When American actor Sam Wanamaker went looking for the site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London in 1949, all he found was a blackened plaque on a wall near Southwark Bridge.
He expressed disappointment, but the seeds of an ambitious idea had been sown.
Wanamaker would, one day, rebuild the Globe.
Rebuilding the Globe: A Lifetime’s Work
The building which now stands on Bankside, some 100 metres from the site of the original structure, is the third theatre to bear the name The Globe.
The first, the theatre that William Shakespeare knew, was built in 1599. This was the theatre that saw the first performances of such masterpieces as Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Macbeth, cementing its place in theatrical history. It lasted until 1613, when it burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII.
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Rebuilt on a grander scale, the Globe would last until the closure of all London’s theatres in 1642 at the start of the Civil War. The structure was torn down a few years later, making way for tenements and leaving little to mark its passing.
Over 300 years later, in 1970, Sam Wanamaker founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust, and so began the rescue of the most important theatre in the Western world. It was a lengthy and occasionally frustrating struggle.
The work involved continuous fundraising, battling with local authorities to acquire the land and gain planning permission, and consulting with leading Shakespeare scholars on what form the theatre should take. It was no easy task. Nor was it a quick one. The building would not open to the public until 1997.
Shakespeare’s Globe: A Detective Story
For a long time the fame of Elizabethan theatre lay in the work rather than the buildings. At the time Wanamaker began this gargantuan task, little, if any, archaeological work had occurred.
What evidence there was for the structure and layout of London’s theatres resided in library archives and in the stage directions and asides of the works themselves. Reconstructing the Globe meant a lot of detective work.
Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt? Chorus, Henry V
In the Elizabethan era, the public theatres of London were something to write home about. A number of accounts written by visitors to the city survive, detailing various intriguing aspects of the buildings and the performances.
In 1599, Swiss tourist Thomas Platter visited the Globe, which he described as “the house with the thatched roof”, where he saw a performance of Julius Caesar. The actors were “most expensively and elaborately costumed,” he wrote.
A couple of years earlier, Dutch visitor Johannes de Witt made a sketch of a performance at the Swan Theatre. The accompanying letter, written in Latin, noted that The Swan held three thousand spectators and the wood pillars supporting the stage roof were so skilfully painted the observer would think they were marble.
As is so often the case with evidence from the Elizabethan period, the original of the sketch was lost, but a friend had made a copy which found its way into the archives of the library of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. This sketch is the only known contemporary visual depiction of the interior of a London playhouse.
The only other illustration from the era was the panorama known as the Long View, by Wenceslas Hollar, which depicts The Globe from a distance.
The other major piece of evidence for the layout of an Elizabethan theatre is the contract for The Fortune Theatre in Shoreditch, which survived thanks to its inclusion in the eclectic account books kept by theatre impresario Philip Henslowe.
The contract provided information on everything from the heights and depths of the galleries to the composition of plaster in the walls.
Archaeology Fills In The Blanks
The site of the original Globe lies underneath a Georgian-era listed building and a main road. A small excavation took place in 1989, which established that the Globe was a 20-sided polygon with a diameter of around 100 feet. Fortuitously, the remains of the nearby Rose Theatre were found at the same time.
The demolition of Southbridge House revealed the earlier theatre’s foundations, enabling archaeologists from the Museum of London to undertake an extensive rescue excavation. The discoveries made here would greatly influence the rebuilding of the Globe.
The Globe Finally Rises
Wanamaker was determined the new theatre would be as faithful a reconstruction as possible given the evidence. He ensured that they used Elizabethan techniques and materials to build the new Shakespeare’s Globe, including the use of ‘green’ wood, or recently felled trees, which season once in position.
The thatched roof, the first thatched roof in London since the Great Fire of 1666, consisted of water reeds from the Norfolk wetlands. The only concessions to modernity lie in the backstage machinery and the need to comply with health and safety legislation.
Getting permission to use thatch on the roof meant installing a sprinkler system and using fire-retardant materials.
Shakespeare’s Globe: A Success Story
Some of the misgivings expressed when Wanamaker first proposed rebuilding the Globe stems from a fear that the building would be little more than a pastiche, a structure beholden more to the heritage industry than the Shakespearean theatre. And would people really pay to stand in front of the stage?
For the sum of £5, probably the cheapest tickets in London, people would indeed pay to stand in front of the stage. As for those in the galleries, they could hire cushions, much as theatre-goers in Shakespeare’s day did. Shakespeare’s Globe has avoided the heritage trap by being, first and foremost, a working theatre which has produced both popular and award-winning work.
So popular is it, that 2014 saw the opening of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on the site. A small, covered theatre in the Jacobean mould, the Playhouse enables the Globe to put on performances year round, much as the Globe and Blackfriars theatres enabled Shakespeare’s company the Kings’ Men to put on performances year round from 1608.
From a modest plaque on an obscure wall to a key theatrical venue, today’s Shakespeare’s Globe is a piece of living history.