London’s First Theatre: Life Outside the Limelight

Shakespeare: overshadowing true genius?

Ever since the remains of The Theatre were first discovered by accident in March earlier this year, media accounts have been unable to discuss the issue without expending a significant part of their word limit on re-extolling the virtues of Shakespeare and padding out their articles with extraneous details about his life and plays. Although any tenuous connection to the literary icon is a sure-fire attention grabber, it is a shame that the focus on Shakespeare diverts attention from the historical significance of the building itself and from those who are directly responsible for its existence.

It is a significant claim to fame that Shakespeare, as part of the Chamberlain’s Men, once acted on The Theatre’s stage and that early works including Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a version of the powerful tragedy Hamlet are thought to have premiered here. However, although a well-known and respected contemporary actor at the time of his association with The Theatre, Shakespeare’s career was only just beginning. It is The Globe, with which Shakespeare was associated subsequently, that is arguably shaped to a much greater extent by his presence and thus might be described in exclusive relation to him.

In fact, The Theatre’s historically significant debut was completely independent of Shakespeare. As the first purpose-built theatre in London, it has an important status as the foundation of the capital’s thriving theatrical industry. Subsequent to its construction, at the junction of Curtain Road and New Inn Yard, Shoreditch, the playhouse became the heart of the Elizabethan theatrical district. Although there were, of course, locations at which plays were performed prior to The Theatre’s construction in 1576, the decision to build a venue specifically for the purpose of staging plays indicates a dedication to the theatrical industry and also a confidence in the belief that it would be profitable.

Imagine the first audience crowded into The Theatre, breathless with anticipation as the curtain rose for the first time, on the first play, at the first purpose-built theatre in London: were they aware of the great historical significance of their presence? Although it is magical to imagine this moment in 1576, perhaps a more significant consideration than the first performance is the man who made the whole thing possible.

James Burbage, the owner and founder of The Theatre, was truly a man with a vision. For his entrepreneurship that facilitated the project’s construction and his determination to bring it to completion, he deserves recognition. In 1572 a ban, implemented by the Mayor and Corporation of London, forbade playing within the city limits and in 1575, the theatrical industry was once again targeted when all players were formally expelled from London. Although implemented officially as a measure against the spread of plague (as it was feared that large numbers of people in a confined area would facilitate the spread of infection), the restrictions conveniently coincided with the officials’ opinion of playhouses as centres of illicit behaviour and corruption. However, rather than being quashed by these measures, the theatrical industry merely re-established itself further afield.

Burbage, whose livelihood depended on entertainment, defiantly established himself beyond the jurisdiction of London in Shoreditch. The historian Dave Mullaney refers to these areas as “the suburbs of sin” (1988); their illicit and dramatic implications glamorise the struggle endured by playhouses in this area to survive. Although performances were attended by members of various social classes, the location of theatres in a neighbourhood notorious for licentious behaviour, brothels and gambling houses, had a negative impact on their moral reputation. Burbage’s idea of a purpose-built theatre separated the play from surrounding violence and disreputable behaviour, thus taking a step towards improving its standing.

It was in this salubrious location that Burbage chose to construct The Theatre. Persuading his brother-in-law to lend him the immense sum of £666 13s 4d (equivalent to more than quarter of a million pounds sterling today) and to join him in the venture, Burbage began construction. Based on plans adapted from designs for inn-yards that served dually as playing spaces and bear-baiting pits, The Theatre reputedly used timber sourced from an old priory which had previously stood on the same spot. Once completed, three-tiered galleries surrounded an open yard and a thrust stage extended from one wall towards its centre. The open yard would have been cobbled and the intelligent design in making it a slight slope afforded the best possible view to standing audience members. Accessible to a large proportion of the population (it cost just a penny for standing spectators) the Elizabethan theatre was a powerful medium.

Despite The Theatre’s success, it only stood on the Shoreditch site for about 20 years. Following a dispute with his landlord, Burbage was determined to defy him and to save his investment. He decided to remove his property, The Theatre, from the site. During the night of 28th December 1598, the wooden structure was hastily, but carefully, dismantled and, piece by piece, it was moved to Street’s Yard, near Bridewell, to be stored during the winter months. When the following spring brought favourable weather, the material was ferried across the River Thames to the South Bank where Burbage’s resolve paid off and the timber was meticulously reconstructed as The Globe Theatre.

Having been absent from the momentous transportation and re-building of The Theatre, Shakespeare only returned once it was reincarnated as The Globe Theatre to reap the benefits of Burbage’s devoted hard work. Thus he does not have the deep physical connection to The Theatre of its founder and owner.

Nevertheless, as one of the nation’s most beloved and iconic cultural figures, Shakespeare’s association with any location attracts mass interest and we cannot afford, at least for economic and tourism reasons, to overlook this. Consider Stratford-on-Avon where it is impossible to move without encountering Shakespeare memorabilia; everything from the pub signs to souvenir tea towels are inscribed with Shakespeare’s face and the town profits from it.

Thus if an arguably momentous discovery such as that of The Theatre gains greater interest and attracts greater attention from the addition of the name of the bard, then so be it. It is fortunate that the public’s attention can be drawn to important historical locations in this way that otherwise may be overlooked. Yet it is a shame that the focus on the playwright and the exploitation of his reputation diverts attention to such a large extent from the historical significance of the building itself and from those who were directly responsible for its existence.

Hopefully, given time and further excavations, which hope to provide a wealth of information to enhance our knowledge of Elizabethan theatres, The Theatre, and its creator, will come to be known and appreciated independently from Shakespeare. The intention of The Tower Theatre Company to construct their new theatre on the site seems almost disrespectful, raising queries of whether the area should instead be protected as a national monument. However, leaving sections of the excavations uncovered to form an integral part of the new building seems perhaps more appropriate since this allows the old theatre to be incorporated into the new. Thus the new playhouse illustrates the continuance of the theatrical tradition on this site after 400 years and celebrates James Burbage’s monumental efforts in establishing it originally.

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