The Ben Greet Players in scenes from As You Like It
Photographs from The Craftsman, September 1907
In 1886 the English actor and impresario Ben Greet came up with the novel idea of forming a professional theatre company dedicated to performing plays at outdoor locations. One of his actors later recalled that "the pieces most generally chosen were 'The Tempest,' 'The Dream,' 'Twelfth Night,' and 'As You Like It.' Seasons lasting six weeks were sometimes given in the Botanic Gardens, Regent's Park, while on country tours, care was taken to have an option over a neighbouring playhouse in case of rain - which is not quite unknown In England! In Llandudno (Wales) we played 'The Dream,' in a beautiful natural amphitheatre, known as 'The Happy Valley,' before 10,000 people, a memorably unique occasion." Greet himself explained to an interviewer why they mainly stuck to Shakespeare comedies: "frock coats and grey trousers don’t seem to fit in with the green background of nature. Doublet and hose is the only wear that the public like, and I quite agree with them."
Ben Greet at an outdoor theatre on the shores of Lake Minnetonka
The company was based in America from 1902 to 1914 (when Greet returned to London to take over the Old Vic) and a Google search will reveal various references to their performances in old newspapers. In June 1911 for example they were in Princeton: '"A Midsummer Night's Dream," which will be given to-night, is above all plays, adapted to outdoor production and has been produced with much favor at many colleges. The woodland effect will be easily achieved on the Princeton campus, and the performance should be both charming and instructive'. In 1908 President Roosevelt invited Greet's Woodland Players to perform on the lawn of the White House - on this occasion they opted for a play based on Greek myth rather than a Shakespeare comedy. However, it wasn't all plain sailing: 'Greet, ever mindful of the box-office, was convinced, during one Canadian alfresco matinee, that two latecomers had slipped into the back row without paying — they were discovered to be two bears.'
'The poetic value of forest settings'
To what extent did the outdoor environment and surrounding landscape affect the way people experienced these plays? Some anecdotes are given in a 1907 article in The Craftsman by Selene Ayer Armstrong, entitled 'Under the greenwood tree with Ben Greet and his merry woodland players: their happiness in the simple things of life a lesson in the joy of living.' At a performance of The Tempest on the shore of Lake Michigan, 'the weather was fine until the play began, when one of those sudden storms frequent on the lake front was threatened. Trees were swayed by the wind and a few gentle raindrops fell. The sky grew black at the very moment in which Miranda, who grasped the possibilities of the situation, pleaded with her father to allay the storm. [...] On another occasion, when the company was presenting "Midsummer Night's Dream," Titania, looking up at an uncertain moon, spoke the line "The moon, methinks, looks with a watery eye," and a gentle rain began to fall. The audience simply laughed heartily and raised its umbrellas for the moment, while the play continued uninterruptedly.' The article concludes with the memories of an audience member who had seen A Midsummer Night's Dream in Rockford, Illinois:
"They played one evening in a grove of oak trees on the bank of the Rock River. The river flowed behind them, and from somewhere in the trees soft music was heard. It was in August, and in the distant background a wonderful harvest moon, all red, came up. The actors, in their Greek costumes, seemed the most natural and beautiful part of the scene. As a spectacle, I shall never forget it. We all showed signs of tears, and I cared not whether a line were spoken, had I but been allowed to look."