Theatres in London took off after the English Reformation when the first public playhouse was opened by James Burbage in 1576. It was simply named The Theatre. The next to open was call… The Curtain. The Theatre was dismantled and moved south of the River Thames, rebuilt and called The Globe.
The Globe was owned by shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a group of actors, which included William Shakespeare. The location was poorly drained and too close to the tidal river, so a platform was built for the theatre. It probably opened in 1599 in time for one of Shakespeare’s latest hits. It was an open air amphitheatre with three tiers, and could house (not seat) 3000 people.
The stage used is known as an Apron Stage – rectangular and thrusting into the auditorium. A trap door allowed actors to move from the cellarage below up onto the stage.
Sadly, the original Globe Theatre didn’t last long. During a performance of Henry VIII a stage cannon ignited the wooden beams and thatch, burning the theatre to the ground. The following year, it was rebuilt. The English Reformation might have brought life to theatres, but unfortunately, the Puritans ended it in 1642 after the Civil War. The Globe was pulled down in 1644.
The current Globe Theatre is a modern reconstruction of the original Shakespeare version and was built in 1997 and located reasonably close to the previous site.
Most London theatres are not south of the Thames, but in the West End. It is here that Theatreland blossomed and there are now thirty-eight West End Theatres.
One is the Garrick Theatre, which opened in 1889. This theatre was financed by W. S. Gilbert, part of the successful Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera partnership. Gilbert was a playwriter, Sullivan, the musician.
The Garrick was designed by Walter Emden, who has already featured on this blog. During the excavation an underground river was discovered and another theatre builder was brought into help – C.J. Phillips, who was responsible for the Savoy Theatre – the first electrically lit public building in the world. He also built the Gaiety Theatre, which had a reputation for operetta, pantomime, burlesque, and during the late nineteenth century, musical comedy, hence the theatre’s name. (The Gaiety Theatre was badly damaged by bombing and demolished in 1956)
The Garrick is named after an actor, David Garrick (1717-1779). Garrick promoted realistic acting, as opposed to over the top melodrama that was common at the time. He reformed audience behaviour, as well as set design and costumes, creating consistency in performances. However, his attempts at influencing the literary side were unsuccessful. The plays he wrote were rated as poor – can’t be good at everything.
His friend, Samuel Johnson, said that theatre had made Garrick rich, and it also made the profession of acting respectable. For an actor having a theatre named after you must be the height of prestige. It’s a pity it happened over a century after his death.