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"Outdistancing the Past:
Shakespeare and American Education at the 1934 Chicago World's Fair"

Rosemary Kegl

Department of English

University of Rochester


In 1934 the organizers of the Chicago World’s Fair introduced to its Street of Villages a concession variously entitled the English Village, Old England, and Merrie England. Merrie England, as newspaper reporters rhapsodized, was the “‘class draw’ of the World’s Fair,” presenting “programs of the standard that one expects in the concert hall.” Among those programs were 40-minute productions of Shakespeare’s plays staged throughout the afternoon and evening in the fair’s reconstructed Globe Theater. The Merrie England Players’ repertoire included All’s Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and Shaw’s Dark Lady.   The fair’s eight abbreviated Shakespeare plays were printed and distributed by Samuel French between 1934 and 1937 “for the use of amateur groups which may not have at hand the facilities for giving the complete text.”


It is worth remembering that in 1934 it was by no means inevitable that either Merrie England or plays performed in a reconstructed Globe Theater would find a home in a fair, more commonly known as the Century of Progress Exposition, whose promotional materials educated fairgoers about the scientific advances that would allow them to “outdistance anything of the past.” Even fair organizers sympathetic to the proposal for an English Village tended to be considerably less enthusiastic about including Shakespeare’s plays among its attractions. Although Merrie England’s plays eventually figured prominently in accounts of the village’s success throughout the summer, in September and October, when extensive efforts to organize school tours that used “the Fair’s material in the education of young students” reportedly brought between 250 and 300 thousand elementary and secondary students to the fair, the Globe Theater and its productions were present but by no means prominent in World’s Fair press releases, educational brochures, suggested itineraries, sample syllabi, and teacher testimonials.  


This essay asks how the quirky role of Merrie England at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair might contribute to our understanding of Shakespeare and American Education. I am particularly interested in tracing the insistent, if at times elusive, connections among fair publicity, Merrie England’s productions, Samuel French’s publications, and both formal and informal pedagogical practices. I consider the aspirations and everyday realities of the fair organizers’ capacious notion of the “Exposition . . . as a great educational project;” of the tradition of “Elizabethan staging” to which the Merrie England productions were indebted; of the amateur groups to whom the published plays were directed; and of a local school system attempting to balance financial pressures, pedagogical priorities, and civic responsibilities.    


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