The History of The Marlowe Society
The Marlowe Society was founded in May Term 1907 by a group of students including Justin Brooke. It became famous then because it was a reaction against Victorian theatre and tradition, reviving the presentation of Shakespeare in Cambridge which had not been performed since 1886, and importantly raising the standard of verse-speaking by actors. Over the years since, it has met with remarkable success, maintaining these traditions and acting as a nursery of talent and reform. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida was unperformed by actors and misunderstood by academics until The Marlowe Society’s epoch-making production of 1922. In producing a series of plays by Webster and Ben Jonson we restored their work to the professional repertory. The same applied to our production of Marlowe’s Edward II in 1958; and in 1993 we staged Tamburlaine the Great (directed by Tim Supple) for the first time, in its original form, since the seventeenth century.
Other notable productions include a Duchess of Malfi in 1942 which induced Peggy Ashcroft to take the part in the West End, both productions by George Rylands; a White Devil and Measure for Measure which went to Berlin in 1948 in the air-lift as the Foreign Office’s cultural counter-attack to the Red Army Choir; John Barton’s Julius Caesar of 1952 which was acted with Elizabethan pronunciation; a Romeo and Juliet with Barton as Mercutio and Peter Hall as Tybalt which transferred to the Scala, where it was seen by Winston Churchill; Barton’s two parts of Henry IV with McKellen, Jacobi and a notable Falstaff by Clive Swift; the 1958 Edward II with Jacobi directed by Toby Robertson, which was broadcast by the BBC; Corin Redgrave’s production of Henry VI; Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth (1962), which transferred to a giant theatre in Newcastle; Griff Rhys Jones’s rumbustious production of Bartholomew Fair (1977); and Sam Mendes’s memorable Cyrano of 1988 starring Tom Hollander.
In the 1950s The Marlowe Society’s achievements were recognised by the British Council which commissioned us to record the complete, uncut canon of Shakespeare poems and plays, under the direction of George Rylands, in time for the Centennial of 1964. The Observer described the recordings as ‘the most important thing that has happened to [Shakespeare's] work since Heminges and Condell saw it through the press’. These recordings were distributed around the world.
At present there are several strands to the Marlowe’s policy. The Society was founded to explore the Jacobethan repertoire, at that date unknown to the stage. To enable the exploration there was an emphasis on the necessary skills: verse-speaking, clarity and intelligence of direction and acting, the values of ensemble playing, and a corresponding lack of emphasis on scenic spectacle.
Over the years this has generalised as an interest in drama that stretches beyond ordinary realism towards the challenging and imaginative. Something deriving directly from performing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre since 1936 has been the introduction of a professional dimension to student theatre at Cambridge. The stimulus of this last has perhaps been the single most important explanation for the phenomenal success of Cambridge actors and directors in British theatre.
The new century has brought with it new strands to the Marlowe’s dedication to top quality drama, in the form of the promotion of new writing. Meanwhile, the Marlowe continues working to continue those traditions established decades ago – in 2007 the Society celebrated its centenary with a dinner auction hosted by Griff Rhys-Jones in Wilton’s Music Hall and a production of Cymbeline by Trevor Nunn in Cambridge Arts Theatre.
In 2013 we embarked upon one of our most adventurous projects yet with The Marlowe Festival, a year long-celebration of Marlowe's 450th birthday. From Michael Oakley's Dido, Queen of Carthage at the Senate House to Drew Mulligan's Doctor Faustus at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, we staged every Christopher Marlowe play across Cambridge, along with readings of Marlowe's poetry. In 2015 we marked the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt with a production of Henry V in the Cambridge Arts Theatre, directed by Lisa Blair.
For those interested in the history of the Marlowe, and the influence it has had on British theatre in general, Tim Cribb, the chair of the society, has published a book - Bloomsbury and British Theatre.
From the book’s publisher:
'The story this book reveals has never been told before. Everyone knows about the Bloomsbury Group and their influence on art and style, on literature, life and manners, even on psychology and economics. But hitherto no one suspected that they have an equally profound influence on English theatre, especially on productions of Shakespeare, most especially on the foundation of the RSC. New research now traces the connections from William Poel and the Elizabethan Stage Society in the late Nineteenth Century to the foundation of the Marlowe Dramatic Society in Cambridge in 1907. Rupert Brooke is an early and active member and his friendships with Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey link the new Society to Bloomsbury. The link is developed after the First World War by another friend of Woolf and Strachey and legendary don of King’s College, George (“Dadie”) Rylands, who directs Marlowe Society productions from 1929 to 1966. It is yet another member of Bloomsbury and even more legendary don at King’s, Maynard Keynes, who builds the Cambrige Arts Theatre in 1936, managed by Rylands, where the Marlowe Society has performed ever since. This is the Theatre that Peter Hall haunts as a schoolboy and acts in as a student, in productions of Shakespeare directed by Rylands and (King’s College again!) John Barton. In 1959 Barton leaves King’s to join Peter Hall at the foundation of the RSC. From the same nursery of talent come Trevor Nunn, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and many others, the so-called Cambridge Mafia. The continuity is so remarkable that in the perspective of this history one might almost call them the Bloomsbury Group in disguise.'