Category Archives: Stage

Actor Entertainment London Shakespeare Stage Theatre

This Wooden O



These snippets form a little potted history of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.


The first purpose-built theatre in early modern London, the Theatre, was built in 1576 under the direction of James Burbage. It’s location, in Shoreditch, about a mile from the city, is telling, since it was constructed outside the jurisdiction of the city fathers, who made repeated efforts to close plays and persecute players. In their view, plays corrupted youth, attracted criminals, spread disease and promoted idleness. They regarded players as little better than wandering beggers. It was at the Theatre that Shakespeare first staged Romeo and Juliet in 1594. In 1597, the lease held by Shakespeare’s company on the Theatre ran out, and after legal wrangles with the landlord over the land on which it stood, the company relocated to Bankside and erected the Globe in 1598. The story goes that the company, determined to have the last word, secretly dismantled the Theatre, timber by timber, and rowed it across the Thames to the new site on Bankside.

By 1598, the Globe was not the first theatre operating in Southwark. Henslowe’s the Rose had been opened in 1587, and the Swan, famously described by Johannes de Witt (his sketch can be seen at the top right-hand corner of this blog) was staging plays in 1596.

The Globe was described at the time as ‘a house newly built with a garden attached… in the occupation of William Shakespeare and others.’ The public playhouses were often polygonal or round buildings, built on a timber frame, with thatched or tile roofing over the galleries. The yard, or standing area was reached via a series of entrances, and the seated galleries by a series of staircases. Plays were performed at two in the afternoon, announced by a trumpet from the theatre’s roof, which also sported a flag at high mast when a performance was taking place. Handbills detailing which plays were due to be staged were also printed and circulated.

Entry to the Globe’s yard, which was standing room only, cost a penny. For a more comfortable experience a visitor could pay an extra penny to sit in the galleries, and a further penny rented a cushion for the duration. Refreshments were available, including ale, apples, wine, pies, oranges, and, for threepence, a pipeful of tobacco.


The stage, or platform, extended out into the yard, effectively surrounding the players on three sides, making for an intimate theatrical experience. It was not uncommon for members of the public to sit on the stage itself, and the Lords’ Rooms, which flanked the stage, were the best seats in the house. Behind the stage was the tiring house, where the actors changed and waited between appearances, and above it an open balcony which extended the performance space. Over both stage and balcony was a canopied roof supported by pillars, protecting the players from the elements. Known as ‘the heavens’ this was brightly painted and often decorated with stars. The stage also had a trap door and mechanical devices for lowering props and players up and down.

Philip Henslower, proprietor of the Rose, made an inventory of his theatrical props in 1598. They included a tree of golden apples, the city of Rome, Hell’s mouth, a rainbow, lion and bear skins, coffins, tombs, and ‘a robe for to go invisible’. However, it was the costumes which were the most prized possessions. A black velvet cloak, with embroidered sleeves of silver and gold, was listed with a value of £20.10s 6d. This is roughly a third of what it cost Shakespeare to buy a house in Stratford. The costumes, donated by the aristocracy during the reign of James I, were as colourful as the theatres themselves, and colour was used to denote vocation; so a player assuming the role of a doctor would wear a scarlet robe, lawyers wore black, merchants wore blue, and friars would be dressed in gray gowns.

Sound effects would be simple but effective; cannons and bells were used, as well as trumpets. Thunder was simulated using a sheet of metal, and plays often called for mist, lightning, flaming torches, and in one case, fireworks. Blood occured frequently on the Globe’s stage; animal entrails were used for gory scenes, and a sponge soaked in sheep’s blood could be tucked beneath the armpit and squeezed at the right moment to produce the realistic effect of being stabbed to death.

Theatres on Bankside could accommodate up to 3,000 people per play. Audiences were comprised of virtually every sector of society, and only Puritans abstained for fear of corruption.

The Globe operated with great success from 1599 to 1613, when, during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, a canon shot set fire to the thatched roof and the theatre burned to the ground. Plays by Shakespeare performed at the Globe included:  Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest.


Sources: Andrew Gurr; Frank Kermode

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Actor Arte of Gardening London Love Marriage Stage

Let my orange stockings be dyed

This snippet is a charming insight into the intimacy and domesticity between man and wife in early modern London. Edward Alleyn (1566 -1626), actor and major figure in Elizabethan theatre, writes home to his wife Joan for news while touring the provinces with the Lord Strange’s Men. His nickname for Joan is Mouse.

Mouse, you send me no news of anything. You should send of your domestic matters, such things as happen at home, as how your distilled water proves this or that or any other thing you will… and jug, I pray you, let my orange tawny stockings of wool be dyed a good black against home I come to wear them in the winter. You send me no word of your garden but next time you will remember this, in any case, that all the bed which was parsley in the month of September, you should sow with spinach for then is the time. I would do so myself but we shall not come home ’til All Hallows tide, so farewell sweet Mouse.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Playwrights Stage Theatre

Daily at two in the afternoon

Thomas Platter, a native of Basel, visited England in 1599. The following excerpt is from his diary, translated from the German.

On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof [the newly opened Globe] witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women. On another occasion not far from our inn, in the suburb at Bishopsgate, if I remember, also after lunch, I beheld a play in which they presented diverse nations and an Englishman struggling together for a maiden; he overcame them all except the German who won the girl in a tussle, and then sat down by her side, when he and his servant drank themselves tipsy, so that they were both fuddled and the servant proceeded to hurl his shoe at his master’s head, whereupon they both fell asleep; meanwhile the Englishman stole into the tent and absconded with the German’s prize, thus in his turn outwitting the German; in conclusion they danced very charmingly in the English and Irish fashion. Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators. The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats, which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment. The actors are most expensively and elaborately costumed; for it is the English usage for eminent lords or knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so that they offer them then for sale for a small sum to the actors.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Insanity Stage Vice

A charming lunatic

Today’s snippet comes from the life and times of Mr Alexander Cruden, a British eccentric, and, some might say, raving lunatic. What fascinates me about Cruden is his tenacity. A man who was incarcerated three times, declared war on a woman he’d never met, and patrolled the streets of London armed with a damp sponge deserves both our interest and our respect.

Alexander was born in 1699 in Aberdeen, son to a prominent merchant, and second of eleven children. He was educated in Aberdeen and took a master’s degree, in addition to which he attended lectures on divinity to support his intention of joining the church. Unfortunately, it was at this time that Alexander fell in love with a minster’s daughter. She spurned his affections and instead fell preganant with her own brother’s child. As a result Cruden became slightly unhinged and was confined to the tolbooth for a fortnight, there being no asylum at that time which could suitably hold him. Once released, he made immediately for london and lived as a private tutor there until 1726 when he began work as a proof-reader.


In 1732, Cruden was working as a bookseller and proof-reader at the Royal Exchange. In 1733 he began work on his celebrated Complete Concordance to the Holy Scriptures, and in 1735 he received a royal warrant and began to style himself as The Queen’s Bookseller. He presented a copy of his book to Queen Caroline in November 1737, only days before her death. The death of the queen hit Cruden hard; he had lost both royal patron and a source of income, and once more a crisis exerted a toll on his mental health. He started paying unwelcome attention to a Mrs Pain, widow, and was subsequently confined to Mr Wright’s private madhouse in Bethnal Green in March 1738. Cruden lodged at Mr Wright’s for nine weeks, chained to his bed, until he was able to finally make his escape. Once free, he attempted to take action against those whom he held responsible and published a pamphlet entitled The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured. His attempts to bring his gaolers to justice came to nothing, no doubt in part because he took steps to conduct the court case himself.

In 1753, Cruden became involved in a public street brawl. It was often his habit to intervene in situations such as these in order to maintain the public calm, but on this occasion he was actively engaged in a fight for over an hour with a young man and a shovel. The youngster had ‘so greatly offended him that, contrary to his usual custom, he took the shovel and corrected him with some severity’. As a consequence, Cruden’s sister had Alexander confined to Inskip’s Asylum in Chelsea for seventeen days. When he was released, Cruden tried to bring a suit against her and three others to the tune of £10,000, but his efforts were unsuccessful. As was his request that his sister commit herself to Newgate Gaol for several days in penance.

Appalled by his treatment in Chelsea, Cruden wrote an account of it entitled The Adventures of Alexander the Corrector (1754). By this point Cruden was convinced he had been divinely appointed by God to act as a protector of public morals. He also felt a knighthood, and a spell as a parliamentary candidate might assist his endeavours in this regard. Perhaps unsurprisingly nothing came of these ambitions. Around the same time, Alexander also fell in love with a woman he did not know; Elizabeth Adney, daughter of the lord mayor of London, became the object of his passion. Cruden, convinced Miss Adney was his predestined partner, bombarded her with correspondence, but her reluctance to respond to his flood of letters, or indeed, to entertain him in any capacity whatsoever, resulted in him reconfiguring himself as Alexander the Conqueror, and delivering a formal declaration of war against the unfortunate woman in July 1754. He waged a fanatical and single-minded campaign against her, but, as with so many of his ventures, achieved little in the way of success.

For months he pestered her with calls, and persecuted her with letters, memorials, and remonstrances. When she left home, he caused ‘praying-bills’ to be distributed in various places of worship, requesting the prayers of the minister and congregation for her preservation and safe return; and when this took place, he issued further bills to the same congregations to return thanks.

In 1763, Cruden campaigned against the death sentence of a young seaman he had befriended, and managed to get the sentence reduced to transportation abroad. It was during this period that he spent much time carrying a sponge around the streets of London to efface any offensive scribblings which caught his eye:

he carried in his pockets a large piece of sponge. He subsequently attempted to obliterate all the obscene inscriptions with which idle persons were permitted at that time to disgrace blank walls in the metropolis. This occupation made his walks very tedious.

Cruden returned to Aberdeen in 1769, and a year later returned to London, lodging in Camden Street, Islington. He was found dead on the morning of 1st November 1770. During his lifetime he had expressed a preference to be buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas’s, Aberdeen, but he was interred instead in the dissenters’ burial-ground at Deadman’s Place, Southwark.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

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