British Empire Shakespeare Society

In 1954, while Ruby Ginner was heading for retirement and the Ginner-Mawer School of Dance and Drama was being wound up, Irene Mawer continued to teach in Cheltenham for three days a week (Cheltenham Chronicle, 2nd Oct 1954).  I don’t know where the classes were held, but throughout her life, Miss Mawer taught wherever she was able to find employment – she was not restricted to working only within the confines of the Ginner-Mawer School.  At the same time as the three days of teaching per week, Irene mawer also produced ‘Twelfth Night’ for the British Empire Shakespeare Society (BESS) (Cheltenham Chronicle 02/10/1954).  

This was a society set up in 1901 to promote Shakespeare around the globe, or at least the large part of the globe which was under British influence at that time “…to diffuse widely among our fellow-countrymen, both in Great Britain and in all parts of the Empire, a knowledge and love of the greatest dramatic poet the world has ever known…” (Anon. The Free Lance, 1902, on the ‘Learning on Screen’ website).  BESS is no longer in existence in our modern age, and I can’t find out when or why it folded, but I do know that it was started by Greta Merritt, though I don’t know who she was (info from Susan Brock on the Oxford Reference website).  

The Society’s aim of promoting Shakespeare’s works around the British Empire was achieved by the co-ordination of all-things Shakespeare, such as reading circles, public readings of Shakespeare’s works and recital of his work by people in costume.  I can see that this would have been a society close to Irene Mawer’s heart.

The website of Learning on Screen (British Universities Film and Video Council) notes that to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday in 1923 a BBC radio programme of one and a half hours was initiated by BESS, where excerpts of Shakespeare’s works were read out by actors from the Old Vic Theatre Company.  In addition, BESS ‘sponsored essay and recitation contests and performances of Shakespeare, and published editions of the plays designed for amateur group reading’.  (Cf: Kahn’s article ‘Remembering Shakespeare Imperially: The 1916 Tercentenary’ in Shakespeare Quarterly.  52.4 (2001) p459n13.)

“In the periodical readings arranged in London by the BESS we are presented with Shakespeare ‘as he is wrote’.  We are given the traditional text and the traditional arrangement of scenes; there is no scenery and there are no costumes.  The artists sit round in a circle in their everyday clothes, the scenes and stage direction are indicated by a lady who is described on the programme as ‘stage directions’,’ and the action is carried through from beginning to end without pause.  It is an ordeal from which the works only of the greatest dramatists could emerge with any measure of success…” (Romeo and Juliet: BESS Reading, The Times, 20 March 1923, p10) link

There is no record of how Miss Mawer produced Twelfth Night for the British Empire Shakespeare Society in Cheltenham, but perhaps it was along similar lines to the methods described above.  I also don’t know whether Miss Mawer was paid for this work, or whether she did it on a voluntary basis for the love of Shakespeare.  Certainly, at this point in her life, until her death just eight years later, I think she did not have very much money, so perhaps her art came before all.


Author: Janet Fizz Curtis

Janet Fizz Curtis is trained in the Irene Mawer Method of Mime and Movement and is now writing a book about the life of Irene Mawer.

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