“Totus mundus agit histrionem”*

* “All the world is a stage”

Trouble With the Landlord

James Burbage
James Burbage

It’s 1596, and James Burbage has a problem. Having built and run the first successful open-air amphitheater in London, Burbage is now faced with losing it. His theater, uncreatively named The Theater, sits on land owned by another. Giles Allen, who leased the land to Burbage sometime around 1576, has advised Burbage that he won’t extend the lease beyond its expiration date, December 31, 1598. Burbage and his sons will lose The Theater in a little over two years.

The Theater

The Theater
The Theater

While The Theater had been successful, there were limits on its usefulness. Like all open-air theaters, it could only operate during the day. Moreover, while London winters aren’t usually harsh, they can be rainy and cold, so The Theater was only open for production from April through November. Unlike some of the theaters on Bankside in Southwark, Burbage doesn’t produce animal baiting shows. Given these disadvantages, Burbage decides to create an indoor theater.


Indoor theaters had been in use for some time, mostly in churches for boy companies. The most well known of these was Blackfriars, but it had fallen out of use in 1584 and had stood unused since. To Burbage, it appeared the perfect answer to his problems. While it would only hold half as many spectators as The Theater (1,000 vs. 2,000+), Blackfriars could be used year-round and at night. The longer performance schedule would allow for more “butts on benches”. Also, being located in a more swanky part of town (the Liberty of Winchester), Burbage could charge more for admission.

Recreation of Blackfriars Theater in Staunton, VA
Recreation of Blackfriars Theater in Staunton, VA

Beginning in 1597, Burbage leases the old Blackfriars and starts renovating it into an indoor theater. He would ultimately spend over £600 on the renovation. Everything was looking like it would work out. Unfortunately, such was not the case.


Neighbors in Westminster grew concerned as news of the new theater spread. Theaters were not considered high class at the time; they attracted the wrong kind of people (poor ones), were gathering places for players, who were seen as no better than thieves. Add to that the traffic congestion caused by carriages lined up to deliver theater-goers (who were not poor), the likelihood of excessive public urination (there were no public toilets planned and none in the neighborhood), and the smell that would surely accompany such an assemblage, it was clear that the presence of Blackfriars theater could not be tolerated.

The community petitioned the Royal Privy Council to prevent the opening of the new theater and the Council so ordered. Burbage’s hopes for a new indoor theater were dashed.

Desperate Times

James Burbage’s troubles end with his death in 1597, but they are passed on along with his estate to his sons, Richard and Cuthbert, who have been partners with James for many years. By now it’s 1598; the lease on The Theater is up in less than a year and the plans to move the company into Blackfriars have been stymied by the Privy Council’s action. The Burbages still have a theater in Shoreditch, The Curtain, but they face a significant loss in revenue if they can’t replace The Theater. Faced with this dilemma, they go to Plan C.

The lease that James Burbage had with Giles Allen had originally been for a parcel of land north of the City. Burbage had had the theater constructed on the site thereafter. Arguably, while Allen owned the land, he did not own the structure. Like all wooden buildings in England at that time, The Theater was timber-framed, a construction technique that used no nails. Rather, the large wood beams of the structure fit together by mortise and tenons, and were held together by wooden pegs. A timber-framed building could be disassembled by hammering out the pegs and pulling the timbers apart. Since the individual timbers had been marked indicating which post they joined where, a carpenter could disassemble a building, move the timbers elsewhere and reassemble them back into the same structure.

timber frame detail
timber frame detail

Desperate Measures

So it was that on the evening of December 28, 1598, 12 men and “divers other persons”, under the supervision of carpenter Peter Streete “did enter upon the premises [of The Theater] and did take down the said building”. They did then “take and carry away from thence all of the wood and timber thereof into the Bankside and did there erect a new playhouse with said timber and wood.” The quotes are taken from the lawsuit Giles Allen filed against the Burbages for the theft of his building, a lawsuit he lost.

It has been popularly reported, perhaps based on the above excerpt from the lawsuit, that the timbers were floated across the Thames River and assembled on the south bank the same night The Theater was disassembled. While that is what ultimately happened, on December 28th the timbers were taken to Streete’s warehouse in Bridewell, north of the river and were taken across to Bankside sometime in the spring of 1599.

A New Beginning

The Burbage’s had already spent a considerable sum on renovation of Blackfriars, a cost they could not recoup. With no income from The Theater coming in, they did something never before done: they opened up their player company to investors. On February 21, 1599, they, along with John Hemmings, Augustine Philips, Thomas Pope, Will Kemp and one William Shakespeare leased land between Maiden Lane and two ditches in Southwark. Reconstruction of the theater began that spring. In all, the investors spent £700 on materials & workmanship to turn The Theater parts into a new playhouse. A new playhouse needed a new name, and in September of 1599 the first play was performed at The Globe.

The Globe (incorrectly labeled as Bear Bayting)
The Globe
(incorrectly labeled as Bear Bayting)