Ben Greet and His Players

September 24 was the D.O.B. of the great actor/manager Sir Philip Barling “Ben” Greet (1857-1936).

The apex of Greet’s profile no doubt occurred as manager of the Old Vic during the World War One era (1914-18), when he made it his mission to make Shakespeare and other classics accessible to young people, work for which he was eventually knighted in 1929. But that was just one piece of a decades long career devoted to bringing theatrical culture to the masses. His special niche and innovation was professional open air productions performed in gardens, parks, village greens, and the grounds of manor houses. This had long been done at at the amateur level, and that is where Greet drew the idea from. The son of a naval captain, he was compelled to defer his theatrical ambitions for many years, he taught at a private school until his father’s dead allowed him to bring his dreams into the sunlight. Beginning in amateur companies, he progressed to provincial stock theatre, and then to forming the Ben Greet Players in the mid 1880s.

Performing outdoors naturally dictated a repertoire preponderant in bucolic comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, though they also performed tragedies like Romeo and Juliet. For about a decade (1904-1914), Greet made the U.S. his base, his Players becoming the first theatre professional company to tour American college campuses. He also toured local theatres and opera houses; I encountered his name while investigating this one in Geneva, New York. The populist spirit of his work presages America’s repertory movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and I think of him as paving the way for the likes of Joe Papp and Tyrone Guthrie. Actors who worked under his direction early in their careers include Peggy Ashcroft, Sybil Thorndike, Donald Wolfit, and Maurice Evans.