Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Globe Theatre

The First Globe In April 1597, William Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, faced a difficult situation. Its playhouse, the Theatre in Shoreditch, had been built on rented land, and after 21 years, the lease had run out.

The landowner, Giles Allen, hated plays. He refused to renew the lease and declared that he intended to tear down the playhouse, and use its valuable oak timbers ''for a better purpose''.

A year before the lease ran out, James Burbage, bought some tenements in Blackfriars and converted them into an indoor playhouse. Unfortunately, the neighbours objected to living next door to a playhouse, which was considered an undesirable in Elizabethan times.

In November 1596, over a hundred people sent a petition to the Queen's Privy Council, calling for Burbage's venture to be stopped. The Privy Council accepted the plea. James Burbage, who now had his money tied up in a building he could not use, died a month later.
The Globe Theatre 1612

In 1597, after the lease expired, Giles Allen evicted the Lord Chamberlain's Men. For the next two years, Burbage's sons, Richard and Cuthbert, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Allen to renew their lease. Meanwhile the Lord Chamberlain's Men had to play in rented premises at the Curtain, in Shoreditch. This was much inferior to the Theatre, which stood nearby. Every day the company could see their old playhouse, which was now in "dark silence" according to Edward Guilpin, writing in 1598. It was a cruel reminder of what they had lost.

In late 1598, the Burbage brothers came up with a plan. They rented a new plot of land in Bankside, taking out a 31-year lease. During the Christmas holidays, while Giles Allen was away in the country, they hired a carpenter, Peter Street, to take the Theatre apart, timber by timber. They took the timbers by cart down to the river, and carried them under cover of darkness across London Bridge to Bankside, to build a new playhouse.

Giles Allen was furious when got back to town and saw that the Theatre had vanished. He took the Burbages to court to sue them for trespass, demanding £800 in damages (including two pounds for "trampling of the grass"). Allen lost his case.

The New Playhouse

The design of the new playhouse was determined by the size and number of the oak timbers of the Theatre. Like the earlier building, it was a 20-sided polygon, around a 100ft across, with galleries on three levels. The spaces between the timbers were filled with panels made of thin strips of wood, called lath, plastered with a mixture of lime, horsehair and sand. The thatched roof may have been much cheaper than tiles, but it would eventually prove to be a fire hazard.

The Burbages shared their building costs with five members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, including William Shakespeare, who were called the ''sharers''. The brothers kept half ownership of the building, while the other half went to the sharers. Future profits were split 50:50 between the owners and the rest of the company, with the owners' half being equally divided in turn between the Burbages and the sharers.

The playhouse was named the Globe, a word which had entered English less than 50 years before, referring to spherical models of the earth. The name was explained in a painted sign showing Hercules holding a Globe on his shoulders. The Latin motto: ''Totus mundus agit historiem'' (All the world plays the actor). In As You Like It, one of the first successes of his new playhouse, Shakespeare paraphrased the Latin motto as, ''All the world's a stage; and all the men and women merely players.''

The Box Office

It cost one penny to enter The Globe and employees went through the audience colecing the coins in clay boxes with a slit in the top - but no means of getting the money out so all proceeds could be guaranteed to reach 'the office'. The collectors would take the boxes to the office where they were smashed to get at the money - thus the origin of the term, 'Box Office'.

The Second and Third Globes

A year after the fire that destroyed the Globe, a second Globe was erected on its site. Similar to the first in structure, but this time the roof was tiled and Shakespeare was no longer one of its in-house playwrights. This Globe remained in operation and intact until the 1640s, when it was pulled down by the new Puritan regime.

In 1949, American actor and director Sam Wanamaker came to England, and made a beeline for the site of the Globe, to see whatever monument there was for this most important of theatres. When he reached the site, however, all he found was a plaque, blackening on the wall of a brewery. He resolved that the Globe deserved better – and twenty years later, he began his work.


Sam Wanamaker established the Globe Playhouse Trust to steer the reconstruction of the Globe, using, as far as possible, the materials and techniques that would have been used in Shakespeare’s day. Through the 1970s and 1980s there followed planning wrangles with the resistant local council, [not much change for Shakespeare’s day.

With the vision of the architect, Theo Crosby, The New Globe is not only a working theatre, but an education centre, exhibition centre, a library, gift shop and a restaurant. The theatre opened in the summer of 1997, but tragically, neither man had survived to see the celebrations. Wanamaker had died in 1993, and Crosby the following year.
On the opening night it was left to actress Zoë Wanamaker to fill her father’s place and speak the famous lines from the new oak stage, under the new thatched roof. The lines had been written by Shakespeare four centuries earlier for that same stage, in his prologue to Henry V, and they are his description of the magical transformations that take place at the Globe:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention. A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, And monarchs to behold the swelling scene. Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire, Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all, The flat unraised spirits that hath dared On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth So great an object. Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt? O, pardon! Since a crooked figure may Attest in little place a million; And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, On your imaginary forces work…

For anyone considering visiting this amazing piece of history, the plays scheduled at The Globe for the 2009 summer season are:
April - Romeo and Juliet
May – As You Like It
June to September Midsummer Knight’s Dream, Troilus and Cressida
October – Love’s Labours Lost, As You Like It

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