Royal Shakespeare Company Adopts a New Name and Focus Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The professional acting company operating out of Stratford-on-Avon, William Shakespeare’s birthplace and hometown, changed its name as part of a sweeping shift in focus under the leadership of new managing director Peter Hall.

Summary of Event

The redesignation of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company as the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 represented both a culmination and a beginning for the theater troupe, which had been performing at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon for more than four decades. They were themselves the inheritors of a stage that had been used by touring companies for almost half a century previously. These groups had been coming to the village on the banks of the Avon River every year to participate in a festival honoring the city’s most famous son, William Shakespeare Shakespeare, William , on the occasion of his birthday. Royal Shakespeare Company Theater;companies [kw]Royal Shakespeare Company Adopts a New Name and Focus (1961) [kw]Shakespeare Company Adopts a New Name and Focus, Royal (1961) [kw]New Name and Focus, Royal Shakespeare Company Adopts a (1961) Royal Shakespeare Company Theater;companies [g]Europe;1961: Royal Shakespeare Company Adopts a New Name and Focus[06780] [g]United Kingdom;1961: Royal Shakespeare Company Adopts a New Name and Focus[06780] [c]Theater;1961: Royal Shakespeare Company Adopts a New Name and Focus[06780] Hall, Peter Flower, Fordham

These productions had been carefully controlled and were under the supervision of the theater’s executive committee, which had been ruled by members of the Flower family ever since Charles Flower Flower, Charles , a prominent Stratford citizen, had spearheaded a tribute to Shakespeare in the mid-nineteenth century. The memorial company had provided opportunities for serious young actors to work in repertory on numerous Shakespeare productions, during seasons that had extended well beyond the original birthday festival period.

The appointment of Peter Hall as managing director of the company upon the resignation of Byam Shaw Shaw, Byam signaled a new direction for operations of the group. Hall, appointed in November, 1959, assumed his duties on January 1, 1960. He followed Shaw, Anthony Quayle Quayle, Anthony , and Barry Jackson Jackson, Barry in the line of fine directors who had worked to reestablish the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company’s reputation from the low point it had reached during World War II.

Assuming his duties in what has been described as “the frenetic expansionist spirit of the age,” Hall capitalized on the company’s long-standing royal patronage to change the image of the group. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company had been granted a royal charter in 1925; by 1960, however, little had been done to capitalize on that association, although Queen Elizabeth II Elizabeth II[Elizabeth 02] was urging the group to adopt a new name to indicate its status. Hall was quick to seize the chance afforded him. In one of his first moves after assuming directorship of the organization, he moved to rename the building in Stratford the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and he changed the name of the permanent company playing there to the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Hall saw the name change as significant for two reasons. First, it allowed him to “jettison the somewhat funereal Victorian associations of ’Memorial’”; second, he believed the change would be seen by the public as a signal that the company was indeed taking off in a new direction. Such a move was necessary, since the Stratford operation was not highly thought of in London, the center of English (and world) theater at the time. Though many big-name stars had played at Stratford with the regular members of the company for years, most theater fans still thought of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre as a countrified operation not worthy of sophisticated Londoners’ time.

Although the prudent fiscal management of the Flower family had helped keep the theater and its acting company in the black for most of the years it had operated, there was still a stigma attached to the entire organization. The best young actors from the company often left to take roles in London or, by the end of the 1950’s, in films. Rising stars such as Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton (soon to be followed by others such as Diana Rigg and Glenda Jackson) departed after a season or two for more lucrative offers in locations more cosmopolitan than were the sleepy banks of the Avon.

Hall had far-reaching ideas for expansion of the company’s operations, and even before he was named managing director, he had secured the approval of executive council chairman Fordham Flower to strike out in new directions. The most significant change he wished to make, concurrent with the adoption of a new name, was the establishment of a London center at which the company could perform regularly. Hall saw this as a way of getting his actors before larger audiences and allowing them to perform in modern dramas, thereby affording them variety outside the confines of Elizabethan theater (at Stratford, productions were almost exclusively limited to works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries). Hall also used this opportunity to commission modern works from aspiring young playwrights, among them Robert Bolt and Peter Shaffer, who subsequently established themselves as premier dramatists in England.

Hall was concerned, too, as his predecessors had been, that moves to start a national theater company in London would have a serious negative effect on the Stratford operation. He wanted to be certain that his company was considered national in scope, and not simply a local house operating to commemorate a native son on his home turf. Hall may well have envisioned that, if a national theater were formed, he would be asked to serve as its director—if he could establish his reputation as an executive-level manager with the Royal Shakespeare Company and its theater.


The direct impact of Hall’s renaming the company may not have been immediately apparent to anyone, inside the organization or out. Nevertheless, this shrewd move positioned the “new” Royal Shakespeare Company favorably in the eyes of both the general public and, especially, the political establishment. This favorable new position immediately preceded the government’s embarkation on a radically new venture in public funding: subsidies for theater in Great Britain.

The idea that the country should have a national theater had been percolating in both theater and government circles for decades before Hall’s move to change his company’s title. The National Theatre Act National Theatre Act, British (1949) had been passed in 1949, and from that date efforts had been going on, in a somewhat desultory fashion, to select a site on which to build a theater and to draw up plans for a permanent company to act there. In 1951, the duchess of York (the wife of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II) had laid a cornerstone for a national theater at a site on the south bank of the Thames River in London, near the former site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Nothing was done toward construction of an edifice, but the notion that some action would be taken eventually was, from that moment, on the minds of everyone involved in the English theater.

All plans called for such an operation to be based in London. The Stratford company had perhaps seen itself as a kind of national theater, especially since the centerpiece of its operations had always been the works of England’s and the world’s greatest dramatist. Since the possibility that it would be named the national company was remote, a number of members of the company’s executive committee (especially Fordham Flower) and artistic directors before Hall had worked to ensure the Stratford group’s inclusion in any plans—if for no other reason than to guard against the new national theater’s eclipsing and perhaps bankrupting the Stratford company.

Concurrent with the redesignation of their organization, Hall and Flower took a second bold step, securing the use of the Aldwych Theatre Aldwych Theatre in London so that members of the Royal Shakespeare Company could perform modern plays there. Though the Aldwych operation was never a financial success, the men who ran the Royal Shakespeare Company were acting from political as well as artistic motives: They wanted to be sure that their company was already operating in London as well as in the provinces when the committee working toward the establishment of a national theater presented its proposals for government subsidy to Parliament. The ploy worked, for as the national theater project moved from concept to reality, the Stratford troupe’s leaders were able to become important figures in negotiations regarding the location of the facility, the organization of the board for the theater, and, most important, the allocation of subsidies.

The project, however, was not without its pitfalls. Fordham Flower and Peter Hall were promised substantial financial help from members of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s cabinet, but they found that their requests were cut substantially. Theater moguls hostile to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s tenure at the Aldwych Theatre convinced politicians that only one company should be designated as “national”—and that the Stratford organization did not merit that designation. Nevertheless, the reputation the company had developed in the early years of Hall’s governance (in part as a result of several brilliant productions directed by Peter Brook Brook, Peter ) was so impressive that the Royal Shakespeare Company became one of only a handful of agencies to be designated for permanent subsidy by the government.

Of course, the government money alone would not have been sufficient to keep the company afloat without private help, and Hall spent considerable time working with the executive committee to continue seeking outside funding for his various projects. Ultimately, he left the Royal Shakespeare Company to take control of its new rival, the National Theatre Company.

The decades following receipt of government subsidies were not without difficulties, and on occasion, the company found itself struggling to recover from financial deficit despite the money it received. Nevertheless, Hall’s successors, notably Trevor Nunn Nunn, Trevor , who followed him as managing director, were able to build on the successes enjoyed by the company in the early 1960’s, and the Royal Shakespeare Company became recognized as fully deserving of the support of the government. The British theatergoing public, moreover, continued to travel to Stratford-on-Avon to see the Bard’s work performed by a group of professionals dedicated to keeping alive the works of Shakespeare and the traditions of the Elizabethan stage.

The significance of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the history of the British theater has been aptly summarized by Sally Beauman, the author of a study of the company: “All the major changes that have affected the macrocosm of British theatre over the past hundred years,” she notes, “can be seen in microcosm in the development of Stratford and its companies”; not the least of these changes, she notes, has been “the restitution of Shakespeare to the centre of the classical repertoire.” Hall’s strategy of renaming his group the “Royal Shakespeare Company” immediately gave the organization the national stamp it needed to continue its work amid increasing competition in a healthy theater environment. Royal Shakespeare Company Theater;companies

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Addenbrooke, David. The Royal Shakespeare Company: The Peter Hall Years. London: William Kimber, 1974. Detailed analysis of Peter Hall’s efforts to reshape the image of the Royal Shakespeare Company and of his ongoing battle to gain subsidies from the British government for the company’s operations. Includes information from numerous interviews with company members and Hall himself. Illustrated with photographs from company productions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beauman, Sally. The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Comprehensive study of the company from its founding to its inclusion in the nationally subsidized theater consortium in Great Britain during the later years of the twentieth century. Focuses on the personages who shaped the organization and the tensions between the business and artistic aspects of mounting productions. Photographs of several memorable actors and productions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chambers, Colin. Inside the Royal Shakespeare Company: Creativity and the Institution. New York: Routledge, 2004. A history of the institution devoted to analysis of the extent to which its institutional status enabled or stifled innovation in the staging of Shakespeare, as well as the work of other playwrights. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Other Spaces: New Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. London: Methuen, 1980. Outlines the Royal Shakespeare Company’s venture into alternative theater under the leadership of feminist radical Buzz Goodbody. Includes an introductory chapter on the company’s struggles during the years immediately after its receipt of government subsidies. Examines several Shakespearean and modern productions presented in alternative formats.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coveny, Michael. “The NT and the RSC.” Drama 150 (Winter, 1983): 4-8. Examines the history of the rival companies that fought over government subsidy during the early 1960’s. Helpful for understanding why both the National Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company believed themselves to have been treated less than favorably by each other and by the government. Traces the development of both companies into the early 1980’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">David, Richard. Shakespeare in the Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Overview of important productions of Shakespearean dramas during the years 1949 to 1976. Includes significant discussions of Royal Shakespeare Company performances and good comparisons to the offerings of other companies. Richly illustrated with photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, John, ed. Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company, 1960-1963. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1964. Photographic summary of major productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company during the first four years under Peter Hall’s management. Shows some of the innovations introduced by Hall and those he hired. Includes essays on the theater and on acting by Hall and Robert Bolt; reprints selections from reviews and editorials concerning the productions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Peter. Peter Hall’s Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle. Edited by John Goodwin. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Selections from Hall’s private diaries kept during the years 1972 to 1980, after he left the Royal Shakespeare Company for the National Theatre Company. Useful for tracing the influences of Hall’s experiences at Stratford on his work and for understanding the relationship between the National Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

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Categories: History