Friday, July 7, 1995

Shakespeare's London

Written in 1995 for Gourmet magazine

Great cities seem almost unimaginable without great writers. We cannot stroll today's London without Dickens, but where is the ghost of Shakespeare in that labyrinth—especially since most of the city burned a half-century after his death, in the Great Fire of 1666? London made Shakespeare; he came to it as ambitious young Will fresh from the country, and retired as our greatest writer. London gave Will stages to fill and gifted players to write for; his career (alongside colleagues like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe) fired the few decades of London's theatrical explosion which we take for granted today. Shakespeare's words are immortal, have entered the subconscious of the language, but can we still walk in his Elizabethan footsteps? With a new Globe Theater (begun in 1989) rising on the south bank of the Thames in his honor—a loving, meticulous replica complete at last—I decided to try.

Odd as it seems, Shakespeare's immortality had been almost taken for granted by Londoners for ages. It took an American actor, Sam Wanamaker (1919-93), to make rebuilding the Globe a lifetime goal. On visiting London in the 1950s, Wanamaker was dismayed to find no monument to Shakespeare's theater save a plaque near its original location—a moment's walk from the new Globe. This painstaking reconstruction became Wanamaker's dream and personal battle for four decades; it is now his testament.

The plan is an ambitious one: not only to reconstruct the Globe as accurately as possible, but to build an entire complex around it. This will include a never-built small indoor theater designed by Inigo Jones, the 17th century architectural genius. There'll be shops, a cafe and pub, and a museum. Best of all, the Jones theater will make plays feasible year-round.

Anyone imagining Shakespeare's London must first set aside the idea of a huge modern city. The Tower of London, St. Paul's, and the Globe Theater form a compact triangle which bounds nearly his whole London world. His first book, a poem, was published out of St. Paul's churchyard. Just across the river, the Tower crops up in his historical plays; a Globe audience would've had a sense of the real events happening nearby. This lone square mile really was London back then, with a population of about 200,000. Will came here from Warwickshire near the end of the 1580s, probably as a small-parts actor in a passing company. He spent virtually all of his professional life here, as poet, as actor, shareholder in a theater, and author of thirty-seven plays.

Sixteenth-century London was still medieval, built mainly from timbers. Houses were three crowded stories, stenches were powerful, streets were narrow; you could reach across and shake hands with your neighbor. With a hundred churches, bells were going off constantly. London Bridge, eighteen feet wide, was the only bridge on the Thames, with houses, a chapel, shops, and a palace. It lasted from 1157 until 1831 and survived the Great Fire, which wiped out four hundred streets, 13,000 wooden houses, and three-quarters of the city.

Will never had a permanent London residence; he was usually a lodger, or lived in theatrical digs. At one point he resided with a jeweller or wig-maker on Silver Street, and appeared as a character witness for his landlord's apprentice, who was in love with the man's daughter. In a sense it's remarkable Will survived as long as he did. Marlowe died at twenty-nine, knifed in a tavern brawl; Jonson went to prison for killing a man; London was beset by five plague outbreaks during Will's life, with 100,000 dead. His brother Edmund, an actor in his company, died of it in 1607—he'd kept a home near the theater, a common law wife and an illegitimate child. Shakespeare probably lived with him, and paid for the burial (an unmarked grave) at Southwark Cathedral.

A few Shakespeare associations are in the St. Paul's area, and I saw these before venturing south across the Thames. Across from the Chancery Lane tube stop stands the Staple Inn (1545), a half-timbered Tudor inn which Shakespeare must've known (it's also in Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood). The simple black-and-white vertical stripes, the gables, the small leaded windows, render it a visitor from another age amid modern storefronts. Playhouse Yard, off Friar Street, is a tiny flagstoned back square with bare trees and 18th century gravestones. Originally Blackfriars, a house of Dominican fathers suppressed by Henry VIII, the building eventually became a theater—all that's left is a pile of grey stones in one corner. Here James I saw The Tempest at the time of his daughter's wedding, mirrored in the play by Miranda's.

A rare indoor theater, warm and well-lit, the Blackfriars differed radically from outdoor theaters like the Globe or the Rose. It was smaller, with an audience of maybe five hundred; much more expensive (top tickets cost two shillings); candles made night scenes realistic, and protection from all weathers gave sets a more important role. Scenery could slide on or off the elaborate stage. Music was more important too. An orchestra might play for an hour before a performance, and intermissions were filled by masques (musical entertainments). Will owned a house nearby, but it's unclear if he ever lived there.

More compelling, just in from the Thames, was the Middle Temple Hall. This Inn of Court (a private gentlemen's club for barristers) is where Twelfth Night was first performed (February 2, 1602) by the Lord Chamberlain's Company including Shakespeare. An enormous vaulted hall in dark wood and white stone, with a many-chambered ceiling, stained glass windows (one dated 1570), royal coats-of-arms, and portraits of Queens Elizabeth and Anne, it was the place most evocative of the Bard's era that I saw.

On crossing the river I found my way to the George Inn, near the Bridge tube stop. This late 16th century galleried inn (the last such surviving in London), rebuilt in 1677, now a pub, with Tudor galleries looking down onto an enclosed courtyard, suggests how English theater began outdoors, with the actors on a central platform and the spectators either seated or standing.

A few more blocks' walk brought me to Southwark Cathedral—probably the city's finest Gothic architecture after Westminster Abbey—and where Shakespeare doubtless worshipped since he was for several years an inhabitant of this parish. A fine stained-glass window portrays the famous "Seven Ages of Man" from As You Like It, along with assorted characters from the plays. Though most of the cathedral is from 1875, there's a dubiously restored patch of wood roof from 1400, much original stone interior wall, and displayed inside, a dozen wooden "roof bosses" elaborately carved—a golden pelican and the devil's moon-face, with tongue out.

Here, too, is the tomb of a father of English poetry, John Gower (d. 1408). As poet laureate to both Richard II and Henry IV, Gower was the first poet to write in English (not just Latin and French). Even by Shakespeare's day, the language as a vessel of literature was only about one-hundred-seventy years old.

Theater-wise, the age telescopes easily. In 1558 Elizabeth takes the throne; a year later the first acting company appears. In 1567 the first theater is created at Stepway by James Burbage, who in 1576 builds London's first playhouse, the Theatre at Shoreditch, followed a year later by the Curtain. (The Burbages acted in most of Will's plays; Richard Burbage was the first Hamlet, Othello, and Lear.)

In 1587 the Rose goes up, the first theater in Southwark—the area just across the Thames from St. Paul's—followed by the Swan in 1595.

After Burbage's death his two sons, plus five more of the Lord Chamberlain's Men including a now-successful Shakespeare, dismantle their home Theatre and use its timbers to build the Globe in 1599. Thus this single building's timbers held two different dawns of English theater.

By 1608, when performances at Blackfriars were re-allowed, the Globe had become so popular with actors and audience that from then on the company used indoor Blackfriars in winter and the Globe in summer. When the Globe burned down on 17 July 1613, after a spark onstage reached the thatch roof during Henry VIII, the company rebuilt it with a safer tiled roof and a more ornate interior. Along with all other London theaters, it was closed in 1642 and dismantled in 1644 under orders of Parliament.

The Globe ("this wooden O") was going up as Shakespeare was finishing Henry V. Soon after, Julius Caesar premiered there in 1599, followed by a decade of hits that made it London's most popular playhouse: As You Like It, Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well, Othello, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, King Lear, Macbeth, Pericles, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest (which also ran indoors at Blackfriars), and lastly Henry VIII in 1613. Three years later our man was dead, age fifty-two.

Puns about the Globe run through the plays, as in Jaques' famous "All the world's a stage" speech (As You Like It). Hamlet, which opened in late 1600, jokes about "this distracted globe."

Southwark was full of distractions; it was not, legally or psychologically, part of the City of London. The Globe, Swan, and Rose Theatres, due south across London Bridge, lay in the part of Southwark called Bankside, a suburb near a playgoing public but away from the city fathers—rather like London's Soho today, a place for leisure and pleasure. The disorder following several political plays had set city authorities against theaters. Plays meant crowds, therefore pickpockets, vice, politics, pestilence—plague was so common that playhouses were closed in 1594 for health reasons.

Bankside also was home to bordellos, cockfighting, and bear-baiting arenas—a bear chained to posts was attacked by mastiffs while a crowd ate, drank, cheered. This dank, dirty, illicit setting became the womb of Elizabethan theater; the overworked air of its motley taverns encouraged immortal beauty.

No construction plans remain of the original Globe. The new one is based on recent excavations at the original site which indicate twenty sides. Back then there weren't architects, only master carpenters, and the new Globe has meant a revival of old techniques. Each joint is individually fitted, held in place by pegs, using green oak that seasons as it wears: an Elizabethan pre-fab. A plaster of sand, lime, and cow-hair was applied in many coats, the biggest plastering job in Europe in two centuries. The main roof is thatch, of water, reed, and sedge. The first Globe's thatch had been long banned in London as a fire hazard, but this law wasn't enforced outside the City. As originally, the new Globe's exterior will be painted white.

Walking around the new Globe, it's easy to imagine oneself back in time. A flag flying, visible across the Thames, meant a performance that afternoon, from 2 till 4:30. (Never Sundays.) Beer and hazelnuts were served throughout. If you could afford a seat in the gallery you were well-covered; if you stood you got rained on. The area around the stage was raked so those standing ("groundlings") in back could see; the stage itself was raised to guard against patrons who got carried away during a battle scene and jumped down to join the battle, but wielding real swords. The stage was shaded for the actors' benefit; a squinting audience sat or stood in the sun.

The most expensive seats were in a gallery in the backstage wall, even though their view was of the actors' backs. Back then, it was more important to show your face than to see an actor's. Hearing the lines clearly was most important of all.

In Shakespeare's day ticket prices were simple. A penny allowed you to stand in the area around the stage. Two pennies got you a seat in a gallery. Three on up to six pence got you a cushioned, choicer seat. You paid on entering by one of the two doors. Each money-gatherer had a box, and took the money to an office backstage before the performance: hence the box office.

Scenery was rudimentary, resulting in a customary richness of language; audiences were used to conjuring fields, castles, cliffs, or wondrous isles. Costumes could, however, be fairly sumptuous—aristocrats' castoffs. Female roles were played by adolescent boys before their voices broke. Companies generally had less than two dozen members and most actors played several parts in a play. Productions changed frequently; one company put on 38 plays in a single season, 21 of which were entirely new.

Seats were probably a series of high steps, and an audience could be squeezed in without restrictions. The new Globe's seating will reduce by half the original, which could pack in about 3000 people: 2000 sitting, 1000 standing. The theater had three stories, and its stage roof was an engineering feat that ranked alongside London's major hall roofs of the period, because it sprang from just two "Herculean" pillars on the stage itself. Its ceiling was blue, with signs of the zodiac—in a superstitious age, most houses still kept images to guard against the evil eye.

It is tremendously moving to explore the rebuilt Globe, as if witnessing a rectification of a great wrong; surely this is where, though he belongs everywhere, Shakespeare most belongs.

For now sits Expectation
In the air . . . .

Shakespeare wrote in Henry V in 1599, while the first Globe was being built. Now, four hundred years later, having tirelessly honored his birthplace, we are at last rebuilding his home. As frustrating as the lack of biographical material is, it's perhaps appropriate that we should be sent back to the plays by all we don't know about the life. Entering our new Globe, we try to conjure Will's London; traipsing after a ghost, we find his fading footfalls, the vast humane richness of his words, an anagram in his name (William Shakespeare! We all make his praise!), then only wonder.