"The Theatre in Shoreditch, 1576-1599" by Gabriel Egan
For 37 years the wood and plaster structure of the first permanent playhouse built in England since the Romans left in the fifth century BCE stood for all to see, to celebrate, or to argue over. Then, as suddenly and surprisingly as it came, the building disappeared. This is a perpetual hazard of theatre history: a picture is identified by a scholar as showing a subject of interest, say a venue, a person, or a play being performed, and is pored over by other scholars hoping to wring every drop of information from it, and then it is snatched away by a fresh identification of its subject as something or someone less interesting than was previously thought. Thus is it with the engraving variously known as The View of the Cittye of London from the North towards the Sowth (the title written on it) or the Utrecht engraving (from the university library in which it was found in the 1950s) or the Abram Booth picture (from the name of the man who owned it).
In 1964 Sidney Fisher identified the playhouse in the engraving as The Theatre in Shoreditch, thereby overturning the identification of the playhouse as The Curtain that was made by the modern finder of the picture 10 years earlier, Leslie Hotson (Fisher 1964, 2-6; Hotson 1954). Fisher's identification of The Theatre stood for 37 years until itself overturned by Herbert Berry's proof that Leslie Hotson was right, it really is The Curtain (Berry 2000). By the sort of coincidence that theatre historians learn to treat as nothing more that a rhetorical opportunity in the shaping of their narratives, the physical playhouse frame itself also stood for 37 years, being erected in the summer of 1576 and named The Theatre, then dismantled and reassembled on a new site in 1598-99 and renamed The Globe, and finally consumed by fire during a performance in the summer of 1613.
As things currently stand, then, there is no extant picture of The Theatre and all that we know must be derived from writings. In this respect were are lucky, for none of the playhouses discussed in this Handbook left as copious a documentary record as The Theatre because it was the subject of a series of legal battles from the 1570s to the early 1600s for which were prepared dozens of witness statements that recall its construction, ownership, financing, daily operations, and occupancy. First discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, the documents from the lawsuits were systematically transcribed and interpreted in the early-twentieth century (Stopes 1913; Wallace 1913) but they will here be cited, where possible, from the most recent documentary collection, which has the merit of correcting errors in the earlier books and of modernizing the spelling (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2000).
These records can be supplemented by biographical researches (including such things as records of birth, apprenticeship, marriage, and death) of the central figures involved in The Theatre project, and the best finding aid to locate those researches is David Kathman's Biographical Index to the Elizabethan Theater (Kathman 2001-). With Kathman's help, I can report that for James Burbage (who, together with his brother-in-law John Brayne, initiated the project) the essential references are Stopes 1913, Chambers 1923, Nungezer 1929, Ingram 1988, Eccles 1991, Honigmann & Brock 1993, Edmond 1996, and Ingram 1992. For John Brayne the essential references are Loengard 1983, Ingram 1992, Honigmann & Brock 1993, and Edmond 1996. For Peter Street (who took down The Theatre and re-erected it as The Globe) the essential references are Ingram 1992 and Edmond 1993. These are the sources on which the present narrative is based, supplemented by pre-publication access to the results of archaeological researches on the site of The Theatre kindly supplied by Julian M. C. Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology Service.
One of the two partners in The Theatre, the grocer John Brayne, built a kind of prototype playhouse in 1576 called The Red Lion. Only one fact was known about the Red Lion project until the 1980s: that the Carpenters' Company books record Brayne's dissatisfaction with "such scaffolds" made by a William Sylvester "at the house called the Red Lyon" and that the company had reached a settlement in the case. Once the company inspectors had perused the work and ordered such improvements as they saw fit, and Sylvester had completed them, thereby enabling "the play which is called The Story of Samson" to be given a performance there, Brayne would pay Sylvester for the work (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2000, 291). E. K. Chambers guessed that this Red Lion was an inn, and recorded it alongside the records for the other inns at which playing took place: The Bull Inn, The Bell Inn, The Bel Savage Inn, and The Cross Keys Inn (Chambers 1923, 2: 379-380). Chambers noticed that Brayne was later involved in The Theatre with his wife's sister's husband, James Burbage, but--presumably allowing the paucity of evidence about The Red Lion to condition his estimation of the relative values of the projects--he called The Theatre a "far more important enterprise".
As it turns out, The Theatre was the more important building, but this could not properly be established until a legal historian, Janet S. Loengard, came across previously unnoticed records of the Court of King's Bench showing that the dispute went further than the Carpenters' Company court and that another carpenter, John Reynolds, was also involved in the project (Loengard 1983). Most extraordinarily of all, the documents uncovered by Loengard revealed that The Red Lion was not an inn but a farm, that the playhouse was built in its courtyard, that it comprised a stage 5 feet off the ground and 40 feet by 30 feet in span and a "certain space or void part of the same stage left unboarded" (for a trap?), with an attached turret rising to 30 feet (from the ground, presumably), and galleries for spectators (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2000, 292). On this evidence, and in the absence of any indication that the structures were only temporary, Loengard claimed that The Red Lion deserves to supplant The Theatre as the first purpose-built playhouse of the modern era.
Loengard's transcription showed that 7 feet from the top of the turret there was to be an interior floor, and that at its top should be "some suffycyent compasse brases", which seemed to be referred to later as "four [leus?] braces" (Loengard 1983, 309-10). Loengard confessed herself unable to explain what "leus" braces might be--the term seems absent from architectural handbooks--but theatre historians were quick to provide answers. John Orrell noted that a "'lewis' . . . is an X-shaped cramp used in hoisting machinery" and speculated that the curved compass braces were made to cross like a lewis for "structural rigidity as well as good looks" (Orrell 1988, 25). John Astington wondered whether there was an etymological connection with the word 'lee' (also spelt 'lew') meaning sheltered from the wind, and hence that the 'leus' braces enabled the projection of a "cantilevered extension" of the floor 7 feet from the top of the turret that sheltered the stage below it "in order to allow flying machinery to be worked from that position" (Astington 1985, 457). Thus the Red Lion's design anticipated the 'jutty forwards' of the upper two levels of The Fortune playhouse and the cantilevering of the roof of The Hope.
Stuart E. Baker also thought that the explanation was to do with flying, and noted that a 'lewis' was "in essence an expandable metal tenon designed to fit into a dovetail mortise which was cut into a large stone"--lifting gear in other words--and that the brace was the substantial wooden structure needed to allow a 'lewis' to be adapted to theatrical flying (Baker 1995, 145). Orrell and Astington relied on Loengard's transcription of the document--the only one available at the time--but Baker ought to have used Berry's fresh transcription that eliminated the need for speculation: the phrase was "the same four braces" (in Latin, "eisdem quatuor lez brases") and Loengard's "leus" was really law French "lez" meaning 'the' (Berry 1989, 148). This tale of theatre historians chasing ignis fatuus is worth relating not only as a warning regarding the accuracy of sources, but also because it illustrates the desire to find evolutionary patterns of development in theatre design. Since later theatres had complex flying machines, the thinking goes, must not the early theatre have had primitives ones adapted from other technologies? And since there was subtle projection and cantilever carpentry at The Fortune and The Hope, why not simpler versions of the same at The Red Lion?
As should be clear from this Handbook's treatment of the particular venues, theatre historians no longer think that there was a generic design-model of 'Elizabethan theatre' upon which the individual buildings played minor variations. Yet there is still a strong desire to think in evolutionary terms, and although it can trick us into finding antecedents that do not rightly exist the impulse is not entirely to be resisted. The Red Lion must stand as some kind of prototype to The Theatre, not least because an intelligent man like John Brayne can hardly be assumed to have learnt nothing from his project of 1567 when he embarked on the much more substantial building of 1576. Loengard was wrong to claim that The Red Lion was more than just a prototype for The Theatre, because although there is no mention of dismantling the playhouse (as she observed) the structure was inherently impermanent. As Berry noted, it cost about £20 (less than 3% of the cost of The Theatre), the contracts do not call for foundations to be made, only that the structures rest on 'plates' on the ground, and there is no mention of a roof or walls (Berry 1989, 145). Unlike The Theatre, it was an ephemeral affair in which no great amount of capital was invested.
In 1576, Brayne and James Burbage joined forces to build something much more substantial, and even by the originally estimated cost of around £200 (eventually far exceeded) it was to be 10 times more impressive than The Red Lion. Because we know rather more of its design than we know of its predecessor's (a matter treated more fully in the next section), we can speculate within certain limits about why The Theatre turned out the way it did. Before there were permanent, purpose-built theatres, the players must have noticed that any large inn at which coaches unloaded had an enclosed yard within which a temporary stage might easily be mounted, and the elevated galleries which provided access to the rooms around the yard would have provided further accommodation for spectators with the additional benefit of protection from the elements. Less capacious, but more comfortable and dependable, would be a room inside the inn, and the final deciding factor might well have been the weather.
The innovation of placing of a temporary stage within an innyard must be counted among the origins of the late sixteenth-century theatre, but the virtually circular structures of The Theatre, The Curtain, The Rose, The Swan, and later The Globe cannot be explained as mere alterations of the innyard layout. Foreign visitors in London who saw the wooden amphitheatres commented on their likeness to the stone amphitheatres of Roman times, and indeed in naming their 1576 playhouse The Theatre Brayne and Burbage appear to have been deliberately invoking this antecedent. A possible additional inspiration was the animal baiting arenas which had developed from simple circular wooden fences (animals within, spectators without) to become multi-storey structures containing many hundreds of spectators on staggered degrees, such as the one in Paris Garden that fatally collapsed upon its patrons in January 1583.
Superficially, a temporary stage erected within an animal ring might seem much like an open-air amphitheatre, but Oscar Brownstein pointed out that the heavy fencing needed to keep the agonized animals from attacking the spectators would have made it difficult for spectators to see the stage (Brownstein 1979). This argument has convinced most theatre historians that the animal rings were entirely irrelevant to the design of the theatres, but recently Iain Mackintosh and Jon Greenfield reopened the question by arguing that the surface of the yard at The Rose and The Fortune theatres was substantially lower than the ground outside the theatre. Such a sunken yard overcomes Brownstein's objection that a stout fence, inimical to drama, was needed to keep the audience safe (Mackintosh et al. 2006). This would also explain why The Fortune contract called for the yard wall to be topped with iron spikes: to keep the animals in.
It must be admitted then that we do not know where the peculiar design for The Theatre came from. Richard Hosley and John Orrell saw an antecedent in a banqueting house erected in Calais for Henry 8's meeting with Emperor Charles 5 immediately after the conclusion of the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 (Hosley 1979, 60-74; Orrell 1988, 30-38). This building was circular with three stacked galleries, each of which had a raked floor so those at the back could see over the heads of those in front. The timber frame reminded contemporaries of the Roman playhouses and they used the terms 'theatre' and 'amphitheatre' to describe it. Like The Theatre this building was dismantleable and removable. However, although there was a similar building at Ardre, near Calais, these were uncommon structures and it is hard to imagine a route by which their design could influence a grocer and a joiner in London 50 years later. On the present evidence, it were best to think of The Theatre as arising ex nihilo because we have nothing earlier to serve as a model.
Without a picture of The Theatre, and no convincingly antecedent design, theatre historians look elsewhere. From the later lawsuits, we know something of the business relations that gave rise to The Theatre, and these are especially useful for contextualizing the location where the playhouse stood. The site chosen by Brayne and Burbage already had buildings on it, the most important of which was the Great Barn occupied by a butcher named Robert Stoughton who used his space as a slaughterhouse and by an innkeeper, whose use of the space is unknown, named Hugh Richards who lived in the same small London parish as Burbage and hence might have been the one who drew the availability of the site to Burbage's attention (Ingram 1992, 185). Although the owner of the land Giles Allen denied it, the Great Barn was later said by witnesses to be in poor condition and even Allen admitted that the other buildings on the site--a mill-house with a tenement building attached, plus two other tenements--were in bad shape.
The lease on the site was signed by Burbage alone on 13 April 1576 but began on 25 March 1576. Owning the lease meant that Burbage received the rents from the properties on the site, so whatever else we think about Burbage he was a slum landlord. Under the terms of the lease, Burbage paid about £14 a year (according to Allen's later recollection) and had to make £200 worth of repairs to the properties on the site in the first 10 years, which done Allen had to offer Burbage another 21 year lease. We do not know when work began on the construction of The Theatre nor who built it, although a likely candidate as chief builder is James Burbage's brother Robert Burbage who was a carpenter. James Burbage himself was a joiner, which means a woodworker specializing in smaller, lighter pieces than a carpenter works upon--so, furniture and fittings rather than whole buildings--although it is not impossible that he superintended the work. Among the improvements made immediately was to prop up the dilapidated Great Barn with shores to the much sturdier playhouse next to it.
Deponents in the subsequent lawsuits agreed that the playhouse was in use even before its construction was fully completed, and on 1 August 1577 the Privy Council mentioned it when banning playing because of the threat of plague (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2000, 336). It is worthwhile to note, in passing, that although cynics have suggested otherwise--"Enemies of the theatre often used the plague threat as a reason to have them closed" (Dollimore 1985, 77)--the prevention of public gatherings seems not to have been opportunistic, was the right thing to do in times of plague (modern countries with limited antibiotics do the same now), and probably saved lives (Barroll 1991, 70-116).
In the absence of pictorial evidence, our knowledge of the features of The Theatre comes from two main sources: the lawsuits that mention expenditure on the structure and parts of the building, and the plays that were performed there. In respect of the evidence from plays, we are hampered by the fact that, with a couple of isolated exceptions, we cannot determine which players, and hence which plays, appeared at The Theatre prior to the settlement of 1594 (described below) that confined Shakespeare's company there. The provision in the lease for the removal of whatever Burbage put up, and the fact that The Theatre was indeed taken down and removed from the site, indicate that although it was sturdy the building was designed to enable dismantling. There is no mention of stonemasons in connection with its erection, repairing, or taking down and hence it was essentially a wooden structure with brick foundations. By the same logic, the absence of any mention of thatchers in the copious records about the construction implies that the roof was tiled.
When Giles Allen and Cuthbert Burbage tried to negotiate a new lease in the 1590s, they discussed the possibility of turning The Theatre into tenement flats (Wallace 1913, 216). This tells us that although there were (we assume) degrees of raked seating in the galleries, the rakers that supported the seats were added after flat floors had been put in rather than being integrated into the structure and used to help brace it. This indicates a floor-on-floor method of construction in which one wall (presumably the outer) rose in a single plane while the other had jetties so that each storey overhung the one below. The advantage of completing each floor before continuing to the next is lost if there is no jetty and both inner and outer main posts must rise to the full height of the building. Only the floor-on-floor method of construction is compatible with later conversion to tenements, and it also minimizes the need for overnight propping, reduces the number of joints which must be mated at one time, and provides a convenient working surface (the unnailed floorboards) which can take the place of scaffolding (McCurdy 1993, 9-12).
Just how the timbers were joined is a matter of scholarly dispute. Because it was possible to dismantle The Theatre in a few days around Christmas 1598, and because there was £40 worth of ironmongery in the building, Berry wondered if the timbers were held together by metalwork rather than with fitted joints, mortises, tenons, and dowels as was usual (Berry 1979, 35; Wallace 1913, 137). Orrell, on the other hand, thought it a marvelous feat of conventional carpentry, prefabricated off-site and delivered as a kit of parts (Orrell 1988, 41-45). Lack of standardization in sizes meant that parts were not exchangeable: the whole structure would be test-fitted together at the 'framing place' to make sure it worked, and then shipped to the final destination. For such a complex building the order of sequence of assembly was crucial since the workmen needed room to fit the tenons into their mortises, and because this was uniquely a polygonal building the complications were multiplied by the shoulders of the tenons not being the usual right-angles.
In 1585, Burbage and Allen tried (unsuccessfully) to negotiate a new lease, the text of which unsigned draft survives because it is quoted in one of the later lawsuits. This lease gives Allen and his wife and family the right to "enter or come into the premisses & their in some one of the vpper romes to have such convenient place to sett or stande to se such playes as shalbe ther played freely wthout any thinge therefore payeinge soe that the sayde Gyles hys wyfe and familie doe come & take ther places before they shalbe taken vpp by any others" (Wallace 1913, 177-78). This indicates that at least part of the spectating gallery space was subdivided into 'rooms', as we know was the case at The Swan, The Fortune and The Hope because these are called for in the construction contracts.
This draft lease also indicates that spectators could sit or stand in the galleries. Although she mistakenly read this lease as pertaining to The Curtain rather than The Theatre, Tiffany Stern rightly noted that a gallery is now, and was then, a place in which would one expects to stand and walk rather than to sit, and she pointed out that the label 'porticus' attached to the topmost gallery in Johannes de Witt's drawing of The Swan is the Latin word for a covered walkway (Stern 2000). William Lambarde described the penny-by-penny system of collecting the take at public arenas: "first pay one penny at the gate, another at the entry of the scaffold, and the third for a quiet standing" (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2000, 297). (In an uncharacteristic slip, Wickham, Berry, and Ingram slightly misquote Lambarde, omit his direct assertion that this system applied at The Theatre (Lambarde 1576, Q2r), and point the reader to the wrong edition and with a page reference that applies to no edition, so the record is still best represented in Chambers 1923, 2: 359). To make this agree with his conviction that spectators sat in the galleries, Andrew Gurr asserted that "'to get a standing' meant to find a viewing-place, whether standing or sitting" (Gurr 1992, 122), which is not a sense recorded in the OED. Perhaps in the light of the draft lease for The Theatre we should instead take Lambarde as literally referring to standing spaces.
We know that The Theatre had a "Theatre yard" and an "Attyring housse or place where the players make them readye" because the actor John Alleyn, Edward Alleyn's brother, referred to them in his evidence for one of the lawsuits (Wallace 1913, 126, 127). As for the physical fabric of the place, the foregoing is almost all we know from the legal documents; one snippet remains. A witness described how he, together with Margaret Brayne (John Brayne's widow) and her supporter Robert Miles, went to The Theatre "vppon A playe daye to stand at the dor that goeth vppe to the gallaries of the said Theater to take & Receyve for the vse of the said Margarett half the money that shuld be gyven to come vppe into the said Gallaries at that dor" (Wallace 1913, 114).
This is puzzling, for it seems to say that just one door led to the galleries, which suggests that if there were stairs to the upper galleries, there was only one staircase. Lambarde's penny-by-penny system, on the other hand, implies that access to the upper galleries was had after entrance to the yard for which one paid the first penny. Other evidence for other venues suggests a traditional arrangement whereby the owner of a venue normally kept half the income from the galleries, giving the other half of the galleries' income and the whole of the yard income to the players. But The Theatre was unusual because when James Burbage's company of actors, the Earl of Leicester's Men, were playing there, he effectively handed over a proportion of the income that he collected as owner of the venue to himself as leader of the players. John Alleyn claimed that even in this he cheated (Wallace 1913, 101.)
Why then would Margaret Brayne feel entitled to all of the gallery income? Even if, as one might argue from the complex legal arrangements patched up between Brayne and Burbage, she thought herself entitled to all the venue-owner income for a time, surely the most she could claim would be the usual owners' half of the gallery take. Perhaps this is what the witness was implying: she and her supporter took up the collection of income at a single door because (as everyone knew) there were two such doors and by this means she hoped to collect all her rightful half. As Richard Hosley pointed out, the witness referred to one door but was answering a question about collections taken at "the doares of the said Theatre" (Wallace 1913, 112; Hosley 1979, 49). However, Hosley was writing when the Utrecht engraving was still thought to show The Theatre and with the loss of that picture we now cannot assert, as he did, that the building had two diametrically opposed external staircases (Hosley 1979, 54).
To say more about the design and facilities of The Theatre, we must turn now to the evidence from plays. The only systematic work on what the drama implies about this venue is Wickham 1979, which argued that no theatre had a stage cover before The Rose got its in 1592, and that later venues (The Swan, The Globe, The Hope) copied this innovation and also copied The Rose's installation of a 'throne' in the heavens (for supernatural descents onto the stage) in 1595. Wickham pointed out that theatre historians have long assumed the existence of a heavens with all its appurtenances (such as stage posts and a concealed winch) at every playhouse, but that this is not supported by the evidence. The desire, it seems, has been to imagine a singular, generic Elizabethan playhouse design. But if The Theatre had a heavens with a descent machine in 1576, why would Philip Henslowe not have built one at The Rose in 1587, and instead had retro-fit these features in 1592 and 1595?
De Witt refers to four amphitheatres in London in 1596 and claims that the two south of the river (The Rose and The Swan) are "more remarkable" (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2000, 441) than the two north of the river (The Theatre and The Curtain), and this, according to Wickham, supports the idea that the stage cover was an innovation of the 1590s Bankside theatres. Not one of the many legal documents about The Theatre transcribed by Wallace mentions a stage-cover or pillars, nor do any extant plays written and performed between 1576 and 1591, either in dialogue or in stage directions. Perhaps surprisingly, no play by Christopher Marlowe needs a floor-level trap, or stage pillars, or stage cover/heavens, or flying machine.
Wickham admits that the 1592 edition of Thomas Kyd The Spanish Tragedy (circa 1587-90) has a scene that might use a stage-post as a stake for tying a prisoner to, but since the order given--and thankfully soon rescinded--is to burn him at the stake it would surely make better sense to use a property-stake; after all, who would believe that the soldiers would set light to one of the theatre's stage-post? Similarly Robert Wilson's The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (circa 1587-90) has dialogue and a stage direction in the final scene that refer to a "post" and to "the contrary post" and this certainly suggests use of the two stage-posts. But then again this play probably belonged to the Queen's Men and "two posts had to be forthcoming wherever they presented it--at court or on provincial tours as well as in a London playhouse: so the ambiguity cannot be removed entirely" (Wickham 1979, 8).
Concerning the playhouse 'heavens', no surviving play first performed between 1576 and 1595 calls for the appearance of deities other than by 'Enter' and 'Exit', except John Lyly's The Woman in the Moon (circa 1590-95) which was "written for boys and court performance" and hence does not tell us about open-air amphitheatre conditions, and Robert Greene's The Comical History of Alphonsus, King of Aragon (circa 1587-8) which is more problematic (Wickham 1979, 9-12). This last play's opening stage direction reads "Let Venus be let down from the top of the stage" and at the end there is "Exit Venus. Or if you can conveniently, let a chair come downe from the top of the stage, and draw her up". Other deities in the play make pedestrian entrances and exits, and Greene clearly allows for the possibility that his ideal of flight might not be realized. When printed in 1599 this play belonged to the Henslowe/Alleyn company at the Rose.
There is an ambiguous stage direction in the 1599 edition of Greene's A Looking Glass for London and England that refers to a "throne" which appears to be "set downe over the Stage" but Wickham argued--not entirely convincingly--that "set downe over" here merely means "placed upon" (Wickham 1979, 12). Thus all the plays that in any way suggest pillars or heavens or flying date from after the building of the Rose, and we ought not to assume on play-script evidence that earlier venues such as The Theatre had these facilities. Perhaps, Wickham wondered, part of the attraction of moving The Theatre to make The Globe was that the Burbages did not want to invest in upgrading The Theatre to the standard of The Rose and The Swan with the uncertainty of the lease hanging over them, so instead they moved to Bankside where they could build a new better playhouse than those of Henslowe and Langley.
If Wickham is right--and on the present evidence his seems the most reasonable supposition--should we then say there is no reason to suppose that there was any kind of 'turret' or 'house' built within the yard of The Theatre? After all, why make such a thing if not to project from it a stage cover, supported by stage posts, and 'fly' characters onto the stage from within it? We are caught here in a recurrent dilemma of historical studies: should we take an absence of evidence (the absence of dramatic uses that Wickham detected) as evidence of an absence? In this case, there is ample evidence that some kind of 'turret' or 'house' was present at other venues built before and after The Theatre: as we have seen The Red Lion (built in 1576 by one of two men who built The Theatre, John Brayne) had its 'tower', De Witt's interior drawing of The Swan shows a 'mimorum aedes' (= players' house) in the playhouse yard, and exterior pictures of The Rose, The Globe, and The Hope seem to show the roof of some kind of 'turret' rising in their playhouse yards. The Utrecht engraving shows the top of a 'turret' at the playhouse, and even reassigned to The Curtain this evidence has a bearing on The Theatre, since if it lacked a 'turret' The Theatre was unusual. The only parallel might be the first phase of The Rose playhouse (1587-92) which seems on archaeological evidence to have had no stage posts, stage cover, or 'turret' (Bowsher 2007).
The occupants, their plays and their audiences
From the theatre historian's point of view, Burbage and Brayne's choice of the name The Theatre for their playhouse was unhelpful because it is often difficult to know whether a documentary allusion to something going on in 'the theatre' means their house specifically or the whole collection of playhouses generally. (In the same way, we today might enquire what is on at 'the cinema' without meaning any place in particular.) In the following collation of the evidence I exclude doubtful cases.
For most of the history of The Theatre we have little direct evidence of which companies played there, and little reason to trust inferences from indirect evidence. The unreliability of inferences arises because until 1594 there was little in the way of what Andrew Gurr called 'settled practices' regarding the various companies' use of London playhouses (Gurr 1996, 19-35, 78-104). As described by Gurr, a Privy Council order of 1594 gave a two-part monopoly (a duopoly) of London playing to Richard Burbage's newly-formed troupe called the Chamberlain's Men (including the promising new writer/performer, William Shakespeare) and Edward Alleyn's troupe called the Admiral's Men, confining each to one playhouse, The Theatre and The Rose respectively. From this point on, we can confidently say that a new play written for the Chamberlain's Men's would have been first performed at The Theatre, and that the dramatist writing it would most likely know that.
It may be that Gurr's notion of a duopoly overstates the case somewhat, since if The Theatre and The Rose had the London market to themselves it is difficult to understand why two new playhouses sprang up. A year after the Privy Council order, Francis Langley built The Swan playhouse in a site apparently chosen so that patrons who crossed the river southwards by boat and alighted at Paris Garden stairs would pass Langley's new playhouse before reaching The Rose (Ingram 1978, 106). In 1598 Oliver Woodcliffe adapted The Boar's Head inn into a playhouse, and the continued demand for new places (in addition to the officially authorized venues of The Theatre and The Rose) is attested by Langley's joining this project after The Swan was closed by the Privy Council order of 28 July 1597 (Berry 1986, 29-63). Whatever the official position, London seems to have remained an openly competitive market for playing.
Nonetheless, the Privy Council duopoly of 1594 seems to have kept the two main companies, Burbage's and Alleyn, more or less permanently installed in their respective venues, so we need not consider further The Theatre's occupancy for the period 1594 to 1598. For the earlier years, we have only scraps of evidence. James Burbage was leader of Leicester's Men when The Theatre was constructed, so it is not unlikely that this company played there when it was first opened. It is clear from the legal documents that The Theatre was in use before the construction work was "fully finished" (Wallace 1913, 135). The first certain date for use of The Theatre is the Privy Council order of 1 August 1597 ordering it closed for prevention of plague (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2000, 336).
Although he speaks of a plurality of theatres, the sermon by Thomas White delivered at Paul's Cross on 3 November 1577 can only refer to The Theatre, its neighbour The Curtain, and/or perhaps the playhouse at Newington Butts: "beholde the sumptuous Theatre houses, a continuall monument of London's prodigalitie and folly". White took comfort in the present ban on playing because of plague, for he saw another connection--aside from the danger of congregation, which one can scarcely complain of in a public sermon--between drama and the sickness: "the cause of plagues is sinne, if you looke to it well: and the cause of sinne are playes: therefore the cause of plagues are playes" (White 1578, C8r).
On 24 August 1578--Bartholomew's Day, sacred to rabid anti-Catholics since the Paris massacre of 1572--sermonizer John Stockwood enquired:
What should I speake of beastlye Playes . . . haue we not houses of purpose built with great charges for the maintenance of them . . . [?] I know not how I might with the godly learned especially more discommende the gorgeous Playing place erected in the fieldes, than to terme it, as they please to haue it called, a Theatre, that is, euen after the maner of the olde heathenish Theatre at Rome (Stockwood 1578, J7v)
Significantly, for Stockwood the drama is objectionable not only for its thematic content but also because the venues are opulent and therefore decadent. Even taking into account their theological objections to the whole enterprise, the evidence of White and Stockwood indicates that The Theatre was, as its £700 cost suggests, an impressive, even beautiful, building.
Mid-twentieth century visual impressions of open-air amphitheatres such as the film of Henry V (Olivier 1944) and Irwin Smith's scale model of The Globe based on John Cranford Adams's book (Adams 1942) incorporated into a public display at the Folger Library in Washington, reflected theatre historians' emphasis upon the Tudor vernacular elements in the architecture and decoration, the use of wood and plaster. These impressions tend to understate the European classical influence that prompted the owners to paint the wood to look like marble and the plaster to look like stone. The evidence for this in relation to The Globe is given elsewhere in this Handbook (pp. 00-00), and in respect of The Swan Richard Southern and C. Walter Hodges were the first to make full use of the evidence of Johannes de Witt (Southern & Hodges 1952). More recently the evidence that may be drawn from non-dramatic public buildings of the period has been collated and interpreted (Ronayne 1997; Keenan & Davidson 1997).
The myth of Tudor theatrical plainness is perpetuated by the set of the recent film Shakespeare in Love, which is nonetheless accurate in other matters (Madden 1998). Theatre historians now emphasize the tendency of Elizabethans to lavishly paint every part of their public buildings that they could get a brush to. If John Ronayne is right that there was a building tradition of plain outsides and gorgeous insides it is likely that the exterior decoration of playhouses was subdued compared to the interior (Ronayne 1987, 26) and hence White and Stockwood either took the risk of venturing inside The Theatre in order to be revolted at its "sumptuous" and "gorgeous" appearance, or the decadence within was even worse than they knew.
Plays were not the only entertainment at The Theatre: sword-fighting was displayed on 25 August 1578 (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2000, 340) and periodically thereafter. The following year Stephen Gosson, in acknowledging that amongst the harmful plays and players were a few exceptions, identified "The Black Smiths daughter, & Catilins conspiracies usually brought in at the Theater" (Gosson 1579, C6v-C7r). The qualifier "usually" corroborates other evidence that before the 'settled practices' of the 1590s, the troupes travelled between playhouses around London as well as touring the country. In a letter of 14 June 1584, William Fleetwood wrote to Lord Burghley that with a couple of exceptions the Privy Council had agreed to "the suppressing and pulling down of the Theatre and Curtain" and that "the Queen's players and my Lord of Arundel his players" agreed to stop playing (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2000, 346). Assuming the normal way of pairing items thus listed, this tells us that The Queen's Men were in residence at The Theatre at the time.
The following year James Burbage made a profit-sharing deal with the Henry Lanman, owner of Curtain, the purpose of which is uncertain (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2000, 348-49) and of which William Ingram has made the best sense; his interpretation is followed here (Ingram 1992, 227-35). The deal with Lanman was that profits of The Theatre and The Curtain would be pooled and split 50/50 for a period of 7 years. In order to avoid giving Brayne's widow Margaret her share, Burbage later claimed that under the deal he and Brayne gave Lanman a half share in The Theatre, but this was not true: it was purely a profit-sharing arrangement.
The deal was said to have arisen in order to make The Curtain "an Esore" to The Theatre, or possibly (the syntax is ambiguous) because The Curtain was already "as Esore" to The Theatre. It is impossible to say which is meant, because no-one has a satisfactory explanation of the term 'Esore' and the whole thing is mysterious. It has been argued that 'easer' (something to relieve a strain) is what is meant, and that The Queen's Men were so numerous in the mid-1580s that they could not fit in The Theatre and chose to split into two groups to occupy two venues. As Ingram pointed out, this would not require the playhouse owners to enter into a deal, and he rejected the idea.
Most likely, Ingram argued, Lanman did not live near The Curtain and in 1585 he needed someone to run the place for him because his previous manager, Richard Hickes of the Newington Butts playhouse, died. The deal was for 7 years, rather than perpetual, because its real purpose was to get The Curtain off Lanman's hands by selling it to Burbage and Brayne over time. Presumably, by insisting that the profits of the two playhouses were shared, Burbage and Brayne were given an incentive to run both venues well rather than letting The Curtain languish until they took full possession in 1592.
It is well known that there was at least one play (maybe more) about a Prince Hamlet long before Shakespeare's version was first published in 1603, although it is impossible to say who wrote it (or them) (Shakespeare 2006, 44-49). In Wits Misery, Thomas Nashe described the son of Beelzebub and his wife Jealousy as walking "for the most part in black vnder colour of grauity, & looks as pale as the Uisard of ye ghost which cried so miserally at ye Theator like an oisterwife, Hamlet, reuenge" (Lodge 1596, H4v). Since Shakespeare's company, the Chamberlain's Men, were in residence at The Theatre for the preceding two years, this is presumably an allusion to their version, and perhaps it was Shakespeare's work since it shows the familiar concern for the wearing of black clothes to make a grave impression.
Now that we have reached the 1590s, we can simply tabulate the surviving plays written for the Chamberlain's Men between 1594 when the Privy Council confined them to The Theatre, and mid-1598 when they left it. Assuming that the dates and ascriptions are correct, these were likely to be plays written for, and first performed at, The Theatre. Below in brackets I give the span of years within which the first performance took place, determined from Harbage 1964 or in case of Shakespeare from Wells et al. 1987, and where the span falls partly outside 1594-1598 it should be understood that the play is less reliably associated with The Theatre than is the case for those plays whose spans fall wholly within these limits.
Anonymous 1 Richard 2 (1591-1595)
William Shakespeare The Comedy of Errors (1594)
William Shakespeare Love's Labour's Lost (1594-5)
William Shakespeare A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595)
William Shakespeare Richard 2 (1595)
William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet (1595)
William Shakespeare King John (1596)
William Shakespeare The Merchant of Venice (1596-7)
William Shakespeare 1 Henry 4 (1596-7)
William Shakespeare 2 Henry 4 (1597-8)
William Shakespeare The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597-8)
William Shakespeare Much Ado About Nothing (1598)
Ben Jonson Every Man In His Humour (1598)
William Shakespeare Henry 5 (1598-9)
Anonymous A Warning for Fair Women (1598-9)
Anonymous A Larum for London (1598-1600)
Plays first performed in 1598 might in fact have premiered at The Curtain rather than The Theatre, because the Chamberlain's Men appear to have decamped there during the summer. To see why they did, we must consider the disassembly of The Theatre and its reassembly as The Globe.
The term 'deconstruction' was coined by the philosopher Jacques Derrida for his book Of Grammatology (Derrida 1976) and it has passed into common usage as a synonym for taking apart something, usually an artistic work. This is unfortunate, as Derrida meant something more complex and interesting, which was the taking apart of a social construct (say, patriarchy, or our categories of mental health, or an assumption of Western cultural superiority) precisely in order to show that it is a social construct, not a simple 'given' of existence like our need to breathe air, and having taken it apart to reconstruct the elements in a new and better configuration. That is, deconstruction is at least as much about construction as destruction. To help out a Japanese translator of his work, Derrida referred to one sense as "To disassemble the parts of a whole. To deconstruct a machine to transport it elsewhere" (Derrida 1999, 283).
When Burbage and Brayne built their playhouse, the most familiar use of the word 'theatre' was not as a playing place but as a book wherein was offered "a 'view' or 'conspectus' of some subject" (OED theatre, theatre n. †7), as in the title of John Speed's The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (Speed 1611 ) and earlier similar titles. (By another of the coincidences that abound in this case, it was within a specimen of Speed's book that a second copy of the formerly-believed to be unique Utrecht engraving was found in 1996--it had been 'tipped in', in bookmaker's parlance--and this new copy helped Herbert Berry establish that the represented playhouse was not The Theatre (Berry 2000, 200).) The name Burbage and Brayne gave their building was, then, bookish and contemporary as well as spectacular and classical, and the structure combined these intellectual and artistic impulses as much as it combined Tudor vernacular and classical architecture.
The Theatre was, moreover, a machine for presenting plays; it was the hardware for running the dramatic software (playscripts), as Andrew Gurr put it (Gurr 1989, 1). In 1598, the Burbages deconstructed The Theatre in the proper Derridean sense: they disassembled their machine, transported it elsewhere, and rebuilt it. This daringly demonstrated that the seemingly immovable (a given) was in fact a human construct that can be remade afresh if so desired, and it also enacted a transference from object to subject that the word 'theatre' had undergone in acquiring the sense of "A thing displayed to view" (OED theatre, theater n. †8) as well as the means by which the thing was displayed. Fittingly, then, The Theatre, a means for viewing the world, became The Globe, the world to be viewed.
After an abortive attempt to relocate to an indoor playhouse in the elite Blackfriars district (Smith 1964, 172-73), a story told elsewhere in this Handbook (pp. 00-00), James Burbage died in February 1597. The lease on the site of The Theatre was set to expire on 25 March 1597 so Burbage's son Cuthbert took up fresh negotiations with Giles Allen for its extension or renewal. In a subsequent court case Cuthbert Burbage claimed that while they argued about a new lease, Allen let the players "contynue in possession of the premisses for diverse yeares" and took the agreed rent (Wallace 1913, 184).
The Theatre was described as "vnfrequented" and in "darke silence" (Guilpin 1598, D6r) by Edward Guilpin in his collection Skialetheia, entered in the Stationers' Register on 15 September 1598 (Riehle 2007, 41v), so by this date The Chamberlain's men must have moved elsewhere. The obvious place to go was The Curtain since as we have seen James Burbage had a deal with its owner Henry Lanham and by now the Burbages, perhaps in partnership with members of the playing company--several later passed on shares in The Curtain in their wills (Ingram 1992, 235)-- probably now owned The Curtain.
We can be sure that The Chamberlain's Men did not leave The Theatre before the summer of 1598 because Allen, in his answer to Cuthbert Burbage, agreed that he allowed the company "to enioye the premisses after the first lease expired for the space of a yeare or two" and paying "onelie the ould rent" (Wallace 1913, 196). The Theatre was disassembled by the Burbages and removed from Allen's land to a newly leased site on Bankside, probably in a few days beginning 28 December 1598 (Berry 1987, 4-7).
Leaving Shoreditch one way or another (to Blackfriars or Bankside) must have been in Shakespeare's mind around this time, and the solution to the disagreement with Allen about the terms of a new lease was to invoke a clause in the old one which allowed Burbage and Brayne to "take downe and Carrie awaie . . . all such buildings . . . as should be builded . . . for a Theatre" (Wallace 1913, 191). Thus the players' property could be readily extricated from the landlord's, and although the Theatre's timbers were removed while he was out of town (Berry 1987, 6-7) Allen could hardly claim that this was wrong in principle under the old lease; the dispute hinged on whether his taking the rent constituted a tacit extension of the lease that allowed the removal.
Nearing the expiration of the lease on site of The Theatre and as the problems of relocation loomed, Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, which got its first performance in 1596 or 1597. In the play, the court concludes that Shylock's contractual arrangement with Antonio gives him possession of the pound of flesh ("The court awards it, and the law doth give it" and "The law allows it, and the court awards it" 4.1.297, 300) but catches him with the insoluble problem of extracting it without harming the rest of the body, which still belongs to Antonio. A part of Allen's subsequent claim against the Burbages was for damage done to his property, £2 worth of grass, during the removal of the Theatre (Wallace 1913, 164) but a truly substantive issue about which witness after witness was questioned was the condition of other buildings on the same site that Brayne and Burbage were supposed to keep in good order.
In particular, there was the decrepit Great Barn close to The Theatre that Allen claimed Burbage had neglected, while the Burbages insisted that this barn was improved by being propped against the much sturdier playhouse (Wallace 1913, 223-43 Question 10 and the answers of Richard Hudson, Thomas Bromfield, Thomas Osborne, William Furnis, William Smythe, Randulphe Maye, and Oliver Tylte). Answers to questions about the Great Barn tell us that only the "twoe or three Shores" running to it from The Theatre kept it standing, and that when the playhouse was removed these had to be sunk into the ground instead. The foundations for The Theatre were of course left behind, and recent archaeological work on the site seems to have found these foundations, located by their proximity to the Great Barn foundations. The likelihood is that The Theatre's exposed foundations provided the new location for the shores once The Theatre was gone (Bowsher 2006). By this time, the Great Barn was apparently no longer used by Stoughton the slaughterman and Richards the innkeeper (see pp. 00-00 above), but rather was converted into residential tenements (Wallace 1913, 201-02).
The players in The Theatre had cause to consider the loss of livelihood that follows the loss of one's place of business, and the tenants of the Great Barn had cause to consider the loss of their homes if The Theatre that literally supported them were gone. A creative mind might see the players' and the tenants' cases as two sides of the same coin, or as Shylock puts it:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.
(The Merchant of Venice 4.1.372-4)
Shylock's metaphor (and Allen's intentions in framing the lease) had real correlates in the props that linked the buildings and thereby linked their interests. The play represents as an impossibility the extricating of linked properties, and was written around the time the players were addressing precisely the same problem.
The significance of The Theatre
The Theatre was the first of a kind of venue--the open-air amphitheatres--that lasted until the general closure of playhouses by parliament in 1642. Although the players always wanted to move into indoors playhouses within the city of London, where they could play to richer, smaller audiences, the tradition of demotic outdoor playing that The Theatre established survived. In describing this tradition it is easy to overstate the importance of the southern bank of the river Thames where The Rose, The Swan, The Globe, and The Hope were located, and it is worth remembering that the northern and eastern suburbs were just as important as homes to The Theatre, The Curtain, The Boar's Head, The Fortune, and The Red Bull.
As well as establishing the tradition, The Theatre might even be said to have spawned the design in virtually a genetic sense. If Herbert Berry is wrong and Irwin Smith, John Orrell, and Peter McCurdy are right that custom-made wooden joints and not metalwork held the main timbers of The Theatre together (Berry 1979, 35, Smith 1952; Orrell 1988, 41-45, McCurdy 2007), then the new building made from these timbers, The Globe, was exactly the same size and shape as The Theatre. (The third alternative is that the tenons were cut off to take The Theatre apart and fresh joints were made when the timbers were reassembled, but such wanton vandalism would make the new building considerably smaller than the old one and is belied by the involvement of Peter Street in the disassembly and by the several days he took to complete the work.) Thus the structure erected in 1576 effectively lasted on two sites until destroyed by fire in 1613. A second Globe playhouse was immediately constructed on the site of the first.
In February 1635 the two men charged by the Commissioners for Buildings for reporting on buildings in the liberty of the Clink, churchwarden John Hancock and constable George Archer, made an entry in the final, fair copy report for Saint Saviour's parish, noting "The Globe Playhouse nere Maidlane built by the Company of Players wth timber aboute 20 yeares past vppon an old foundacon . . ." (Hancock & Archer 1635). Since this second Globe was built on the foundations of the first (which naturally survived the fire), it must have been exactly the same size and shape. Thus Brayne and Burbage's design of 1576 survived the full span of early-modern theatre covered from its inception to its suppression. As is described elsewhere in this Handbook (pp. 00-00), we have pictorial evidence for the two Globe playhouses and can be fairly sure that they were 20-sided (or thereabouts) polygons of 100 feet diameter. If the 'genetic' ancestry sketched here is right, so was The Theatre.
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