Sometimes we who value preservation of important aspects of our past fail to band together to make certain that more recent history is protected as well. The loss of the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford this morning is a perfect example.
First conceived in 1950 by Lawrence Langner, with the financial support of Lincoln Kirstein and philanthropist Joseph Verner Reed, plans were drawn and the State granted a charter to the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Academy. After the town of Westport turned down plans to build there in 1953, land was procured in Stratford and construction began in 1954. Completed in 1955 for a total cost of $1 million, the complex opened on July 12 with the production of Julius Caesar.
Over the next two decades, some of America’s greatest performers plied their trade and showcased their skills in performing most of Shakespeare’s best known works. Katharine Hepburn, Raymond Massey, Jessica Tandy, Robert Ryan, and countless other well-known actors graced the theater’s stage. John Houseman and Norman Lloyd were among the better known directors.
If you grew up in Easton and attended Joel Barlow during the theater’s heyday in the 1960’s, you had the unique opportunity to see not one, but multiple performances of Shakespeare’s work performed here. Annual excursions were held by the school with students being bussed to Stratford for matinee performances. I remember being treated to the talents of Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes in their waning years. I recall at least three plays that we saw there as Barlow students: King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet.
By the early 1970’s the theater was struggling to survive. Fewer plays were staged each season and other promoters began to lease the venue during the off-season to present concerts. Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Gordon Lightfoot all readily come to mind. While these concerts were well attended, the 1,500 seat capacity of the theater was simply too small to support the costs of bringing in big name entertainers on a regular basis.
In 1983, facing almost certain foreclosure, the failing organization sold the venue to the State of Connecticut. Over the next several years various productions were held with limited success and in September of 1989, the final event was a one-man production of The Tempest. In 1991 the theater was cut from the State budget and the death spiral of the building began.
Over the past 25 years several proposals have been presented and various entities formed with the intent to restore and revive the deteriorating structure. The town became the owner of the property and the 14-acres that it sits on is protected from development, but the inability of town leaders to complete agreements with private investors interested in restoring and restructuring the venue led to years of decay.
All that resulted in the ultimate Shakespearean tragedy early this morning when the main protagonist of this story, the theater itself, met a violent and tragic death when it was completely consumed by fire. Somehow, it seems so unnecessary. If only those of us who truly value history had put forth a unified effort to save this venue while it was still truly salvageable, perhaps our children and grandchildren would someday savor another performance of King Lear right here in nearby Stratford.