Playhouses

Today Bankside carries the heritage of the Golden Age of Playhouses proudly but sadly the era was short-lived, cut short by austere politics and by fashion.

The first playhouse in London specifically built for the purpose of staging plays was in Shoreditch and called The Theatre. Built in 1576, before this time, plays were staged in market places, private homes or in the courtyards of innswhich particularly made excellent venues for the staging of plays as they had a courtyard area large enough for the turning of coaches where a stage could be erected temporarily. The courtyard was overlooked by galleried buildings which could be used alternatively for a musicians gallery, for the audience, in particular patrons and notables, and to accommodate parts of the action of the play, for example the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.

James Burbage, who designed and built The Theatre, was a joiner turned actor/theatre manager. In 1572 it had become necessary for theatrical troupes to have the protection of the nobility as these troupes had fallen within the terms of the Vagrants Act. James Burbages troupe became retainers of royal favourite the Earl of Leicester and subsequently received the royal patent. They became known as the Earl of Leicesters Men and were to become the most renowned and stable of the theatre companies.

The City of London was of the view that theatres encouraged the spread of disease, insubordination and corruption, were meeting places for thieves, rogues and other criminals and were where assignations of a dubious nature took place. The Privy Council on the other hand had as its members some of the noble class who patronised and encouraged the performing of plays. The Privy Council finally gave their consent in 1596 to the City of Londons request that all plays be banned from areas within their jurisdiction. Theatre troupes now looked to other areas to build theatres, including Bankside.

The Rose Theatre was the first theatre to be built on Bankside. It was built before the Citys ban and was completed in 1589 at the latest. James Burbages The Theatre had provided the model for all Elizabethan theatres, which in turn had drawn its inspiration, with modifications, from inns where plays had previously been performed. The Rose was multi-sided, based on a 14 sided polygon, with a thatched roof and had an open galleried courtyard with a stage projecting into it. It was built by Phillip Henslowe, a dyer by trade and a member of the Dyers Company. Born in Sussex he lived in the Clink Liberty and in 1587 went into partnership with John Cholmley who had a house in Rose Alley, named after a rose garden, and this was to be the site of the Rose theatre. Henslowe also worked in partnership with his step-son-in-law, Edward Alleyn, who was reputed to be one of the best actors of his generation. Henslowes company was known as The Admirals Men and they staged plays, by among others, Marlow, Dekker and Drayton. Henslowe opened the Fortune Theatre to the north of the city in 1600 where he transferred the bulk of his theatrical interests, perhaps because of the competition from the newly opened Globe Theatre. Other theatrical companies used the Rose but had been abandoned as a theatre by 1606.

The foundations of the Rose Theatre were discovered in 1989 during routine archaeological works after clearing the site of a 1950s block in preparation for a new development. The developers wished to go ahead with the new build but a high profile campaign was launched to save the foundations. In the end a compromise was reached and the new build was suspended over the foundations of the Rose allowing for further archaeology and viewing by the general public. Further information can be found at http://www.rosetheatre.org.uk/discover/the-history/.

The Swan theatre was the second theatre to be built on Bankside in 1595 and was to see two scandals during its short life. It was built on a site in Paris Garden said to be a short distance east of the manor house, soon to be the infamous Hollands Leaguer, and where today Upper Ground crosses with Hopton Street. The theatre, which was round or 12-sided and had a movable stage, was built by City goldsmith Francis Langley who went into partnership with the Earl of Pembrokes company. In the summer of 1597, the Swan staged a play written by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe entitled the Isle of Dogs. This resulted in all theatres being closed for a while. Today the play would be described as satirical as it poked fun at people in authority but the Privy Council described it as slanderous and seditious, and Ben Jonson and others associated with the production were imprisoned for sedition. The destruction of all theatres was ordered though not enforced, and now only two theatres companies were allowed to perform until early in James I reign, The Admirals Men (Henslowe/Alleyn) and the Lord Chamberlains Men (The Burbages/Shakespeare).

The second scandal may possibly have been a scam. In 1602, impresario Richard Vennar he publicised a play to be performed at The Swan entitled Englands Joy", a play about Queen Elizabeth. But despite all seats being sold, the play was not performed which led to the storming and vandalising of the theatre by an angry crowd. The Swan had never been a particularly high quality theatre but it limped along for several years augmenting its drama repertoire with bear- baiting and prize fighting. In 1632 the theatre was described as falling into decay.

Rose

The Swan

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