The Marlowe Society
A sixteenth century print showing what is believed to be The Theatre
A view of the Cittye of London from the North (c.1600)
The (emboldened) building to the left with the flag may be The Theatre, although perhaps more likely the neighbouring Curtain.
27 April 2009

Stage Struck?

Excavations Confirm Discovery of The Theatre

There was further news recently regarding the ongoing excavations of The Theatre in Shoreditch, East London, with archaeologists announcing that they have uncovered part of the foundations of the building's polygonal inner wall, as well as the sloped yard floor area leading down to the stage where the groundlings would have stood to watch the plays. Unfortunately, however, it appears that the stage area is buried inaccessibly under adjacent housing.

The Theatre was constructed in 1576 by James Burbage, and was the first purpose built outdoor theatre in London. A good number of acting companies staged a myriad of plays at the venue during the next twenty one years as this form of entertainment became hugely popular with Elizabethan audiences. Most famously, the Lord Chamberlain's Men were resident at The Theatre from 1594 to 1597, an acting company that included William Shakespeare in their ranks along with Richard Burbage, their leading actor and son of James.

It is thus inevitable that the archaeological work has generated headlines referring almost exclusively to "Shakespeare's theatre". But we can also be fairly certain that the play-house put on a number of Christopher Marlowe's plays in the period before the Chamberlain's Men's residency.

Some amalgamation of Lord Strange's Men and the Lord Admiral's Men played at the Theatre, certainly in 1590-91, possibly starting earlier. A financial dispute in May 1591 with James Burbage led to the combined companies moving south of the river to Philip Henslowe's Rose Theatre. Henslowe's diaries record that The Jew of Malta was played ten times at The Rose between February and June 1592, and was one of the most popular plays during that run, grossing £2 3s. 6d. It seems that the play was written no later than 1590, and indeed it is not marked as a new play by Henslowe ('ne' in the diaries is generally believed to indicate a new play), suggesting strongly that it was in the combined companies' repertoire in the preceding year at The Theatre.

Location of The Theatre shown on the earlier Agas map of London
Location of The Theatre in Elizabethan London:
Detail from the Agas map of London c.1553-59. The site where The Theatre was later built by Burbage is marked, to the north of the Bishopsgate and the city [View Larger Map].

There is also evidence that Doctor Faustus was staged at the play-house. A 1604 prose pamphlet on the subject of London life, entitled The Blacke Booke, includes the following reference: "He had a head of hayre like one of my divells in Dr. Faustus, when the olde Theatre crackt and frighted the audience." The author of the pamphlet denotes himself only as "T.M.", but it seems highly likely that this was Thomas Middleton. Since the play seems to have been in Henslowe's ownership from 1592 onwards, we might conclude that any such performance of Doctor Faustus at The Theatre was again prior to this.

The Theatre enjoyed a fairly rumbustious history under James Burbage, who was certainly no shrinking violet. Burbage convinced his brother-in-law John Brayne to contribute both capital and labour to his theatrical venture, an arrangement that led to a legal dispute within two years (1578). The disagreements continued, and the claims were taken up by Brayne's wife after he died in 1586, and her heirs after 1593. When Mrs. Brayne and one Robert Miles came to The Theatre in 1590 in accordance with a court ruling to collect their share of the takings, they were refused entrance and Burbage harangued them from a window as "a murdering knave and a whore," whilst son Richard attacked Miles with a broom-staff. Burbage senior was separately accused of cheating "his fellowes the players", by using a secret key to steal from "the common box where the money gathered at the said playes was putt in," and also by "thrust[ing] some of the money devident between him and his said ffellowes in his bosome or other where about his bodye."1

All the capital's theatres were closed after the allegedly slanderous July 1597 production of The Isle of Dogs on Bankside (at The Swan), and it seems unlikely that The Theatre ever reopened. The original twenty one year lease was about to expire, and although James Burbage had died in February, his sons Cuthbert and Richard took up negotiations with the ground landlord Giles Allen. But no agreement could be reached. The Chamberlain's Men were reportedly playing at the neighbouring Curtain by the end of the year, leaving The Theatre "unfrequented".2

The lease had now expired and Cuthbert Burbage decided to take advantage of the legal covenant which allowed the owners to pull down any building erected on the leased ground. This work began on 28 December 1598, and carpenter Peter Street and his men transported the dismantled timbers from the old Theatre south over the river to Bankside, where they were used to build The Globe within a stone's throw of The Rose. Henslowe can't have been too enamoured by such close competition, but he was clearly impressed by Street's architecture, for he soon hired the same carpenter to build the new Fortune theatre north of the city, incorporating a stage "contryved and fashioned like vnto the Stadge of the saide Plaie howse called the Globe."3

Location of The Theatre in Modern London:
Location of The Theatre shown on Googlemap
[View exact location on a larger zoomable map]

The Theatre was located to the north of the Elizabethan walled city at Bishopsgate, along Bishopsgate St which became what is now Shoreditch High Street. To the west of this main artery lay an old benedictine priory around Holywell. On this site Burbage built his Theatre, with Finsbury Fields just to the west. E.K.Chambers writing in 19234 describes what was believed to be the exact location: "... as there was no right of way ... from Holywell Lane, an entrance was made through the wall direct from Finsbury Fields. Working from later title-deeds of the locality, [W.W.Braines] has successfully located the the precise site of the building in the angle now formed by Curtain Rd ... and New Inn Yard."

In the summer of 2008, work undertaken in preparation for building a new theatre on that very location for the Tower Theatre Company, uncovered remains believed to be the foundations of the first London theatre. Archaeologists were called in from the Museum of London (the organisation that also excavated the site of the original Globe in 1989) to examine possible findings in the disused Shoreditch warehouse on the site in the summer of 2008, and seven months later have now been able to confirm their exciting discoveries.

  • Note 1: E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford University Press, 1923) Vol. II p.388. Back to Text
  • Note 2: Everard Guilpin, Skialetheia (London, 1598), Satyra Quinta: But see yonder, / One like the vnfrequented Theater / Walkes in darke silence, and vast solitude, ... Back to Text
  • Note 3: E.K. Chambers, op.cit. p.437. Back to Text
  • Note 4: E.K. Chambers, op.cit. p.386. Back to Text
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