The Brisbane Shakespeare Society

Guest blogger: Rebecca Clarke.

Following the First World War, Brisbane experienced a flourishing literary and cultural scene, marked most prominently by the founding of a remarkable number of cultural societies including the Brisbane Shakespeare Society. Formally established in December 1919, the Society aimed to be a “rallying point for the intellectuals of the country” by offering a place where the study of Shakespeare could be admired and encouraged.

Brisbane Shakespeare Society - Julius Caesar. From The Queenslander, 15 June, 1918. Image 702692-19180615-0028

Brisbane Shakespeare Society – Julius Caesar. . Image 702692-19180615-0028

Brisbane Shakespeare Society - Henry V, 1918. Image 702692-19180504-0022

Brisbane Shakespeare Society – Henry V, 1918. Image 702692-19180504-0022

Under the direction of members such as Professor Joseph Jeremiah Stable, the Society placed great importance on Shakespearean education for school students. Beginning in the 1920s, Shakespeare’s plays became a compulsory part of secondary school examinations. As a response to this, the Society staged the set plays each year for the benefit of Brisbane students. The plays were deemed a wonderful success, with the number of students attending rising each year – from 125 students attending Othello in 1932 to 816 attending A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1941.

J.J. Stable, member of the Brisbane Shakespeare Society. Image - The Week, October 6, 1922

J.J. Stable, member of the Brisbane Shakespeare Society. Image – The Week, October 6, 1922

Similarly, the Society also encouraged the study of Shakespeare through its annual Brisbane Shakespeare Eisteddfod. Held from 1924 until 1936, the competition tested student’s elocution skills reciting Shakespearean verse.

'Complete Works of Shakespeare' won at the 1926 Brisbane Shakespeare Eisteddfod. From Rebecca Clarke's personal collection

‘Complete Works of Shakespeare’ won at the 1926 Brisbane Shakespeare Eisteddfod. From Rebecca Clarke’s personal collection

Amongst the Brisbane community more widely, the Society made itself visible through public events such as the Brisbane Centenary Celebrations in 1924 and the Royal Shakespearean Ball and Pageant in 1920. Attended by Edward, Prince of Wales during his tour of Australia, the Ball was a highly successful event for the Society. Held at the John Bridge and Co.’s wool store, the Ball comprised a dinner, dance, and pageant with the guests numbering over 2000.

Shakespeare Ball held in Brisbane to commemorate the Prince of Wales' visit to Queensland,1920. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 196983

Shakespeare Ball held in Brisbane to commemorate the Prince of Wales’ visit to Queensland,1920. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 196983

Welcome sweet prince, Shakespeare Ball and Pageant in Brisbane, 30 July 1920 (SLQ collection)

Sadly, by the Second World War the golden age of the Society came to a close. In 1942 after more than 25 years of continuous operation, the Brisbane Shakespeare Society brought an end to their meetings due to the military service of a number of council members their inability to stage a play that year. A revival of the Society was attempted in the early 1950s, but this failed to garner the same momentum as the inter-war society. Now little-known, the Society was none-the-less a significant force in Brisbane’s cultural landscape during the 1920s and 30s.

Rebecca Clarke

Further reading –