Sir Philip Barling Ben Greets Comedy Company
A Shakespearean actor, director and impresario would become Philip Barling Greet, the son of a Royal Navy captain, who was born on the recruiting ship H.M.S. Crocodile tied up at the Tower of London, on the 24th of September, 1857. Neither as a clergyman or a naval officer would he follow his parents hopes; he chose teaching at a private school in Worthing before beginning his theatrical life at Southampton as a member of an amateur theatrical club. His first engagement was given him by the manager of the old Theatre Royal in 1879, and for five years he belonged to the stock company there; his first fortnight kept him busy with no less than eighteen parts. His first professional stage debut was in 1883, playing Caius Lucius in Cymbeline.
Right - Mr. Ben Greet as photographed by Weston & Son - Courtesy Angela Walters.
Three years later, he started staging open-air productions of the classic English stage repertory; his companies, called the Ben Greet Players, the Sign of the Cross Company, and the Woodland or Merry Woodland Players, would tour Great Britain and with great success too in the United States. From 1914-18, he was a director of the Old Vic Theatre in London ensuring plays by Shakespeare would make it well-known for these productions. He was knighted in 1929.
Left - A poster for Ben Greet's Comedy Company in a series of Shakespeare plays for 'six nights only' at the New Empire Theatre, Southend on Sea for the week beginning Monday October 2nd 1899 - Courtesy Angela Walters.
In a c.1900 article, A Chat With Ben Greet, he told the newspapers Special Correspondent:- The fact is, we used to give out-of-door performances at school, and when I first went on the stage, the idea of open-air entertainment went with me. Lady [Archibald] Campbell revived the old notion, and knowing that she would never want to take out a professional company I thought I would, and, as you know, I did, and very successful and encouraging the out-of-door performances have been. Yes, Shakespeare comedy is what I have done in that line chiefly. Frock coats and grey trousers dont 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. Shakespeare will always live, and be profitable to the man who puts his trust in him. As You Like It and A Midsummer Nights Dream are the favourites of course. But in my ordinary companies we play everything, ancient and modern; and as I have just secured the entire country rights of the Drury-lane dramas, you may guess we shall be very modern. Of course, I shall use up my promising and valuable pupils in these productions, but also, of course, I shall not have anything like enough folk to suit all my requirements. It is rather flattering to me that so many managers should select members of my companies to fulfil [sic] parts in their own.
Many members of his companies would become well-known stars of the stage and also the silent screen and talkies such as Jerrold Robertshaw, William Luff, Percy Warram, Edith Wynn Matthison, Sybil Thorndike, Sydney Greenstreet, Dorothea Baird who married Harry Brodribb Irving, the eldest son of Sir Henry Irving, Nigel Playfair, Fred Terry, and Leon Quartermaine.
Right - Sarah Sarsden (Ethel Walters) playing Lady Macbeth in Ben Greet's Company - Courtesy Angela Walters.
So popular were Ben Greets companies that even young girls hoped to join them and one was Penelope Loader Maffey who, sent to boarding school in Sherborne from Sudan, where her father Sir John Maffey was governor, cut off her hair and once ran away hoping to join the troupe of actors.
Left - Master Cavendish in "Benson" - Courtesy Angela Walters.
The wife of a classics master who started up a boys preparatory school in Eastbourne, joined the Comedy Company, and with their only child, a son, spent several years travelling all over Great Britain with him to act in plays and memorably for them both with Ellen Terry.
Mrs. Ethel Mary Aileen Walters, née Skyring (1863-1902) and Master Rupert Cavendish Skyring Walters (1888-1980) were known in the company productions by their stage names of Miss Sarah Sarsden and Master Cavendish.
Right - Sarah Sarsden (Ethel Walters) as "Stella" in "Black Mask" in Liverpool, with Marriott Watson's Company - Courtesy Angela Walters.
Tragically too young, Ethel died in a typhoid outbreak just as her acting career and that of her sons were becoming noticed as looking very promising; he would audition for the actor manager Francis Benson amongst others. His fathers school failed due to another disease outbreak in the seaside town with pupils staying away and fees lost ensured its closure. A position at Kings College, London was where his father would be at the time of his mothers death and Master Cavendish would be sent to Westminster School well away from the bright lights of the theatre. He studied hard choosing to pursue a future as a water engineer in which he became highly successful. He had been inspired to follow this field, by the nature of his mothers death.
The above article on Ben Greet's Company was written by Mrs. Angela Walters and sent in for inclusion on this site by her in October, 2012. Angela Walters' Husband is Martin Walters, Martin's father was Rupert Cavendish Skyring Walters, stage name Master Cavendish, and Master Cavendish's mother was Ethel Walters whose stage name was Sarah Sarsden. Sarah Sarsden and Master Cavendish were members of Ben Greet's Company.
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