Shakespeare’s London Theatreland

I read about this book on the website of the Museum of London Archeology. It’s written by an archeologist, Julian Bowsher by name, and tells the story of the discovery of remains of playhouses discovered in London recently and dating back to the ‘golden age’ of theatre in Shakespeare’s time.

Shakespeare's London Theatreland

It is an accessible book, nicely jargon-free and very readable and, to someone like me, fascinating. I had no idea for instance that there were so many playhouses built in the latter part of the 16th century other than the ones we know about: The Theatre, which I had erroneously thought was the first purpose-built playhouse to be built in England since Roman times (I blogged about it here), The Curtain, The Rose, the Globe, The Swan, The Hope and The Fortune. Most of the others were short-lived, or there’s not much known about them. I also didn’t realise how many playhouse-builders lost so much money, or got entangled in complex and lengthy disputes, though it doesn’t take a genius to realise that running a theatre commercially has never been and never will be a job for ordinary mortals.

It may be my perception but it seems as though contemporary interest in old playhouses really began with the discovery of the remains of The Rose Theatre on Bankside in 1989.

The Rose site, 1989 (geograph.co.uk)

The Rose site, 1989 (geograph.co.uk)

I can remember the outcry when, having discovered a surprisingly large section of the theatre’s foundations between the demolition of one building and the development of another, the powers that be were about to allow the new building to be built right on top of them, obscuring them and presumably demolishing them all at once. I remember how the guiding lights of theatre at the time, headed by Dame Peggy Ashcroft and the local MP for Bankside, Simon Hughes, came and camped on the site in protest at the redevelopment, and won. (The foundations are preserved and the new building went ahead without disturbing them.) Ever since then the MOLA  – The Museum of London Archeologists – have been hard at work uncovering foundations of all the theatre mentioned above, with the exception I believe of The Swan, which is on the site of Sampson House, not far from the Globe and the Rose, which has been too thoroughly gutted over the years.

Sampson House, on the site of the Swan Playhouse

Sampson House

The Hope Theatre, in The Bear Garden, round the corner from the new Globe, has been hidden behind hoardings for years now, and I was quite distressed the other day when I walked past to see it is now a demolition site. Bowsher’s book tells us however that the site – which had a dual purpose as a playhouse and a bearbaiting ring – was excavated ‘between 1999 and 2000 but very little was found, as most of the building lay outside the site limits’. What they did find were the remains of piles of animal bones, legacy of the bear-baiting.

What used to The Hope Playhouse

The Hope

The book includes a number of walks around Shakespeare’s London, to sites of old playhouses, inns and bear-baiting rings, from the City and West end to Greenwich and Hampton Court. It is published by  Museum of London Archeology and costs £20. Much recommended.

For more on MOLA and its excavations of playhouses visit the Museum of London’s website HERE:

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2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s London Theatreland

  1. The more I read about theatre in the 1500s the more I realise little has changed in our industry in 500 years. The major change, of course, was women being allowed to participate as actors, and the advent of electric lighting, but the drive, the obstacles, the fortunes of theatre denizens all sounds just the same!

    • Absolutely true Mike. Interestingly James Burbage never made money out of The Theatre though his sons did out of the Globe, as did the other shareholders, including Shakespeare. (That’s why he was able to buy expensive property in Stratford, not because of his 37 plays.) Philip Henslowe was the Cameron Mackintosh of his day, through the Rose, the Fortune and the Hope and with interest in other playhouses. So it was possible to pursue the dream and make money out of it, as it was equally possible to pursue the dream and lose everything, as it is still is now. Ned Alleyn, lead actor at the Rose, founded Dulwich College, although I believe this was through the money he made on property rather than his actor’s wages, needless to say.

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