Chicago Street Theatre Posted on Thursday, July 12, 2012 at 11:47AM
Posted by Lisa Formosa-Parmigiano
In the middle ages, many people thought actors were no better than beggars, asking for money for doing nothing of value. Like beggars, they were "masterless men," because they didn't have a useful trade that served a "master." Often, traveling players risked being put in the stocks or driven out of town.
By the 1570s, players were anxious to show they were respectable. The best way to do this was to persuade a nobleman to be their patron. This meant the players performed for him whenever he wished. In return, they could claim to be one of his "men". They got no pay from him but his title gave them status. One of the first, and best companies was the Earl of Leicester's Men. Its manager, James Burbage, was a very clever businessman. He believed his company could attract much bigger audiences than an inn yard could hold so he proposed a bold idea. He rented some land outside the city walls, where the city council had less control. There, he put up a building specially designed for staging plays. This was England's first purpose-built theatre. By this time, Burbage's company was patroned by Lord Chamberlain and they became known as the best acting company in London. Shakespeare was named as one of their players in 1594.
Burbage shared his brainstorm with his brother-in-law and partner, John Brayne. They borrowed some money and signed a lease to rent the land for 21 years. In 1597, when the lease ended, the Burbage family tried to make a new agreement, but the landlord refused to sign. He claimed that the Burbages had been bad tenants. James Burbage himself was dead by this time and his two sons had inherited The Theatre. They did not mean to let the landlord rob them of their building. They rented another plot of ground on Bankside, across the river, and hired a builder to pull The Theatre down and save its timbers for rebuilding.
There is a great legend that Burbage's men and the landlord's men had a bloody fight while the The Theatre was being disimantled, in the middle of the night. Burbage's men eventually succeeded and the legend is told that they carted the wooden planks from the original Theatre, across the frozen Themes River to build the new Globe. They raised money by selling shares in the new theatre. Five leading players in the company agreed to buy shares, meaning the rebuilt theatre belonged to seven, with the two Burbage brothers. Shakespeare was one of these shareholders.
The Globe was a 20-sided building that held 3,000 people -- a big audience, even by today's standards. No one knows exactly what its interior was like, but judging from a sketch a visitor made of a similar theatre, the Swan, we make assumptions. In 1599, The doors opened for the first time. It cost one penny (half the price of a pint of good ale) to enter the Globe and watch the performance, standing in the "Pit." Those who did were referred to as, the "Groundlings," or later, in the heat of summer, as the "Stinkards." Those who wanted to sit paid another penny at the two stairways leading to the Galleries. A seat with a cushion cost another penny. The gallery above the stage was where the musicians usually played. If the gallery was not needed for this, or for battlement or balcony scenes, nobles could sit there to watch the play. The got a good view and avoided mixing with the crowd. The Lord's Rooms were the best sections of seating, closest to the stage as they were often on the stage itself. These were prized seats because they afforded the royalty the opportunity to see and be seen by all.
Most of Shakespeare's greatest plays were performed on The Globe's stage and Burbage's son, Richard, became known for bringing to life some of the Shakespeare's finest characters. The Company was so well-liked, Queen Elizabeth asked them to give all six of her Christmas command performances. In 1603, with the death of Elizabeth and accession of James I, The Chamberlain's Men were renamed The King's Men, as he thought so highly of their work, he became their direct patron. This was quite an honor, considering a century prior, actors were thought of as "worthless, masterless men."
In 1613, The Globe was destroyed by fire during Henry VIII in which Richard Burbage played the King. The performance on June 29th provided more spectacle than anyone had bargained for. When the King arrives on stage at Cardinal Wolsey's house, the cannon fire that greeted him set the theatre on fire. A spark landed on the thatched roof and set it smoldering. A second Globe was built with a tile roof, but demolished in 1644.
In 1970, an American named Sam Wanamaker launched a campaign to build a replica of the first Globe Theatre as close as possible to its original site on Bankside. In 1997, the first full season of performances ran at England's new Globe.