burden, strongly objected!