The Great Theatre
London’s First Public Playhouse
The Theatre was the first London playhouse, built in 1576 by the English actor and entrepreneur James Burbage, father of the great actor and friend of Shakespeare, Richard Burbage. It was located in a northern suburb of London (north of London Wall which bounded the city proper); on the edge of Finsbury Fields, just past Bishopsgate Street, where Shakespeare called home up to 1597.
There are no images of the Theatre, but written accounts of the building describe a vast, polygonal, three-story timber structure, open to the sun and rain. Its exterior was coated with lime and plaster. It had features similar to those of the future Globe playhouse and other playhouses of the day, such as galleries, upper rooms, a tiring house, and trap doors in the stage floor. Like the Globe, the Theatre had two external staircases, standing on either side of the building, and leading up to the galleries. Those people who watched from the main “yard” surrounded by the comfortable covered galleries, were forced to stand during the entire performance. The Theatre was home to many acting companies, but was used primarily by Shakespeare’s acting troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men, after 1594. Unfortunately, the Theatre fell victim to government censorship, due to the production of Thomas Nashe’s “seditious” play Isle of Dogs that prompted all of the London theatres to be closed for the summer of 1597. The Theatre did not reopen, and was dismantled by the carpenter Peter Street in 1598, forcing the Chamberlain’s Men to find another home.
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