Shakespeare's Playhouse Reborn on the Thames

By Linda Joffee, | The Christian Science Monitor, September 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare's Playhouse Reborn on the Thames

Linda Joffee,, The Christian Science Monitor

It has been trumpeted as one of the most exciting events in recent theatrical history. It is also the realization of a long-held dream. William Shakespeare's Globe Playhouse, which burned to the ground in 1613, has for the first time in more than three centuries reopened for business - a mere stone's throw from where it stood in Elizabethan times.

The Globe is where the great flowering of English drama occurred, and the significance of its reopening is hard to overstate. For Shakespeare devotees from dozens of nations who contributed to the reconstruction, it marks a return to an era when a love of language was common. Hopes are high that it will help revive this passion among contemporary audiences as well as educate theatergoers about the playwright himself.

The Globe was central to Shakespeare's life and work. Indeed, after the Bard of Avon became resident playwright, all of his works were written for and performed at the legendary "Wooden O." When the theater caught fire during a performance of "Henry VIII," its demise also brought an abrupt end to the Bard's incomparable career. With his theater in ashes, the playwright laid down his quill and retired to his birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. He died soon after. Despite a number of attempts in years past to reconstruct the Globe (including by such illustrious folk as Sir Walter Scott and Lady Randolph Churchill), no one has managed to get the project off the ground until now. And while the Globe complex - including another smaller theater plus an exhibition and educational center - remains unfinished, and the official gala opening has been postponed (until June 1997) to allow for still more fund-raising, there is no question that what has been achieved is little short of amazing. Ironically, full credit goes to a Yank rather than a Brit. During a visit to London in 1949, Chicago-born actor Sam Wanamaker was shocked when, upon searching for the historic theater, he could find only a small plaque on the side of a brewery wall that stated: "Here stood the Globe Playhouse of Shakespeare." The area was derelict and abandoned, yet its former glory resonated through the old Tudor road names: Clink Street, Bankside, and Skin Market Place. "They should build a Globe here," he mused. But only when Mr. Wanamaker moved to Britain a few years later and finally resolved to take on the project himself did the American actor realize why it had never before materialized. The obstacles that he encountered were legion: Byzantine politics; snail's-pace bureaucracy; vociferous opposition from certain local factions; protracted court battles; painstaking international networking, and fund-raising. More than three decades later, he had little more than an undeveloped plot of land on the banks of London's River Thames to show for his efforts. Still, although the actor passed away several years ago, he did live long enough to witness the initial spadework for what had become an all-consuming obsession. In an interview shortly before the much-celebrated groundbreaking, Wanamaker spoke about his vision for the theater. He emphatically did not want yet another ye olde England tourist attraction. The key aim, he averred, would be to promote education and informed appreciation of Shakespeare and his work. "There are Elizabethan-style theaters around, but nothing that even comes close to the structure and conditions of the original Globe," Wanamaker emphasized with pride, as we gazed at the empty site that would one day become a reincarnation of the Bard's playhouse. To that end, re-creating the Globe in exacting Elizabethan detail was to be the project's hallmark. While no interior drawings of the original Globe exist, literally hundreds of scholars from around the world have helped piece together what the theater and its environs would have been like. It is now known, for example, that the polygonal structure was small by today's standards - probably about 32 feet high and 100 feet in diameter - yet may well have held up to 3,000 people. …

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