The Merry Wives of Windsor (06/19/1956)

Shatner’s last Stratford production.

Stratford’s 1956 season kicked off with the already discussed Henry V. On the following night, another Shakespeare play debuted: The Merry Wives of Windsor. In this production, Shatner played yet another of his “romantic young man” roles, a character type that he had basically been playing for the last 3+ years on the regional Canadian theater circuit and at Stratford.

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Henry V (06/18/1956)

Shatner’s Big Night

For the third consecutive summer, Shatner headed back to Stratford, Ontario for what would turn out to his last season performing in the Shakespeare Festival. For this fourth season of the festival (Shatner’s third) there would be one major change, though.

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Tamburlaine the Great (01/19/1956)

Shatner on Broadway!

On January 19th, 1956, William Shatner performed on Broadway for the very first time in Tamburlaine the Great. Less than four years out of college (where he took not one acting class) this must have felt like an enormous achievement if not a dream come true for the young Canadian. Directed by the British director Tyrone Guthrie, Tamburlaine the Great looks like an elaborate spectacle of a play and was intentionally designed as a limited engagement of 12 weeks at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre.

Instead, it ran for less than 3 weeks and only 20 total performances.

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The Merchant of Venice (06/29/1955)

The third and final major play performed at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada in 1955 was the Bard’s own, The Merchant of Venice. Probably most famous (or infamous to today’s modern audience) for the character of Shylock, a horribly stereotypical Jew, this somewhat dark comedy also has a fair bit of nuance that is often overlooked plus an intelligent, beautiful and resourceful woman as the leading character. Don’t get too excited though, this role would have still gone to a man in Shakespeare’s time.

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King Oedipus (06/29/1955)

Same as it ever was.

In 1954, Stratford’s Artistic Director, Tyrone Guthrie, decided to put on two plays by Shakespeare and then branch out and do a third play not by the Bard. That third play, Oedipus Rex, must have been quite a success because the following year Guthrie decided to again stage a third non-Shakespeare play. This time around, he opted to do King Oedipus.

King Oedipus is simply the English title of Oedipus Rex. They are the same damn play.

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Julius Caesar (06/27/1955)

Shatner returns to the stage!

After a very productive (but not very lucrative) season of television working for the CBC in Toronto, and directly following his appearance in “Billy Budd,” William Shatner packed his bags and headed back out to Stratford for the 1955 season. It was the festival’s third year, and Shatner’s second there, and it meant about four months of steady work and experience. Television was just a day job, a way to make ends meet for actors. The real goal, for Shatner at least, was to become a stage actor on Broadway. To get there though, he would need to continue to save up enough money for the move as well as to firmly establish his bona fides as a theater actor. Progress could made on both of these fronts at Stratford.

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Oedipus Rex (07/14/1954)

Oedipus Rex. Widely considered the greatest of all the extant Greek plays and the granddaddy of all tragedies, it was written by Sophocles and first performed around 429 B.C. If you ever went to school, chances are that you read, studied and/or learned about Oedipus Rex. Even if you have never heard of it directly, its themes of the “tragic flaw”, of fate and free will and of the futile struggle to change what is destined to happen have been a fixture of drama for the last two and a half centuries.

The third and final production to be mounted at Stratford in 1954, Oedipus Rex was also the very first play performed at the festival that was not written by Shakespeare. As related in my previous post on Taming of the Shrew, director Tyrone Guthrie was certainly not adverse to taking a classic play and, through dress and stage direction, modernizing it in some fashion. For Oedipus Rex, however, he did the exact opposite.

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The Taming of the Shrew (06/29/1954)

Introducing…Mr. William Shatner!

William Shatner is often introduced or referred to as being a “classically trained” actor, referring to those actors who have had formal training in Shakespearean theater. Indeed, when Shatner was hired for Star Trek, one of the (many, many) selling points was that he came from just such a classical training background. And when people criticize his acting for being a bit too broad, defenders (and critics alike) point to his classical background as being the main culprit for that style. But there is one person who makes a point of never referring to William Shatner as being classically trained, and that person is William Shatner himself.

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Measure for Measure (06/28/1954)

Shatner meets the Bard…and his first big break.

In my 1953 – Shatner Year in Review post, I gave a brief overview of the history of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and noted that it was an almost instant sensation in its first year. I also mentioned that Shatner was, according to him, approached to join the inaugural company but turned it down, thinking that the festival was a dubious prospect that would most likely fail. He was, of course, extremely wrong.

If the first year was a success beyond most people’s wildest dreams, the second season of the festival, in 1954, was even more blockbuster and truly cemented the Stratford Festival as one of the premiere theaters in North America and around the world. Artistic Director Tyrone Guthrie, in collaboration with Tanya Moiseiwitsch, continued to revolutionize Shakespearean theater (and theater in general) with the “thrust stage.” For the second season, capacity in the theater was increased greatly simply by moving the tent poles (yes, the theater was under a big tent) from the inside of the theater to the outside. The tickets sold almost doubled, from an astounding 68,599 in 1953 to 125,155 the following year. Another play was added, bringing the total number to three, and that added third play (Oedipus Rex) wasn’t even written by Shakespeare! The season doubled to 9 weeks, and by the second weekend they were basically sold out for the remaining 1954 run.

This, all before the internet made it incredibly simple for people to buy tickets to just about anything from just about anywhere. Seriously, think about it…to get tickets to a performance (or performances) of the Stratford Festival in 1954, one had to travel by car, bus or train to Stratford directly (which was not exactly a destination in and of itself) and wait in a line at the box office to purchase tickets. Then, you would return home (usually a journey of at least an hour) and then come back on the day or days that your purchased tickets were good for. The failing town of Stratford, propped up by the hope and money of its citizens in an effort to save their hometown, transformed literally almost overnight from a train hub and manufacturing depot into a thriving artistic tourist destination.

Shatner was invited once again to join the company, and this time he jumped at the chance.

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