Looking from afar across to Shoreditch, the Theatre would have been an incredible sight: a “gorgeous playing-place erected in the Fields”, noted one contemporary. Playgoers – who had grown up watching plays outside inns or on village greens – would have seen nothing like it before. Opened in 1576 by James Burbage on the grounds of the old Holywell Priory, to the east of the City of London, the Theatre was the pioneering purpose-built performance venue.
“Rising from the playgrounds of Finsbury Fields, the Theatre was its own best advertisement, filling onlookers with curiosity and anticipation,” writes Catharine Arnold in her fascinating new book, Globe. “As it grew towards completion, the Theatre could even be seen from Bankside.”
While there was an attempt to build a purpose-built playhouse in 1567, the Red Lion in Whitechapel, it failed, so the Theatre in Shoreditch can lay claim to being the first successful one in London.
Those playgoers that could afford to enter (they were stopped at the door by attendants with collecting boxes) would “find themselves in an enclosed central space like a bear-pit without a roof,” as Arnold notes:
“When they looked up, they saw the sky and faced the elements. When they looked in front, they saw an open stage crossing one end of the circle, with doors and curtains at the back. Above the stage was a Player’s House, which could represent a balcony, a tower, a steeple, a bridge, a prison or any location which required a higher level than the stage. If they looked around, they would see galleries, as they would they would have in inn-yards, but draped with magnificent fabrics.”
The best seats were in the covered galleries, while the cheaper ones others were right in front of the stage which jutted out and were exposed to the elements. When it rained, playgoers faced a dilemma. “If they could not afford to pay more, they would have stayed where they were, out in the open, in the wind and the rain, among the crowds who surged forward, the good-humoured ones cracking nuts, the bad-tempered picking fights,” says Arnold.
The Theatre has long disappeared from Shoreditch. As we will come to discover, the timbers from Burbage’s Theatre were transported across the Thames in late 1598 and re-built as the Globe on Bankside. But traces of the Shoreditch establishment, unearthed during an archaeological dig in 2008, do exist and plans to build a new six-storey theatre in the very spot where the previous one stood more than four centuries ago were approved in 2013. But currently the site – hidden away behind a branch of Foxtons – is vacant, after a warehouse was demolished several years ago.
Born around 1535, possibly in Warwickshire (although there is some disagreement amongst scholars about this), Burbage joined the Earl of Leicester’s men as a player in 1559. He travelled around the country entertaining lords, performing in exchange for food and lodgings. Other troupes, who weren’t liveried, performed outside inns and taverns – where flimsy scaffolding that acted as makeshift stages was known to collapse – or on village greens. At the more public of events, collections were passed round so playgoers could put in a donation for the actors.
“Conditions were grim for England’s travelling players, a strange underclass emerging from the radical social and economic changes of the Reformation,” writes Arnold. “Just as stray dogs will form themselves into packs, so this motley crew of masterless men, vagabonds and the runaway slaves, defrocked priests, homeless monks, younger sons, penniless scholars, tramps and thieves banded together into theatrical mercenary armies for their own survival, offering drama and entertainment in return for food and shelter.”
Inevitably Burbage’s work brought him to London. But the touring companies were never popular with authorities in the City and met with suspicion, so licenses would be introduced. Lord Mayor James Hawes stated in 1574 that he thought plays were a waste of money for attendees, distracting them from divine service and, perhaps more seriously, a threat to law and order. They gave an opportunity for “sondry robberies by picking and cutting of purses, and many other corruptions of youth,” he believed.
And so it was perhaps no surprise that in that year the Lord Mayor and his aldermen struck the final blow: “Therefore it be ordered that all such Interludes in publique places and the resort to the same, shall be wholly prohibited as ungoldly, and humble suit be made to the Lordes that lyke prohibition be in places near unto the Cittie.”
With the ban, Burbage decided to go on tour with his men and so travelled the country, performing at Royal palaces (the Queen had an audience with them twice) and other important venues. But the actor wanted a more consistent income and thought the solution was to build a fixed venue, outside the City’s jurisdiction, but close enough so that audiences could reach them. Shoreditch was calling.
The Theatre – not far from where Liverpool Street station is today – was popular when it opened in 1576. In 1598 historian John Stow described it as “a public house for the acting and shewing of comedies tragedies and histories”. Burbage took out a 21 year lease – at £14 per year, with a deposit of £20 – on expansive land that originally formed part of the old Holywell Priory. To help fund the venture, he borrowed from John Hyde, a wealthy Londoner, and the structure was completed in around a month.
Most think that playwright William Shakespeare first came to London in 1588 – probably as an actor, but others have suggested other initial jobs. There is however a certain reference to him in 1592 as being an actor and playwright in the city. And in 1594 Shakespeare helped form an acting company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (they would receive royal patronage from King James in 1603 and so they changed their name to the King’s Men) which performed at the Theatre.
Burbage himself moved to Shoreditch in 1575, settling in Holywell Street – somewhere that would become popular with actors and writers. Given its “grand timber-framed merchants’ houses, [it] was already something of a bohemian enclave,” writes Arnold. It would grow into a place where actors and writers mingled with “poore Scholers and soldiers, pox-ridden prostitutes, fortune tellers, cobblers and stock menders,” according to Thomas Nashe, who knew the area in the 16th century.
Even though the Theatre was outside the City walls, it didn’t escape criticism. Playhouses were forced to close when there was an outbreak of plague (a frequent occurrence in Elizabethan London) and so Burbage could be left without an income for many months on end. In an 1577 sermon, delivered at the St Paul’s Cross, a preacher even blamed the questionable morality of the plays for the disaster and urged his audience to look “upon the Common Playes in London and see the multitude that flocketh to them, and followeth them; beholde the sumptuous Theatre houses a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly…. the cause of the plague is sinne, and the cause of sinne are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are playes.”
Perhaps more farfetched was when the Lord Mayor accused Burbage’s venture of causing an earthquake in 1580. He told the privy council that: “the players of plays which are used at the Theatre and other such spaces are a very superfluous sort of men…. and their exercise of those plays is a great hindrance of the service of God, who hath with His mightie hande so lately admonished us of our earnest repentance.” As for the Theatre itself, it was solidly built (Burbage had been apprenticed as a joiner and knew the value of investing in a sturdy structure) and so it suffered minimal damage.
Given the popularity, it wasn’t surprising that others soon emerged on the scene, not least the Curtain some two hundred yards away (the venue is remembered in Curtain Road) which opened in 1576. In the end, however, a deal was done, so that the two establishments worked together and profits were pulled. Plans announced earlier this year will see the surviving traces of the Curtain (unearthed during an archaeological dig in 2012) preserved and featured as the centre-piece of a new development with offices, homes, shops and other amenities.
In the end, it wasn’t plague, clashes with the City authorities or new upstarts that finally forced the Theatre to shut up shop in Shoreditch. When Burbage took on the Hollywell site in 1576, he signed a 21 year least that was extendable for another 10 years after 10 years, if both sides were in agreement. However the landlord – Giles Alleyn – wanted to change the terms of the lease in 1585, so that he not only increased the rent, but also get a share of the profits (and, bizarrely, Burbage wouldn’t even be able use the site for a theatre for the final five years of the release).
Despite being a success with audiences, the lease for the Theatre came to an end in 1596 and all performances of the Chamberlain’s Men needed to move to the smaller Curtain venue nearby. James had acquired another venue – an indoor playhouse at Blackfriars – but it was banned by the Privy Council, so performances couldn’t be held there.
But after Burbage’s death in 1597, his sons, Cuthbert and Richard, started to worry that Alleyn was even planning to pull the structure down and re let the site to a new tenant. When they got wind that their landlord had actually recruited housebreakers, they were spurred into action to sign for a new site. And so, on the 28th December 1598, the Burbages, with the support of a dedicated band of helpers, started to pull it down and prepare for a move across the Thames.
Remains of the Theatre – including part of the original curved wall and the sloping area where audience paying the cheapest admission would have stood – was found by archaeologists in 2008. The stage is thought to have been buried under a housing development. And in amongst the debris was found a fragment of pottery of a man with a beard that resembles Shakespeare, the man who was to have a huge impact on theatre for many years to come.
Next week: My new series on the birth of theatres in London continues on Bankside.