The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.102 Wednesday, 4 March 2015
From: Hardy Cook <
Date: March 1, 2015 at 12:58:39 PM EST
Subject: “The Theatre in Shoreditch, 1576-1599”
[Editor’s Note: Over this past weekend another web site of interest was mentioned: Gabriel Egan’s Publications with a link to Professor Egan’s article “The Theatre in Shoreditch, 1576-1599”. Interesting and informative. –Hardy]
“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”.
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