Theaters of London 1567-1642
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Until the mid-16th century, acting companies toured and performed plays in make-shift spaces. But the period starting in 1567 with the construction of the first purpose-built English playhouse to 1642 with the closing of all playhouses by the Puritans represents both the incunabular period and a golden age of English theatre.
Successful companies began building permanent theaters just outside London's boundaries. While these playhouses fell under the authority of the Crown's master of revels, they avoided the interference of London's municipal authorities. These years gave birth to outdoor amphitheaters with trapdoors and dressing rooms and indoor playhouses with artificial lighting. They gave rise to the first great “theatre impresarios” like James Burbage and Philip Henslowe who possessed both artistic sensibilities and ruthless business acumen. They produced “leading star actors” like Richard Burbage, James's son, who performed many of Shakespeare's great characters, and Edward Alleyn, Philip's son-in-law, who performed many of Marlowe's. Both actors enjoyed passionate fans, both died wealthy, and both were more publicly mourned than the authors whose words they spoke. Most importantly, this period gave us the greatest writer of the English language.
All theaters were closed by Parliament under the Puritans in 1642 at the start of the English civil war. Some continued to perform surreptitiously during this period. Some reopened in 1660 during the English Restoration. Below is a map of the theaters that flourished between 1567 and 1642 and a table with more information about their history and significance.
|Built by John Brayne and technically the first purpose-built English theater, it is believed to have lasted only a year and produced only one play, The Story of Samson. A contemporaneous lawsuit by John Brayne mentions, “a farme house called and known by the name if the Synge if the Redd Lyon.” Shakespeare turned 3 the year it was built. At his birth there were no English playhouses. In 2020, archeologists believe they found the remains of this playhouse.
|This is considered the first successful purpose-built English playhouse. James Burbage, England's first great theater impresario, and his brother-in-law John Brayne built it for Burbage's company, The Leicester's Men under the patronage of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. It later became the venue for some of Shakespeare's early plays.
|Richard Hicks sublet an area of Lurklane near Newington Butts (south of Bankside, not shown on map) to Jerome Savage who started to construct a playhouse. Hicks tried to cancel the lease referring to Savage as, “a verrie lewed fealowe” who “liveth by noe other trade than playinge of staige plaies and Interlevdes”. He failed and a company of actors under the patronage of the Earl of Warwick performed in the theater until Warwick died. The company then became the Lord Oxford's Men. In 1594, Philip Henslowe and his Admiral's Men staged plays in the theater, which may have included a couple of Shakespeare's plays. That same year the playhouse was closed.
|In 1576, the former Dominican priory, which had been expropriated by Henry VIII around 1538, came under the ownership of Sir William More. He leased a portion of it to Richard Farrant, Master of Windsor Chapel, who converted the buttery into a playhouse for a company of boy actors who performed plays for paying audiences. Later a new company of boy actors performed under John Lyly until his lease was cancelled by More in 1584.
|Within a year of the opening of the Theatre, the Curtain, which is believed to have been built by Henry Lanman, opened just down the street. In 1585, Burbage began using the Curtain as a secondary venue. Then from 1597 to 1599, while trying to renegotiate his lease at the Theatre, Burbage used the Curtain as his company's primary venue. Some of Shakespeare's plays were performed there including Henry V, in which the Curtain was described in the Prologue of act 1 as, “this wooden O,” a description which applied as well to the Theatre and the Globe.
|Philip Henslowe, another early theater impresario like Burbage, built the Rose, the first playhouse in Bankside, just south of the River Thames. This became the main venue for the Admiral's Men, whose principal playwright was Christopher Marlow and whose most popular actor was Edward Alleyn. This was the home of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine the Great and The Jew of Malta, and of Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1 and Titus Andronicus, perhaps his first plays. When Shakespeare first arrived in London in his early 20's in the late 1580's, the Theatre, Newington Butts, the Curtain and the Rose were the only playhouses in operation.
|Francis Langley built the Swan, home of the Pembroke's Men, in Bankside close to the Rose. For a time it was considered the largest (holding an audience of about 3,000) and finest theater in England. Dutch tourist Johannes De Witt visited the Swan and wrote a description of it accompanied by a sketch. The original drawing is lost but a copy exists and it is the only known sketch of an Elizabethan playhouse. The Swan was fraught with scandal, the most famous being Ben Jonson's and Thomas Nashe's 1597 production, The Isle of Dogs. This satire of important people landed Jonson in prison and led to the revocation of the Swan's license for a time.
|James Burbage purchased a new and larger space within the Dominican priory and remodeled it for indoor performances. Petitions objecting to the playhouse in the neighborhood prevented him from using this theater for his company. He leased the space to Henry Evans, who had been evicted from the earlier Blackfriars. Evans began another children's company, The Children of the Chapel, which attracted major playwrights including Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton and others. This company and Paul's Children from the Cathedral, became popular and highly innovative. Shakespeare alludes to the boy actor companies with veiled disparagement in Hamlet: “…there is, sir, an aerie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for ‘t. These are now the fashion and so berattle the common stages (so they call them) that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills and dare scarce come thither.” (Hamlet:2.2.350)
|After failed negotiations to renew the lease for the land on which the Theatre stood, Burbage's company disassembled the playhouse in December, 1598, and transported the timbers to Bankside just south of the Thames, where they used the lumber to build their new playhouse, the Globe, near the Rose. In order to finance this project, Burbage sold shares to five of his actors, including Shakespeare. Burbage owned a 50% interest and each of the others owned a 10% interest. In March 1599, while the Globe was under construction, Shakespeare wrote Henry V, which played at the Curtain, and later that year he wrote Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet, which debuted at the Globe. This structure burned to the ground in 1613 as a result of an accident during a performance of Shakespeare's last play, Henry VIII.
|Philip Henslowe, whose aging Rose Theatre was now facing competition from Burbage's new Globe as well as the Swan, decided to abandon the Bankside and build a new theater, the Fortune, in Shoreditch. Henslowe and his son-in-law actor Edward Alleyn hired Peter Street who had just finished building the Globe to build the Fortune. This became the new home of the Admiral's Men and it remained relatively successful although with some diminution of its reputation until 1621 when it burned to the ground.
|Although records indicate that the Red Bull was built in 1604, there is no documentation that confirms its use until 1607. The Queen Anne's Men performed at this venue until 1617, when their impresario, the somewhat notorious Christopher Beeston, moved them to the Cockpit. They were succeeded at the Red Bull by the Prince Charles's Men. After the death of James I, the theatre housed a succession of companies.
|The Whitefriars Theatre was an indoor, relatively small and exclusive venue within the former Carmelite monks' monastery. It housed primarily boy's acting companies.
|Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, sons of the deceased James Burbage, and William Shakespeare, Henry Condell, John Heminges, and William Sly, all members of the King's Men, plus Thomas Evans, agent for the theatre manager Henry Evans, invested as equal shareholders in this third Blackfriars Theatre. This became the smaller, more exclusive and expensive indoor winter venue of the King's Men, previously the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The Globe continued as their summer venue.
|Within a year of the original Globe burning to the ground, the King's Men rebuilt the theater. It continued in operation under various companies until all theaters were closed in 1642.
|During the same year that the Globe was being rebuilt, Philip Henslowe, who had an interest in the Beargarden, a venue for bear baiting and a close neighbor to the Globe, decided to rebuild it for the dual purposes of play acting and bear baiting. This was an indoor theater to compliment his outdoor Fortune theater in Shoreditch. Both the Queen Anne's Men and the Prince Charles's Men used this theater. The plans for the construction of this theater survive so they provide us with some information about the nature of English Renaissance theaters.
|Phoenix or Cockpit
|The original Cockpit was built about 1530 under Henry VIII for cock fights. It went through a number of restorations until 1616, when theater impresario Christopher Beeston converted it to an indoor playhouse. Apprentices almost immediately destroyed it because they were angry that Beeston was moving his plays from his Red Bull theater to this new, more expensive venue. Beeston quickly restored and reopened the Cockpit and renamed it the Phoenix. His intention appears to have been to emulate Burbage's and Henslowe's models of owning both outdoor and indoor theaters. A number of different companies, including the Queen's Men, Prince Charles's Men and Princess Elizabeth's Men played here. The last known company to perform here were the Beeston's Boys, the last company of boy actors of the Renaissance theater period.
|After the original Fortune burned in 1621, Edward Alleyn, who had inherited the theatre from his father-in-law Philip Henslowe, decided to rebuild. To raise the money he partnered with twelve members of his company who became equal sharers. Alleyn was by this time occupied with his new venture, establishing Dulwich College. After Alleyn's death the theatre housed a succession of different companies including the Palgrave's Men and Prince Charles's Men.
|The Salisbury Court theater was built by Richard Gunnell, an actor and manager at the Fortune, and William Blagrave, deputy Master of the Revels. In the mid-1630's, control of the theatre passed to Richard Heton. The theatre was occupied by the King's Revels Men, Prince Charles's Men, and Queen Henrietta's Men. Salisbury Court was a rival to Christopher Beeston's Phoenix and Red Bull theaters. It reopened after the Restoration in 1660 but burned down in 1666.
Shakespeare's plays are performed in almost every country in the world. To view a short list of a few playhouses that make Shakespeare productions the core of their repertoires, read more here…