By Juliet Aykroyd
But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object.
– Prologue to King Henry the Fifth by William Shakespeare
In December 1988 a team from the Museum of London's Archaeology unit (MOLA) started to investigate the site of a demolished 1957 office block, a stone's throw from the river Thames. Any developer seeking planning permission – in this case for another office block – must commission an investigation of this kind. So far so mundane. But what the MOLA team discovered under the London mud wonderfully enhances our understanding of English theatre history.
The team's report describes the foundations of a polygonal timber-framed building with a thatched roof and a trapezoidal stage. No one doubts that this was and is the 400-year-old Rose theatre, because contemporary maps and panoramas show that it was located in the area. It was built in 1587 by Philip Henslowe, an astute speculator and impresario and father-in-law to Edward Alleyn, star actor of the time.
Henslowe's memorandum of transactions, known as his "Diary", has been pored over by scholars since the 18th century. It's a unique account of 16th century theatrical wheeling and dealing, and it itemises materials used in the construction of the Rose. Finds from the site illuminate Henslowe's jottings with heart-stopping reality; here, for example, is an entry (in his phonetic spelling) from the 1592 accounts: "Itm pd.for turned ballyesters ijd g A pece ij dossen iijs vjd" (which tells us that he paid 3 shillings and 6 pence for 24 turned balusters.) And there in an infill ditch on the site 400 years later was half of one those turned oak balusters he bought to support a new gallery rail for his theatre. More of the Rose minutiae later.
It was one of eight outdoor professional playhouses which appeared in London between 1567 and 1613. There were indoor playing spaces too, in private halls, inns of court, old monasteries and colleges. In all, we know of twenty-three adapted or purpose-built venues operating at one time or another before the Puritan blanket ordinances in 1642-7 "for the utter fuppreffion and abolifhing of all Stage-Playes".
What is significant about the playhouses is (a) that they offered some kind of permanency to performers who had in the past formed inchoate itinerant groups, and (b) they were set up to make money. The Rose and its neighbour the Globe made fortunes for their stakeholders. Before the 16th century there was nothing like these places. What caused the explosion of theatre building? And why was it peculiar to England?
It was one extraordinary side effect of that complicated chain of events: the English Reformation. In the 1530s, in defiance of Papal authority Henry VIII divorced Katharine of Aragon, who had failed to bear him a son and heir. He went on to ordain a Pope-free, Anglican church, with himself in charge. This made way for English anti-clericals and enthusiasts for Protestantism (which originated in Germany) to dismantle cultural structures that had defined people's everyday lives throughout the Middle Ages. The reformists' excuse was that the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt and decadent, which in many ways it was; and it was also mightily rich and powerful.
In the early stages the Reformers waged self-righteous war against anything that smacked of Papal influence: iconography, vestments, the Roman liturgy, the Latin language, images, holy days, saints' days, priests, monks – all these and much else were declared inimical to the Anglican church and therefore to the State. Rituals were altered or banned, monasteries were dissolved and demolished, and their great wealth appropriated by state loyalists.
Quite speedily, festivals which had shaped people's calendars for centuries – Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Whitsun, Corpus Christi, saints' days and holy days – dwindled or disappeared. Morality plays, enactments of saints' lives and moral fables, went the way of the Catholic clergy who penned them for the edification of illiterate parishioners. The Mystery Cycles, glorious amateur dramatics in which townsfolk all over the country participated in lively Biblical-history plays, were abolished by the 1540s. All this reforming took a lot of colour and joy away from people who naturally craved some fun in their short, tough lives, and so an emotional vacuum opened up. Here were expectant audiences, abruptly deprived of long-established entertainments. Ironically, the gap would come to be filled by an enterprise thoroughly loathed by Protestant extremists: the professional theatre.
So in a roundabout way the Reformation created an audience-in-waiting for a new, secular type of entertainment. It also inadvertently created a new kind of actor. At their best, the mediaeval monasteries were repositories of faith and culture; they were also the schools, hospitals and social service providers of the Middle Ages. When they were dissolved, hordes of dependents were thrown into limbo. Many died. Others became beggars and criminals. Others acquired performance skills such as juggling, acrobatics, puppeteering and ballad singing, formed troupes and travelled the roads in search of spectators. The authorities, appalled by these disorderly throngs, lumped them all together as Rogues and Vagabonds and brought in cruel laws to control them. The end effect was the outlawing of all professional players, other than those licensed to and financed by members of the nobility, as liveried servants.
By restricting the numbers of players, and enforcing their dependence on nobles who ensured them high-status work, the legislators unintentionally succeeded in elevating these erstwhile rogues and vagabonds into respectable citizens. This is reflected in their name-change: the light-hearted word "player" – from the Anglo-Saxon plegian, meaning "to dance for joy, rejoice, be glad" – was subsumed round about 1580 by the ponderous "actor" – from the Latin agere, meaning "to do, to transact". By the 1600s some player-actors had become rich and celebrated, and had their portraits painted. Edward Alleyn was one of them. William Shakespeare was another.
While the Reformers were re-writing spiritual agenda for the masses, writers of fiction – generically known as "poets" – were being transported into new imaginative realms via the renaissance of classical learning, which came to England later than elsewhere in Europe. As far as our story is concerned, the Reformers' most beneficent legacy was the phasing-out of the Latin language in church services, and the translation of the Bible into English. The version familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries was the Geneva Bible of 1560. With its fresh vocabulary and its beautiful cadences its effect on the ears and tongues and hearts and minds of its auditors is inestimable.
Given fabulous newly translated stories from Greek and Roman sources, and a re-vitalised language, it's no wonder that 16th century writers, and especially playwrights, were inspired to produce reams of inventive works. The Tudor government feared the subversive power of vernacular literature, and subjected plays (as well as players) to rigorous censorship. In the time-honoured way, repression stimulated creativity: poets experimented with language and forms and subject matter never tried before. The outstanding experimenter of this kind was William Shakespeare.
Audiences, actors, playwrights…by the time Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, all these elements were waiting in the wings, so to speak, for a local habitation, a home of their own. And Elizabethan London was ready to provide. In the 1560s (a little like the 1960s) it was a cocky, dangerous city: a glittering hub of culture and outrageous fashion, with a building boom under way, and a charismatic young female monarch as a magnet for clever courtiers and curious visitors. London and English drama were about to collide. Like the early movie industry, the playhouses were to catch the mood of the public and satisfy a craving for a new kind of popular culture.
There isn't space to tell the story of all the theatres that sprang up, so let us focus on just three. The first to be built in the English brick-and-timber amphitheatre style was in Shoreditch, north of the city, and was called, simply, the Theatre (from the Greek theatron "a place for seeing"). It was built by James Burbage, presumably because he surmised a market for plays. We don't know whether the polygonal design was his idea. A quasi-circle is a pleasing and cost-effective shape for an auditorium, with antecedents in bullrings and cockpits at one level and Greek and Roman theatres on another. Events would prove it to be the right design for London.
The Theatre is important because the first Globe, the playhouse on the South Bank in which Shakespeare was a shareholder, and for which he wrote plays and (maybe) acted in, was constructed in 1599 out of the actual timbers of the Theatre, which was dismantled in 1598. Both houses were owned and managed by the Burbages, father and sons. But we knew very little about the fabric of the Theatre or (contrary to popular perception) the first Globe, until a fragment of the latter was unearthed by a MOLA team in 1990. The fragment (now buried again) was too tiny to offer any momentous information, but did confirm that the first Globe was a polygon of perhaps 16 sides and that it burned down in 1613 (which we knew), and that a second Globe was built on its foundations (which we also knew).
See the world's ruins, nothing but the piles
Left, and wit since to cover it with tiles.
– Execration upon Vulcan by Ben Jonson
Henslowe's Rose was already in place in 1599 when James Burbage and his sons Cuthbert and Richard and a team of stalwarts hauled the timbers of the Theatre down to the South Bank, where brothels and bear-baiting pits were already a major attraction, and reconstructed their wooden "O" practically next door to the Rose. Shortly afterwards Henslowe's box-office takings slumped. He abandoned his Rose and moved north of the Thames to build a new theatre, the Fortune. By 1613 the old theatre was derelict.
It's remarkable that until the discovery of the Rose there was plenty of guesswork but hardly any real information about the physical nature of these astonishing playhouses. The Rose's remains tell us three interesting facts: (a) it was smaller than previously estimated, only 73 feet across instead of the putative 90; (b) its stage (the "unworthy scaffold") was a trapeze rather than a rectangle; and (c) judging by the debris its occupiers were distinctly messy. This debris – or in archaeological parlance "the accessioned finds" – includes beads, pumpkin seeds, fig seeds, pins, a fork, hazel nuts, dice, shoes, seals, needles, coins, pottery, glass, fabrics and the bones of rats and brown bears.
The Rose's polygonal sides are a little irregular. It was not a grand building, but must have been resonant and intimate, in the way of some modern fringe venues, making for good actor-audience rapport. A visiting Dutchman in 1596 described it as one of the two most remarkable theatres in London (the other was the Swan, also in Southwark). He adds that the four theatres he saw were places "of obvious beauty."
In 1989 I was privileged to wander around the newly revealed site. I recall stomach-churning emotion when I looked at the ragged outline of masonry marking Henslowe's auditorium, and imagined the noises and odours and textures of what was here 400 years ago. I'm proud to have campaigned alongside others for the Rose's foundations to be preserved and displayed. However, the government of the time was unsympathetic to issues of heritage which interfered with commercial development, and now the site is covered by a banal office block and is rarely accessible.
But what of Shakespeare, you might be asking. Although he was invoked to support the campaign to save the Rose, the claim that Shakespeare acted on the Rose stage is spurious: Titus Andronicus was (possibly) performed there, but that's all.
But if Shakespeare had never been born, would we be interested in these evanescent structures? Well, that is for you to decide.