The Theatre, built in 1576, was the first of the famous London playhouses built in the now iconic polygonal form. Its fame has been further assured because William Shakespeare both acted there and wrote for it. For historians, the Theatre is important because of the wealth of documentary information, much of it derived from legal disputes. These papers also helped to more-or-less pinpoint its location years before archaeologists finally uncovered it in 2008.
Its history begins when James Burbage, a joiner turned actor, took out a 21-year lease on 13 April 1576 on a site that lay within the precinct of the former Holywell Priory, in the prosperous settlement of Shoreditch. Here, Burbage intended to ‘erect or set up a theatre or playing place’. Burbage was never very sound financially and brought in his brother-in-law John Brayne to augment his costs by ‘hiring workmen, providing timber and other needful things for the building of the said Theatre’. Nevertheless, they were putting on plays there even before the building was completed in order to gain some income. In the end, the building cost about £700, which was a fortune at the time.
The Theatre was certainly open by 1 August 1577, when it came to the notice of the Privy Council, and there are numerous references to ‘disturbances’ from this time onwards which suggests an early popularity. There is no complete record of which acting companies, all under the patronage of rich aristocrats, performed there, but they included Lord Leicester’s Company – in which Burbage was the lead player, Lord Oxford’s who were there in 1580 and the Queen’s Company there from 1583. Richard Tarlton, the leading comic of the Queen’s, thrilled the Theatre’s audience by his lewd ditties that often got him into trouble. The Lord Admiral’s Company was certainly there in 1590, when they probably performed Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, but the most famous troupe to perform there, from at least 1594, were the Lord Chamberlain’s company, headed by Burbage’s son Richard and including Shakespeare amongst its actors. Indeed many of Shakespeare’s early plays were first performed here, such as Hamlet in about 1595.
Occasional references in the legal papers indicate that the Theatre was a typical timber-framed structure of the time. Timber and ‘such like things’ appear to have been reused from nearby buildings and £40 worth of iron work was used. There were frequent mentions of galleries entered by stairs through a door and with ‘upper rooms’. There was a ‘Theatre yard’ in the centre and an ‘attiring house or place where the players make themselves ready’ backstage. About £40 was spent on ‘building and repairing’ the playhouse in the winter of 1591–2. There are no details of this work but it is likely that improvements were made in order to maintain and enhance the Theatre’s prominence in London’s theatreland. Indeed the five-year-old Rose playhouse on the Bankside was undergoing greatly more expensive refurbishment at precisely the same time.
The polygonal building had an outer and an inner wall which supported the three tiers of galleries, the more expensive seating. There was an open yard in the centre which had standing room only. The excavations found only a few fragments of the outer wall, comprising strong stone or brick supports for the main upright timbers. There was more of the inner wall, defined by brick footings, with a gap where the access from the yard into the galleries would have been. The surface of the yard was of hard-packed gravel but was somewhat worn after 400 years. Traces of what might be the edge of the stage were found at the eastern end, opposite the main entrance.
Although the excavations did not uncover the whole building, there was enough to work out that it would have been a polygon of 14 sides with an external diameter of about 72ft (22m). These dimensions are very similar to those found at the Rose excavation. According to witness statements in the Theatre’s legal papers, John Griggs, the carpenter who built the Rose, knew the Theatre very well and almost certainly based the later Rose on it.
Outside the Theatre, the excavations also found buildings to the north-east including a fine cobbled yard surface, which may have served as a forecourt perhaps opening into New Inn Broadway. To the south-west there were traces of the ‘Great Barne’ which was described as so decrepit that it had to be propped up by the new Theatre.
The lease on the Theatre site was due to end in April 1597 but negotiations for a renewal became deadlocked and the Burbages decided to recoup some of their losses by dismantling the Theatre for its building material in December 1598. The timbers were taken to a new site on the south bank and were reused as components when a new, much bigger playhouse named the Globe was finally built in 1599. However, the idea that the old Theatre was dismantled overnight, transported to the Bankside and then re-erected, is a myth because we know that the Globe was much larger and more up to date.
The importance of the Theatre for archaeologists is that we can now see a development in the famous playhouses of Shakespeare’s London by comparing it with what we know from other excavations.
However, what survives on archaeological sites is often little more than the foundations. This collaboration between MOLA and Cloak and Dagger studios has provided an opportunity to explore how the Theatre may have worked in three dimensions and has provided a new insight into its architecture as well as its dramatic usage.
This is an edited extract from Julian Bowsher’s new MOLA book ‘Shakespeare’s London Theatreland’
Julian Bowsher © MOLA