Globe Theatre Opens in London

The opening of the rebuilt Globe Theatre marked the first time that a modern audience was able to watch one of William Shakespeare’s plays in the same type of theater in which the play was first performed.

Summary of Event

The opening of the rebuilt Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames River, opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral, represented the fulfillment of a centuries-old dream and a long practical campaign that began in the 1950’s. The original Globe, which was burned to the ground in 1613, was central to the work of playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare, William Many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were written for and first performed at the Globe. Globe Theatre (London)
Architecture;Globe Theatre (London)
[kw]Globe Theatre Opens in London (May 22-June 12, 1997)
[kw]Theatre Opens in London, Globe (May 22-June 12, 1997)
[kw]London, Globe Theatre Opens in (May 22-June 12, 1997)
Globe Theatre (London)
Architecture;Globe Theatre (London)
[g]Europe;May 22-June 12, 1997: Globe Theatre Opens in London[09680]
[g]United Kingdom;May 22-June 12, 1997: Globe Theatre Opens in London[09680]
[g]England;May 22-June 12, 1997: Globe Theatre Opens in London[09680]
[c]Theater;May 22-June 12, 1997: Globe Theatre Opens in London[09680]
[c]Architecture;May 22-June 12, 1997: Globe Theatre Opens in London[09680]
Wanamaker, Sam
Rylance, Mark

The rebuilt Globe officially opened on May 22, 1997, as construction workers hurried to get the job finished. The following week, on May 27, the theater opened its doors to the public for the first preview of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Tickets for five hundred “groundlings” (spectators who stand in a space in front of the stage) were sold for a penny apiece, as in Shakespeare’s day, and people waited in long lines hoping to purchase them. Mark Rylance, an actor and artistic director of the Globe, concluded the preview evening with an homage to the late Sam Wanamaker, the “founding father” of the project. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was presented on May 28.

The theater’s gala opening was held on June 12, 1997. It featured a special performance titled “Triumphes and Mirth” and was graced by the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness Prince Philip. The queen arrived by barge, following the example of Elizabethan playgoers, who would have crossed the Thames by boat to attend a play on Bankside.

Actor Zoë Wanamaker, daughter of Sam Wanamaker, spoke the famous words of the prologue of Henry V that refer directly to the Globe Theatre: “Can this cockpit hold/ The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram/ Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air at Agincourt?” The Globe Company then performed act 4 of Henry V, directed by Richard Olivier. Olivier, Richard An international cast of actors who had long been supporters of the Globe project then joined forces to present “The Triumph of Hope,” an homage to the founders of the original Globe and to Wanamaker, with a special appearance by actor Jane Lapotaire on horseback as Queen Elizabeth I. This was followed by the final scenes of The Winter’s Tale.

The idea of rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe began in earnest in the nineteenth century, and in the early twentieth century three separate plans were proposed to accomplish this goal, including a project of the Globe-Memorial Association of England and America, which wanted to build a Shakespeare complex on the Bankside. World War II put an end to all these plans.

The origins of the plan that succeeded date back to 1949, when Sam Wanamaker, an American actor, visited London and was disappointed to find only an obscure bronze tablet on the side of a brewery to commemorate the Globe. When in the 1950’s Wanamaker took up residence in Southwark, England, he began a campaign to rebuild the Globe in its original location. The founding of the Globe Playhouse Trust Globe Playhouse Trust in the early 1970’s marked the formal beginning of the project. Wanamaker launched an international fund-raising effort, gaining much of his support in the United States, and steadily picked his way through innumerable bureaucratic obstacles such as indifference, opposition from local groups, and legal disputes. After a court battle was resolved in the 1980’s—Southwark Council attempted to revoke the grant of land it had made to the Globe Playhouse Trust—actor Dame Judi Dench appeared at a ceremony to break ground on the site on April 23, 1988, and the construction work began.

Raising the money was only one obstacle to the project, however. The design of the rebuilt Globe presented many challenges, as only fragmentary knowledge exists of what the original Globe was like. For example, although much is known of other Elizabethan theaters, no building contract for the Globe survives, and no contemporary information about the interior of the theater is available. Hundreds of scholars struggled with questions such as whether the original Globe was round or polygonal. Evidence from the period is ambiguous, but the conclusion was that the structure could not have been circular because Elizabethans did not have the technology to bend oak. In the end, a convention of scholars voted, fourteen to six, for a twenty-sided structure. Other questions concerned the stage: Was it square? How far did it jut out? Which direction did it face? It was decided to place the stage of the rebuilt Globe in the northwest, facing southeast, which meant that some spectators would have the sun in their eyes for parts of the afternoon performances.

The rebuilt Globe was constructed out of solid oak, using methods of craftsmanship from the Tudor (1485-1603) era. The plaster was made out of limestone and goat’s hair (cow hair would have been more authentic, but none could be found of the requisite length). The thatched roof, which left the center of the theater open to the elements, made the rebuilt Globe the first thatched-roof building to be constructed in London since the Great Fire in 1666.

The builders made some necessary concessions to modernity, but as few as possible. In addition to the placing of fire sprinklers, the roof was coated with a fire-retardant liquid. Door frames were lengthened by six inches from the height likely in the original Globe because modern people are taller than the Elizabethans were, and seats were widened considerably from the mere eighteen inches, both sideways and front to back, that the original Globe spectator was probably granted. A bank of overhead lights was added to re-create daylight, allowing performances at night (in Shakespeare’s time, all performances of his plays started at 2:00 p.m.).

In spite of the most meticulous efforts, however, scholars conceded that the rebuilt Globe represented only an approximation of the original. In this regard, controversy erupted only months before the official opening when, in March, 1997, the British government refused to order an archaeological dig on the site where the original Globe stood, a few hundred feet from the present site. On the site now stands a Georgian property, the owners of which received planning permission to convert it into luxury apartments. This made it impossible for researchers to test the assumptions that were made in rebuilding the Globe against archaeological evidence. Protesters held a rally at the site, pledging to launch a campaign similar to the battle that saved the site of another Elizabethan theater, the Rose, in 1989. However, the protest had no effect and the remains of Shakespeare’s Globe were probably lost forever.


The interior of London’s Globe Theatre, which opened in 1997.


Critics’ responses to the opening performances at the rebuilt Globe were mixed. John Gross wrote in the Telegraph (June 14, 1997) of Henry V, “Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre comes thrillingly back to life with this fine production of Britain’s greatest patriotic epic,” a verdict echoed by John Peter in The Sunday Times (June 15, 1997), who reported that a torrential downpour during act 2 sent all but about fifty of the groundlings scurrying for shelter under the eaves but did not stop the performance. Peter pointed out that in all of Elizabethan literature, there is not a single instance of a performance being rained out, and commented that “perhaps the Globe will make us rethink our priorities between theatrical excitement and physical comfort.”

In contrast, the other opening production, The Winter’s Tale, provoked some censure. Gross commented that some of it was “poorly spoken,” concluding that “first-rate verse-speaking from the entire company needs to become an urgent priority at this marvelous, challenging theatre.” Peter pointed out that two aspects of the production were the complete opposite of Elizabethan practice: There was elaborate scenery, whereas the Elizabethans used almost none, and the costumes were drab, in contrast to the finery often displayed on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe. In contrast, a number of Elizabethan practices were observed in Henry V: Men played all the roles (women had prominent parts in the opening season’s other plays), the actors wore Elizabethan clothing, and some performances had no intermissions.

Questions of authenticity aside, actors at the Globe soon learned that the Globe is a unique theater, an unfamiliar acting environment that demands a new approach to their craft. The most successful productions have been those that have made use of the Globe’s peculiarities, and so have been unlike any performances elsewhere. Powerful acting is needed to cope with open-air acoustics, and the lack of spotlights and a darkened auditorium means that actors need to summon all their resources to command the audience’s attention. Some scholars have predicted that over the years a new tradition of ensemble playing will arise at the Globe, depending more for its success on the actors than on the staging or production. So-called director’s theater is less relevant in the Globe than it is elsewhere.

For both actors and audiences, the intimacy of the Globe is a revelation, quite unlike anything found in an ordinary theater. The seats in the three galleries curve around the stage: No spectator is more than fifty feet from the action, and groundlings are so close that those in the front can rest their arms on the stage. Some even join in the performances with shouted comments. One early performer at the rebuilt Globe, Patrick Godfrey, said, “Performing here feels like being a pip inside an orange. You have faces at your ankles, people packed in the galleries and the eyes are all so close you are entirely enclosed.”

The closeness of the audience and the fact that playgoers report feeling almost a part of the play itself is an effect that the builders of the new Globe earnestly hoped to achieve. The theater was not constructed to serve as an antiquarian museum or Shakespearean theme park, of interest only as a tourist attraction. Rather, it was hoped that performances would generate the kind of excitement and sense of immediacy that were undoubtedly experienced by the original Globe audiences. It is often pointed out that Shakespeare’s Globe drew audiences from all corners of English society, the illiterate as well as the educated and the nobility. Such a heterogeneous crowd—raucous, uninhibited, and attuned to the sounds of words and the power of images—is a far cry from the sedate, largely middle-class audience that passively observes performances in a modern theater with darkened auditorium and “picture frame” proscenium. The original Globe both created and reflected a social unity and classlessness that the new Globe Theatre Company strives to emulate. The aim is to restore theater as an exhilarating expression of the varieties of human experience for the entire community.

Another long-term effect of the rebuilt Globe has been a reinforcement of the position of Shakespeare’s works as a great training ground for aspiring actors. There are few great actors who have not honed their skills on Shakespeare’s plays, and the Globe keeps those plays alive for new generations of actors as they learn new skills not available to their predecessors. The existence of the Globe gives actors the opportunity to draw on a growing body of knowledge concerning exactly how Shakespeare’s plays worked in their original stagings, for their original audiences, during that remarkable period of approximately seventy years (from 1574 to 1642) when English drama flowered in its fullness as never before and never since.

Beyond Shakespeare, many scholars and actors also hope that the Globe will eventually stimulate new playwrights to accept the challenge of writing plays for a company with relationships among actors, stage, and audience that are different from those of any other company. Such new plays, it is suggested, would depend for their effects less on the sophisticated mechanisms of theater that technicians devise and more on the acting itself, and so perhaps convey the dramatist’s intention in a simpler, more human way. Globe Theatre (London)
Architecture;Globe Theatre (London)

Further Reading

  • Day, Barry. This Wooden “O”: Shakespeare’s Globe Reborn—Achieving an American’s Dream. London: Oberon Books, 1996. Entertaining account of Wanamaker’s efforts to get the Globe built. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Gurr, Andrew. Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London. 3d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Focuses on the audiences for Shakespeare’s plays during the author’s lifetime, including the physical conditions under which playgoers viewed the works. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • _______. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642. 3d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. One of the best one-volume guides to all aspects of the Shakespearean stage. Discusses the acting companies of the period, the staging of the plays, the playhouses (including an evaluation of various interpretations of contemporary sketches and accounts), and the audiences. Includes bibliography and illustrations.
  • Gurr, Andrew, and John Orrell. Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe. New York: Routledge, 1989. Gurr was one of the principal academic advisers to the Globe project. Discusses the growth of the idea to rebuild the Globe, the scholarly disputes about the structure of the original playhouse, the company that performed there, and the types of audience. Describes the complete Globe Theatre complex. Includes numerous illustrations.
  • Hodges, C. Walter. Enter the Whole Army: A Pictorial Study of Shakespearean Staging, 1576-1616. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Well-illustrated volume explains how various challenging Shakespearean scenes were staged at the Globe and other theaters.
  • Orrell, John. The Quest for Shakespeare’s Globe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Provides abundant material on the size, shape, and orientation of the second Globe Theatre, which was built after the original burned down and which survived until it was closed in 1642. Focuses more on what the two Globes had in common than on their differences.

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