The Current State of Renaissance Theatre Archaeology: Quick & Dirty Edition

The current dissertation chapter commanding my attention includes a little romp into the state of archaeological discoveries of early modern theatres in England. I got back about a week ago from a month-long research trip in Rome, Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon, and London, part of which included meeting with experts at some of these sites to get a handle on some specific renovations that took place in the 1590s. In the process I’ve cobbled together a bit of a cheat-sheet of the current state of excavations and resources for finding out more about the first generation of purpose-built playhouses in London.

My specific interest in is playhouses built and in operation before 1594, before the rise of the Globe (whose foundations were located in 1990) and the Fortune. The first, of course, was the Red Lion Theatre, built in 1567 in the garden of the farm by John Brayne, James Burbage’s brother-in-law. The galleries were a single story and the stage was 40 feet by 30 feet by 5 feet high with an attached turretpurpose unknownreaching some 30 feet above the ground. The entire structure was cheap (under £20 compared to the Theatre’s £700), rested on the ground without foundations, and there is no evidence that it lasted beyond the summer of 1567, according to Gabriel Egan.

The foundations of the Red Lion Theatre, like that of the next playhouse built in 1575 in Newington Butts, have not been located and least is no about these early spaces. William Ingram has done extensive work on the first generation of playhouses using common sewer records, making it possible to hypothesize the size of this playhouse about a mile out from the later Southwark cluster. According to Ingram, “the playhouse stood less than an acre of land in Lurklane, occupying 48 yards (44 m) of frontage on what became Walworth Road and bounded to the south by a drainage ditch (or “sewer” in the language of the time).” Newington Butts lived an on-again off-again existence, making it hard to assess whether we can deem it a “successful” venture or not.

In the last three decades, the Archaeology department of the Museum of London (MOLA) has located and begun excavation and development work on a number of locations of the most successful early playhouses of the Renaissance. Led primarily by Julian Bowsher, these include:

  • The Theatre: Built in 1576, its partial foundations were located in 2008. The polygonal building had an outer and an inner wall which supported the three tiers of galleries, the more expensive seating. There was an open yard in the centre which had standing room only. The excavations found only a few fragments of the outer wall, comprising strong stone or brick supports for the main upright timbers. There was more of the inner wall, defined by brick footings, with a gap where the access from the yard into the galleries would have been. The surface of the yard was of hard-packed gravel but was somewhat worn after 400 years. Traces of what might be the edge of the stage were found at the eastern end, opposite the main entrance. Although the excavations did not uncover the whole building, there was enough to work out that it would have been a polygon of 14 sides with an external diameter of about 72ft (22m). These dimensions are very similar to those found at the Rose excavation. According to witness statements in the Theatre’s legal papers, John Griggs, the carpenter who built the Rose, knew the Theatre very well and almost certainly based the later Rose on it. For more information on the dig and development plans for the site, visit http://www.explorethetheatre.co.uk.
  • The Curtain: Built in 1577, this is MOLA’s newest find, located in 2012. The excavations found that the Curtain’s precise location which was only a stone’s throw away from a commemorative plaque. Although only a small part of the building has been revealed, the discoveries include the walls forming the galleries and the surface of the yard, or standing area, in the centre. The building would have been polygonal, the closest approximation to a circle that Elizabethan carpenters could manage, with an external diameter of 72 feet (22m). The stage would be on the east with the entrance to the playhouse off Curtain Road on the west. The Curtain is the theatre of this first generation about which we know the least, so the find in a major coup for the discipline. For more information on the dig and development plans for the site, visit http://shakespearesshoreditch.com.
  • The Rose: Built in 1587, the Rose is the most interesting case to me personally, in part because it was the first to be discovered back in 1989. It has also garnered the least about of Heritage funding from the British government, I would guess in part because it is barely a stone’s throw from the enormously successful reconstructed Globe. (I went to productions at both spaces while overseas, and it is a sad statement that you have to go over to the Globe to use the restrooms as the Rose space has none.) The Rose is contextually interesting because its remains are extensive, giving us evidence to the extent and shape of renovations that took place in 1592. All playhouses up to that point were roughly the same size: 72 ft (22m). The £105 worth of renovations recorded in detail in Henslowe’s ‘diary’ help us track the extent and character of these renovations, which included the addition of a roof over an enlarged stage, the addition of gallery seats and the reshaping of the playhouse as a whole (from a circle to something like a tulip) to accommodate up to 2500 spectators from the initial 1800 on the high estimate. For more information about the dig, performance details, and how to support this historical site, visit http://www.rosetheatre.org.uk.

MOLA has published a number of excellent books detailing the excavations of these sites, supporting previous and ongoing research. I have mentioned some of this above, but here is a quick bibliography of those which I’ve found useful on the topic. Any other recommendations would of course be most appreciated!

  • Bowsher, Julian and Pat Miller. The Rose and the Globe: Playhouses of Shakespeare’s Bankside, Southwark—Excavations 1988-1991. London: Museum of London Archaeology, 2009.
  • Bowsher, Julian. The Rose Theatre: An Archaeological Discovery. London: Museum of London Archaeology, 1998.
  • Mackinder, Anthony, Lyn Blackmore, Julian Bowsher, Christopher Phillpotts. The Hope Playhouse, Animal Baiting and Late Industrial Activity at Bear Gardens on Bankside: Excavations at Riverside House and New Globe Walk, Southwark, 1999-2000. London: Museum of London Archaeology, 2013.
  • Bowsher, Julian. Shakespeare’s London Theatreland: Archaeology, History and Drama. London: Museum of London Archaeology, 2012.
  • Egan, Gabriel. 2005b. “Platonism and Bathos in Shakespeare and Other Early Modern Drama.” Refiguring Mimesis: Representation in Early Modern Literature. Edited by Jonathan Holmes and Adrian Streete. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2005. 59-78.
  • Ingram, William. The Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theatre in Elizabethan London. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Print.
  • Manley, Lawrence and Sally-Beth MacLean. The Lord Strange’s Men and Their Plays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 59-63.

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