Changing London

Bankside’s pioneering playhouses – the Globe’s great competitors

While the Globe theatre is the most famous of the Elizabethan playhouses on Bankside given its links to William Shakespeare, far less is known about it than about its neighbour, the Rose. The latter (opened in 1587) was one of two such venues already in operation in the area when the Globe sprung up in 1599 (the other being the Swan, which opened in 1595).

We know so much about the Rose because of the discoveries made during a major archaeological dig in the late 1980s ahead of a modern building being constructed. Campaigners fought hard to preserve the site in the basement (which was due to be an underground car park) of the new block. On open days, modern visitors are shown the impressive traces of the Elizabethan theatre (although the actual foundations are a metre further below ground and protected from the air).

Red rope lights help provide visitors with an understanding of the scale of the theatre, including where the outer walls would have been, the pit where playgoers stood and the position of the stage. It must have been an incredible experience seeing a play at the Rose in its heyday. There were so many people squashed into a cramped space and some have suggested that the atmosphere was like going to a football match or rock concert.

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Inside the Rose

The Rose Theatre Trust is raising funds to allow for the excavation of the remaining third of the site, an area where highly-rated intimate plays are currently staged to help fundraise for the project. Once the dig is complete, glass will be placed above the foundations, creating vacuum and thus allowing the remains to be on show to visitors.

Longer term, it is hoped that Rose can be rebuilt on its original footprint. The way Rose Court was built above means that it won’t be affected. So hidden away below the 1980s building will be a wonderful Elizabethan galleried playhouse, in the style of the re-constructed Globe but built on a smaller scale.

Rise and fall of the Rose

Philip Henslowe opened the Rose in 1587 and it was an instant success, so after only five years he extended it. The venue, which was built on the geometry of a 14-sided polygon, could originally hold 500 people standing in the yard and more than 1100 in the galleries, but the modifications meant that an additional 175 and 225 people could enter the two areas. And at the same time, he made the stage larger and covered the performance area, so the actors (with their expensive costumes) were given some form of protection against the elements.

The Rose would, in time, become a rival to the Globe and from 1591 was home to the Admiral’s Men (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later to become the King’s Men, played along the road and boasted William Shakespeare in its company). But despite his allegiances elsewhere, Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part One and Titus Andronicus were both premiered at the Rose. Many of Christopher Marlowe’s plays were first performed at the venue as well.

Henslowe and John Chomley signed a lease for the site – a tenement with two gardens called Little Rose located on reclaimed land – in 1585 and they agreed to build a playhouse. The theatre was built using plaster and timber, and finished with a thatched roof. While Chomley seems to have died before the eight year partnership they formed had concluded, Henslowe – who lived in nearby Clink Street – went on to become extremely successful, establishing other playhouses with his son-in-law Edward Alleyn and investing in other property.

We know so much about Rose not just from archaeology, but also from account books which Henslowe kept and have survived. They talk about the plays that were performed, props, costumes and how the audience behaved. Henry VI was particularly successful, earning him £3 16s 8d (£3.83) at the premiere, when average across that season was £1 14s (£1.73p). Other plays listed included Doctor Faustus, Jew of Malta and Titus Andronicus. And “lewd disposed persons” including harlots and pilferers also visited the Rose.

The 1988 archaeological dig by the Museum of London led to the discovery of over 700 small objects, including jewellery, costumes, make-up brushes, money pots for collecting admissions, a bannister and even a cannon ball that was used to create the sound of thunder during performances. Some of these items featured in the British Museum’s ‘Staging the World’ exhibition in 2012, as well as being on permanent display at the Museum of London and galleries at Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside.

In a way the Rose became a victim of its own success. As other theatres were built, the venue became less fashionable alongside the likes of the Globe and performances began to be reduced. It appears to have stopped being used by 1603 and abandoned in 1606. Alleyne probably retired from the stage at the same time as the theatre closed, so he could concentrate on other business interests, as well as founding the almshouses and a school which is now known as Dulwich College. But is exciting to think that after a 400 year absence, performances could take place on the original stage at the Rose again.

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Modern building hiding the Rose

The Swan

Some 500 metres west from the Rose, near the southern approach to Blackfriars Bridge was from 1595, the Swan. Opened by Francis Langley, a theatre builder and producer, the playhouse seated some three thousand people. The last record of its evidence was a pamphlet of 1632, in which it was described as being like a ruined fortress – “in times past as famous as any of the other…. fallen to decay and like a dying Swanne, hanging downe her head, seemed to sing her owne dierge.”

We know a considerable amount about playhouses in Bankside from a Dutch priest called Johannes de Witt who visited the Swan shortly after it opened and made notes in his diary:

“There are four amphitheatres in London so beautiful that they are worth a visit, which are given different names from their different signs. In these theatres, a different play is offered to the public every day. The two more excellent of these are situated on the other side of the Thames, towards the South, and they are called the Rose and Swan from their signboards.… The most outstanding of all theatres, however, and the largest, is that whose sign is the Swan, as it seats three thousand people. It is built out of flint stones stacked on top of each other (of which there is great store in Britain), supported by wooden pillars which, by their painted marble colour, can conceive even the most acute observers. As its form seems to bear the appearance of a Roman work, I have made a drawing of it.”

De Witt’s sketch depicts three tiers of galleries of seating surrounding the pit and raised stage, with a thatched roof on the performance area to offer actors some protection from the elements. On the top there is a flag flying – with the theatre’s own emblem of a swan – to suggest that a play was being performed.

Bankside’s final playhouse

Not far from the Globe, was the fourth and final of Bankside’s great playhouses. Construction began in 1613 when Philip Henslowe – owner of the Rose – contracted a carpenter to demolish Bear Garden and build a theatre in its place, for a fee of £360. But unlike the playhouses, this was a dual-purpose venue. “ It needed to be a “Playhouse fit and convenient in all things, both for players to play in and for the game of Bears and Bulls to be baited in the same and also fit and convenient tyre house [a space where actors got changed], and a stage to be carried away and taken away and to stand upon trestles,” according to the surviving contract. We also know that the Hope needed to be built with two staircases on the outside, and unlike the Globe there was to be no posts or pillars on the stage as it was believed they would disrupt the audience’s view.

One of the first plays to be shown at the playhouse when it opened in 1614 was Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, performed by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men. But the venue’s time as a place of theatre was short lived and from 1617 was mainly used for bear-baiting until it was closed down in 1656. Samuel Pepys noted in his diary a visit that he and his wife made to the venue in August 1666, but by 1714 there was a new development on the site called Bear Garden Square. Part of the site was rediscovered under a car park in 2001, while the rest lies under four properties. The Hope is however now remembered in the form of an alley called Bear Gardens.

But for theatre as a whole on Bankside, when you take the date when the first one was opened (the Rose in 1587) and the time when all playhouses were all supressed by Puritans (1642), this much-talked about period of history only lasted 55 years. When theatres were permitted to re-open following the Restoration, they had moved upmarket and moved over to the other side of the Thames as well, giving birth to the West End as we now know it. At the time of writing, the re-constructed Globe has been standing for eight years. Will this latest period of Bankside theatre outlast the previous one? Only time will tell.

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