April 27, 2004
James Burbage opens London's first theatre and his son gets fat

As threatened here already, John Richardson's The Annals of London is going to be a rich source of postings here. 1576, for example, starts very enticingly:

1576

LONDON'S FIRST THEATRES OPENED

On 13 April James Burbage, who lived in Holywell Street, Shoreditch, leased a piece of ground on which he built London's first playhouse. It was called simply the Theatre, and its site was that of today's 86-90 Curtain Road. Made of timber, it was probably circular or polygonal in shape. At the end of the theatre's 21-year lease, the building was dismantled and moved to Bankside, where it was resurrected as the Globe.

Because of the prevailing puritanical view of theatrical performances, companies of players sought the protection of noble patrons. Burbage was adopted by the powerful earl of Leicester and was granted a royal patent to perform. It is likely that works by Marlowe and many of Shakespeare's plays were performed here during the Theatre's brief life.

Burbage's theatre opened in the autumn. A few months later, probably early in 1577, the Curtain Theatre began in the same road, south of today's Holywell Lane; it is thought to have been built by one Henry Lanman. Superficially it would seem that Curtain Road derives its name from its theatrical past, but in fact there were no curtains in Elizabethan theatres. The theatre and road instead were named from a cluster of buildings which probably supplanted a fortification wall (curtain wall) here.

The Curtain managed to survive until 1627, but was gradually eclipsed by the fame of the theatres in Southwark.

burbage.jpgThe 1602 entry concerns James Burbage's son Richard, the celebrated actor, for it was in that year that Hamlet was premiered, at the Globe, with Richard Burbage in the title role.

But by then Burbage had become rather fat. Which is why …

… It is suggested that the lines:

King: Our son shall win.

Queen: He's fat and scant of breath.

were written by Shakespeare to take account of his friend's unfit state.

It can't have been the first time that a script got rewritten to accommodate an actor who looked different to the originally envisaged character, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:46 PM
Category: HistoryLondonTheatre