Theatreland

06 29 globeToday, I want to tell you about the Globe Theatre, in Southwark. The theatre where William Shakespeare worked and where his plays were performed. It opened in 1599, I don’t know the exact date, but I do know when it burned down and it was on this day in 1613.

The Globe was built to house an acting company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was owned, for the most part, by the company’s lead actor, Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert. But Shakespeare owned a one eighth share in the project. The actors’ previous home in Shoreditch, north of the City, had been one of the first, and certainly the most successful permanent theatres to be built in England since Roman times. I can tell you where it was: between Alice Daridge’s garden and the Earl of Rutland’s oat barn. Just near the Great Horse Pond, next to the common sewer and a slaughterhouse. Not that this really tells you much about it’s geographical location, but it does give you some idea of what it might have been like. It opened in 1576 and was called, simply, ‘The Theatre’. But they had run into problems. The Theatre had been built by Richard and Cuthbert’s father James Burbage and a man named Mr Brayne who was his brother-in-law. After both men died, there was a huge falling-out over who owned what. Added to this, the Theatre was built on land that was leased from a man called Giles Allen. Allen was a staunch Puritan who wasn’t keen on theatre and, when the lease ran out in 1596, he refused to renew it. What’s more, he claimed that the building now belonged to him too.

The Burbages side-stepped the whole problem on the night of December 28th 1598. Giles Allen was away celebrating Christmas at his country residence and the Burbages, along with a carpenter called Peter Street and a few others, probably including Shakespeare, simply stole the building. They assured onlookers that they were renovating it, but in fact, they carted away all the massive oak beams and stored them in the carpenter’s warehouse over the winter. When the weather improved, they used the beams to build themselves a new theatre across the river at Southwark.

The site of the Globe theatre wasn’t great either. It was prone to flooding, especially at high tide and they had to build a sort of raised bank to protect it. Also, one of the other attractions on offer nearby was bear-baiting. We have an account from a Swiss tourist called Thomas Platter, who visited in 1599. He said that he saw twelve bears and a hundred and twenty mastiffs and it absolutely stank because of all the offal that was fed to the dogs. He also went to see a play. It was Julius Caesar and it may have been the first play performed at the Globe. Thomas tells us that the audience could stand and watch from the courtyard for one penny. For two, you could get a seat in the galleries and for three, you could get a cushion as well and a seat where everyone could see you. He describes the actors as lavishly dressed and explains why this was. Lords and knights, he says, tended to bequeath their best clothes to their servants. But they were much too fancy for a servant to wear, so they sold them and actors bought them.

06 29 globe and bear garden

The theatre, as I said, caught fire in 1613. It was during a performance of Henry VIII. It broke out after the firing of a theatrical cannon. Some of the material fired from the cannon reached the thatched roof of the building where it smouldered unheeded for a while. The fire spread inside the thatch and soon the whole roof was on fire. The entire building was burned to the ground in less two hours. It seems no one was hurt though, which was lucky as the theatre could host up to three thousand spectators and there were only two small doors for everyone to get out. According to an eyewitness the only casualty was a man whose breeches caught fire, but it was quickly put out by someone pouring a bottle of ale over them.

The theatre was quickly rebuilt on the same foundations, but this time, they sensibly built it with a tiled roof. The Globe Theatre was in use, apart from periods of closure due to outbreaks of bubonic plague, until all the theatres were closed by down the Puritans in 1642. It was demolished two or three years later. We have a pretty good idea of what the theatre looked like because we have a beautiful reconstruction of it, only 750 ft from where the original stood. It is the first thatched building to have been allowed in London since the Great Fire of 1666.

06 29 shakespeare's globe

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You Don’t Know Me

04 26 william shakespeareWilliam Shakespeare was baptised on this day in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. We don’t know what day he was born. Although tradition says he was born on April 23rd, there is no evidence. It’s just that he died on April 23rd and it gives his life a pleasing symmetry. In truth we don’t know very much about him at all. We don’t know what he was doing before he was twenty-eight, apart from the fact that he got married and had three children. He never commissioned a portrait so we don’t really know what he looked like, though the portrait on the right might be him. We don’t even know how he spelled his name. There are six surviving examples of his signature and they are all spelled differently. None of them are ‘William Shakespeare’. But spelling was really not quite the rigid thing it is today, and probably if I had to use a quill, I might be tempted to leave off halfway through and just write ‘Willm Shaksp’ too.

So, he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, who gave birth to their daughter, Susannah, six months later. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet. Then we know nothing of him until 1592, when he was in London, having left his family behind in Stratford. As a married man, he wouldn’t have been allowed to go to university or to take up an apprenticeship in a trade that had an established guild. But acting companies had looser entry requirements, so maybe that is how he came to take up the theatre. In 1592, several of his plays were being performed in London and he was well known enough to be attacked in print as an ‘upstart crow’ and a ‘Johannes Factotum’ – a jack of all trades by a man named Robert Greene. So, we don’t know how he started his career. If his rise was meteoric, or if he’d been writing for ages. We do know that he also acted and probably played the ghost in ‘Hamlet’.

Two years later, he was part owner of an acting company called the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’. It was they who built the Globe Theatre, but more of that in June. They became the King’s Men after James I came to the throne. We know that he didn’t abandon his family, because in 1597 he bought the second biggest house in Stratford and settled them there. The house was called ‘New Place’, even though it was actually built in 1483, and has a bit of an interesting history. Shakespeare bought it from a man named William Underhill for £60. Underhill died two months later, before the sale had been properly confirmed, and it eventually turned out he had been poisoned by his eldest son. The son, whose name was Fulke, either died or was hanged for murdering his father, so all his inherited property, including New Place was forfeit to the crown. But his younger brother, who had the splendid name of Hercules Underhill, confirmed the sale in 1603.

04 26 new placeAfter Shakespeare died in 1616, it passed to his daughter, Susannah, and then his granddaughter, Elizabeth. After that there were no more heirs. By 1756, it was owned by Reverend Francis Gastrell. He got very tired of people coming to visit Shakespeare’s home and he destroyed a mulberry tree in the garden that was said to have been planted by him. The people of the town were so upset that they broke all his windows. In retaliation, he had the whole place knocked down in 1759. That made everyone so angry that he had to leave town.

Shakespeare produced such a huge body of work, it’s not surprising he didn’t do very much with his personal life. Thirty-eight plays are attributed to him and a hundred and fifty-four sonnets as well as two long narrative poems. Some find it hard to believe that he could actually have written all of them. There are those who think that he couldn’t possibly have had such a large vocabulary without a university education. In fact Shakespeare’s vocabulary was not as massive as people like to make out. It was somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 words, which was quite large for the time, but he did write a great deal about a lot of different subjects. When compared play for play with his contemporaries, he’s actually about average. Also a university education, it turns out, had very little to do with how large a persons vocabulary was. Top of the list is the Jacobean playwright, John Webster who was the son of a coach-maker. He didn’t go to university either. So Shakespeare’s skill doesn’t really lie in his vocabulary. It’s his talent for arranging them. I give you:

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;”

or

“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Lovely. There’s nothing odd or clever about any of those words, it’s the way he puts them together.

Another thing you might hear about Shakespeare, is from people who think he might have been bisexual. Of the one hundred and fifty-four sonnets that he wrote, one hundred and twenty-six of them are addressed to a young man, the ‘Fair Youth’. Twenty-eight are addressed to a woman, the ‘Dark Lady’. We don’t know who either of them were, but people certainly enjoy speculating. Nor do we know if they are in any way autobiographical. Shakespeare devoted a great deal of time to devising characters for his plays and giving them things to say. So how likely is it that he wrote a hundred and fifty-four poems about himself? So we can’t say for certain whether Shakespeare was bisexual or not. And it doesn’t really matter does it? I think maybe because he wrote such a lot and we know so little about what he was really like, people project on to him what they want to see. And that’s probably okay too, because we’ll never know the truth.

The Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur

02 21 robert coatesToday I want to tell you about Robert Coates. I don’t know when his birthday was, but I do know that he died on this day in 1848, after being run over by a Hansom cab outside the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane at the age of seventy-five. Robert was the son and heir of a sugar planter and was born in Antigua some time in 1772. Robert was a most flamboyant amateur actor. He was also a terrible actor, and it made him famous.

Robert was educated in England and became enamoured of amateur dramatics after he returned to Antigua in the West Indies. In 1807, after his father died, he inherited the estate and a huge collection of diamonds, which he also loved. He returned to England and settled in Bath, where he lived as a ‘gentleman of fashion’. By 1809, he was acting at the Royal Theatre, Bath, though it seems no one paid him to do so. He particularly loved Shakespeare and made his debut as Romeo. He designed the costume himself. It consisted of a flowing sky blue cloak with sequins, red pantaloons, a muslin shirt worn with a huge cravat, a long wig that Charles II would have been proud of and white hat with ostrich plumes. He also wore diamonds. Lots and lots of diamonds. What’s more, he had had his costume made rather too small, which made him move awkwardly and also the pantaloons split part way through the performance. But it wasn’t just his costume that was comical. He also forgot his lines, ad-libbed, stopped in the middle of the balcony scene to take snuff, and then offer it to the audience and at the end, he tried to open Juliet’s tomb with a crowbar.

This title role was his favourite, it was one he would revisit often. It led to him being given the nickname ‘Romeo Coates’ His performances were always sell-outs. People went to see him just to see if he was bad as everyone said. He was not above repeating his favourite scenes during a play. As Romeo, he might die three or four times. On one occasion he caused a lot of hilarity when he took out a handkerchief to dust down the stage and arrange his hat as a pillow before he lay down to die. The laughter, the abuse, the cat calls that accompanied his performances often drowned out his actual words. It’s hard to say whether he actually knew he was bad and just didn’t care or whether he was doing it all on purpose.

He certainly bore the abuse he received in good humour. Even when he received an invitation to a ball given by the Prince Regent. He dressed in his finest clothes and presented himself at Carlton House, only to find that the invitation had been a forgery and he had to go away again. The Prince felt terrible about it when he heard and really felt that Robert ought to have been let in anyway because everyone would have enjoyed his company. In fact, he felt so bad that he invited Robert to come along afterwards and have a look at the decorations which were still up. Robert was delighted and said that he would love to see the preparations that had been made for the honoured guests, of whom he had almost been one. The forger turned out to be Theodore Hook, who we mentioned several weeks ago as the perpetrator of the Berners Street Hoax. The joke fell rather flat in this case and probably even Theodore thought he’d been quite mean, because he was always quite apologetic when ever it was mentioned.

After moving to London, he soon became a well recognised figure. Particularly as he used to go about in furs, whatever the weather. But it was really the carriage he had made for himself that truly made him stand out. No one else had anything quite like it. It is described as shaped like a scallop shell and ‘a beautiful, rich lake colour’ which I can only assume means crimson lake, a dark pinkish red. It had his own heraldic device on the side, a crowing cockerel, with the motto ‘While I live, I’ll crow’. It also had at least one silver plated crowing cockerel on it. It was drawn by two white horses.

Of course, he ac02 21 the gay lotharioted in London. He appeared frequently at the Haymarket Theatre. He usually appeared as part of a benefit performance. For this he earned, or perhaps gave himself, his preferred nickname ‘The Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur’. The manager knew he would be guaranteed a full house when Romeo Coates was on the bill. In fact, they would often have to turn people away. At one of his performances, several audience members had to be treated for ‘excessive laughter’. People who had to act with him had a difficult time, because they had to work round what ever he happened to do. Once, when his Romeo was about to die a third time, Juliet had to put an end to it by stepping up and saying. “dying is such sweet sorrow, that he will die again until tomorrow.” His tour of the provinces proved equally popular, as were the impersonations given of him by comedians. Sadly, his popularity declined and he was forced to retire from acting, in public at least, around 1816.

He married, moved to France for a time and then back to London. On February 15, 1848 he was leaving the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane when he realised he had forgotten his opera glasses, which he had borrowed from a friend. He stepped down from his carriage to fetch them and was hit by a speeding Hansom cab. Rather than stop, the driver ran right over him and sped away. He was never caught. Robert died six days later from his injuries.

crest of robert coates

Documented

12 31 simon formanI have an astrological physician for you today. Simon Forman was born near Salisbury in Wiltshire on this day in 1552. Simon Forman was the son of a farmer, he was not rich and didn’t make any world changing discoveries. So how come we know anything about him at all? It’s because his life is extremely well documented. By Simon Forman. He wrote an autobiography. He kept diaries and also, as an astrologer, he made extensive notes about his consultations. There are a lot of them. 10,000 between the years 1596 and 1602. In each he records the name and age of the client, the question asked and the exact time. From this he constructed an astrological chart that told him what the answer was. So his case notes give quite intimate personal details of Londoners from all walks of life. As around 90% of the questions are about health and disease, they are a rich and rare source of medical records for the period. His astrological nonsense didn’t go down too well with the Company of Barber Surgeons. Yes, I know they sound a bit disreputable too, but they’re still around today, only they’re called the Royal College of Surgeons now. So he was in trouble with them and in trouble for other things too. Perhaps for his occult studies and possessing books about magic. Perhaps for his numerous sexual dalliances with his patients. He actually spent quite a lot of time in prison. Despite his troubles his good reputation began to spread after he survived a nasty dose of plague and claimed to have cured himself.

He wrote extensively about astrology, alchemy, gardening and the history of giants. They’re all descendants of Noah, in case you’re wondering. Also, as we mentioned, he also wrote about himself. We know that his father loved him but his mother did not. We know that he had wild dreams as a child about mountains falling on him, but that he always managed to clamber over. He saw these dreams as prophetic of his difficult life to come. He tells us that when he was at school he used to visit a canon of the church called Mr. Mintorne. The canon rarely kept a fire in the house but he did keep faggots, which in this case means a bundle of dried sticks used to light a fire. When he was cold he would carry them up to the attic until he was warm. When they were all upstairs he carried them down again. He made Simon do the same, because he thought it was better to heat yourself than sit by a fire.

Thanks to his diaries, we know about the time he almost chopped his finger off because he had hung his sword from the bedpost. We know exactly how many times he fell downstairs and on what date. We also know about the time he dreamed about the Queen, Elizabeth I. The Queen was out in the street wearing just a petticoat. Forman rescued her from a weaver with a red beard who was over familiar and kissed her. As he was leading her away, her petticoat dragged in the mud and he suggested to her that he could make her pregnant, then her belly would be bigger and her petticoats would be higher and not get muddy. He was pretty sure it went well. Dreams are weird things and it’s lovely to have one from so long ago recorded.

Forman is also credited with having written the only eyewitness account of the plays of William Shakespeare that date from the life of the playwright. He went to see Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale at the Globe Theatre and also Cymbeline. He wrote short impressions of them, which oddly include a description of Macbeth and Banquo riding in the opening scene.

Although he seems, at best, misguided and, at worst, a charlatan, he did manage to predict his own death. One Sunday afternoon, he announced to his wife that he would die the following Thursday. On Monday, everything was fine. On Tuesday, he was not sick. On Wednesday he was still well. By Thursday his wife was teasing him about it. Then after dinner, he took a boat out on the Thames to go and look at some buildings he had an investment in. In the middle of the river he collapsed and died.

Family Ties

11 13 edwin boothToday I am celebrating the birthday of Edwin Thomas Booth, who was one of the most famous Shakespearian actors of the nineteenth century. He was born in Bel Air, Maryland in 1833. Although he was terribly well known at one time, you probably haven’t heard of him. This isn’t just because it was so long ago, it’s because his younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, shot President Lincoln.

Edwin’s father Junius Brutus Booth was also an actor, as were his elder brother Junius Brutus Jr. and younger brother John Wilkes. Junius senior was also a famous Shakespearian actor. He was so well known throughout the United States that, some time in the 1850s, a horse thief who was being hanged for his crimes made an unusual last request. He asked that his skull be given to the Booth family so that it could be used to play the part of Yorick in Hamlet. His request was granted.

The elder Junius was, however, something of a wild card in later life. He took to drinking, which would often lead to him forgetting his lines or simply wandering off somewhere. On one occasion, while playing the Danish Prince, he broke off in the middle of a scene with Ophelia, climbed up a ladder and perched among the backdrops crowing like a rooster. His manager had to talk him down. Junius needed a minder and the task fell to fourteen-year-old Edwin. He had to accompany his father around the country, making sure that he made it to the theatre and seeing to it that he didn’t drink. It must have been an onerous task for a young teenager and on top of this, he also performed alongside his father.

11 13 shakespeare in central parkJunius became ill in 1850 and Edwin took over his rôle in Richard III. Two years later his father died. Edwin went off on a world tour and afterwards became a much respected and admired Shakespearian actor. From 1863, he also managed the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. In 1864 he appeared in a staging of Julius Caesar alongside his two brothers. It was a benefit performance and the funds raised were used to erect a statue of William Shakespeare in Central Park. You can still see it there.

Then, a year later, his brother shot the President. Edwin was devastated, he had been a supporter of Lincoln and he thought his career was over. He didn’t even want to leave the house and didn’t return to the stage for eighteen months. It was the worst, but not the only disaster that blighted his career. He returned to acting in 1866 but in 1867 the Winter Garden Theatre was destroyed by fire. In 1889 he opened his own theatre in Manhattan, but lost it due to bankruptcy in 1874. But another world tour helped him regain his fortune.

In 1888 he founded a club for actors and associated professions called the Player’s Club. It was similar to the Garrick Club in London. It was a way of bringing actors into contact with businessmen as well as writers and other creative people. Edwin Booth gave over his home to the club, retaining only a small furnished apartment for his own use. The club still exists today and his rooms are kept exactly as he left them when he died in 1893. All his belongings are still there, including the skull of the horse thief.

It’s hard to Google Edwin Booth without happening upon a really weird coincidence in Edwin Booth’s life that occurred a year or two before Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by his brother. Edwin was at a busy railway station in New Jersey, there was a crush to get onto a late sleeper train and a man in front of him slipped and fell between the platform and a moving carriage. Edwin managed to grab the man by his collar and pull him to safety. The man recognised him (because he was famous) and thanked him and called him by name. It was months later that he found out the man whose life he had saved was Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert.

Edwin was most famous for playing the part of Hamlet, and perhaps living with such a difficult family was helpful to him in this rôle. He didn’t have it easy, and he isn’t even remembered now for the thing that he was best at. So I am sending out love for Edwin Booth today, not just for him, but for everyone else who has a family member who’s done something weird and upsetting that leaves everyone else feeling tainted by it.