A 'Chicago kid' fulfills a dream in London

R. C. Longworth


am Wanamaker, a Chicago kid, saw his first Shakespearean play at the 1932-33 Chicago World's Fair. It was staged in a crude, lakeside replica of the Globe, Shakespeare's own theater on the south bank of the Thames in London. Later in life, Wanamaker said the experience left him with two ambitions — to become an actor and to see the original Globe.

In 1949, with an acting career well under way, Wanamaker saved up the passage to get to London. He went straight to Park Street in Bankside and found the site of the Globe. It was a parking lot. Where is it? Wanamaker wanted to know. If it's gone, why don't they build a new one? The usual British answer, he said, was generally: So what? Who cares?

Wanamaker cared. Beginning in 1969, he spent the last 24 years of his life (when he was not busy being one of America's leading character actors) recreating the Globe near its original Bankside site. I interviewed him several times in those years, and he made it clear that the reconstruction was a battle. The actual original site could not be used because it would involve destruction of a 19th Century house, which is itself listed as being historically significant. (That original site remains paved over, but at least there's a proper plaque there now.) The new site is about two blocks away, next to the river, won by Wanamaker after a battle with the local borough council, which wanted to build public housing there. Fund-raising went on worldwide, of necessity. Wanamaker said he found the British baffled about his project and tight-fisted about supporting it. Only the colonials, like the Americans, revere the English language and its most eminent playwright, he told me, and most of the money came from the States, Canada, Australia, and other English-speaking nations. Prince Philip was a major presence on fund-raising trips but, then, he's Greek by birth, not British.

Wanamaker died in 1993, four years before the new Globe opened officially, but he lived long enough to know it would be completed. The theater's official histories and literature make it clear that the new Globe is Wanamaker's personal triumph. And what a triumph it is! Judging by the crowd the night we went in the summer of 2002, even the British love it. It is, of course, a marvelous recreation and, as such, a triumph of historical nostalgia. But it is more than that — a scholarly, reality-based insight into the very roots of English-language theater.

Those roots were planted and flowered in an astonishingly brief 66 years, from 1576 to 1642, mostly in the bawdy Bankside area, a sort of Elizabethan Soho, where fun-seeking Londoners came from the more respectable city across the Thames to gamble, whore, drink, and bait the bears. Actors and acting ranked down with these lowlife activities, so Bankside was the logical venue for the early theaters, like the Rose and the Swan. Shakespeare, like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, wrote his plays for these theaters, first for the Rose and then for the Globe. Two brothers, the Burbages, built the Globe in 1599 and split the ownership with five actors, including Shakespeare. Shakespeare called it “this wooden O” and some of his most glorious works — Macbeth, King Lear, Anthony and Cleopatra, Measure for Measure, and others — were first performed there.

One night in 1613, the thatched roof caught fire during a performance of Henry VIII, and the Globe burned down, but the owners rebuilt it. The theater could hold 2,200 persons, including 700 standing in the groundling area before the stage or perched in three steep tiers of seats surrounding the jutting stage.

The sunburst of creativity lasted only until 1642, when the Puritans closed the Globe and the other theaters. Two years later, it was pulled down to make room (what a pre-echo of Wanamaker's time!) for public housing. The era of Elizabethan theater came to an end. The ruins of the theaters vanished beneath new buildings — or parking lots — on Bankside and remain there to this day. (Archaelogists found the remains of the Rose, an unexpectedly informative site, in 1991, in digs carried out between the destruction of one building on the site and the building of another. Thespian demonstrations, perhaps the most eloquent demos in history, forced the redesign of the new building to permit permanent access to the foundations of the Rose, but this tiny museum is closed now, apparently for lack of money.) The upshot is that no one has ever seen an Elizabethan theater, so nobody knows for sure what the seminal English-language theaters looked like.

Think of that for a moment. If we want to know about the theaters that gave birth to Greek or Roman theater, all we have to do is go look at a Greek or Roman amphitheater: they're still there and being used. But no modern actor has ever been inside an Elizabethan theater, because they don't exist. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed in the theaters he knew best, but we've never seen them. The few surviving drawings of the Globe are hazy and contradictory and unreliable. How close were the actors to the audience? How loudly did Shakespeare want his actors to talk, and how broad did their gestures need to be? Did the stage face into the sun (the theaters were open-roofed) or away from it? What difference did it make to have the groundlings standing so close to the stage? In short, for what conditions did Shakespeare write? We didn't know before. But now perhaps we do.

Through meticulous scholarship and the study of ruins like the Rose, Wanamaker and his aides made educated guesses and recreated the Globe as best they could. The consensus is that, if it's not identical, it's pretty close, which makes it a scholarly contribution of the first water.

The Globe is best approached by the new Millennium Bridge across the Thames from St. Paul's. It's a small complex, right on the river, just down the Embankment from the mammoth Tate Modern gallery. About half the space is given over to decidedly non-Elizabethan activities — an excellent museum on Shakespeare, the original Globe, and Sam Wanamaker's campaign; educational facilities and a gift shop; a pleasant café and a good restaurant, both with views out over the river, good places to eat before the show.

The heart of the complex is, of course, the theater itself and the yard outside, where theater-goers gather before the play and at intermission. The theater is as authentic as present scholarship and modern building codes permit. It is still thatched, but the thatch is treated with a fire retardent. Lighted signs mark the exits. Daytime performances rely totally on natural light through the open roof, but discreet artificial lighting supplements the late summer dusk for evening performances. Small signs announce that companies like Mitsubishi and Merrill Lynch have sponsored some boxes but, then, Shakespeare had his patrons, too. There is evidence that Shakespeare sometimes squeezed 3,000 persons into the theater, but modern codes and our tendency to add poundage over the centuries keeps it to 1,600 now — 700 standing on the ground, 900 in the seats. Perhaps even Shakespeare rented cushions for the hard wooden seats: at a pound ($1.50) each, they're a wise investment.

Apart from this, authenticity reigns. We saw Twelfth Night at an evening performance last summer, and it was a delight. (Coincidentally, it was a homecoming of sorts: 42 years earlier, newly arrived to live in England, we took the bus to Stratford and saw our first Shakespeare, a luminous performance of Twelfth Night with Dorothy Tutin.)

The oak and lime plaster walls are laid out, not in a perfect O, but in a ring with 20 sides. The wooden tiers rise sharply from the stage. The stage itself is supported by two massive pillars, with a musicians' gallery above. Not all the Shakespeare done there is in period dress, but Twelfth Night was given the full treatment — authentic dress, Elizabethan music, even an all-male cast, just as in Shakespeare's time.

The Shakespeare that night was very good and certainly closer in atmosphere to Shakespeare's time than any other theater could create. In other words, this is a serious company doing first-rate work. About one-third of the audience must have been school kids, many of them probably seeing their first Shakespeare. The acting was broad, even hammy, with the male actors emphasizing the sexual confusions and suggestions inherent in a man-playing-a-woman-dressed-as-a-man. The audience caught the jokes, all of them. They roared at old Will's lines and the actors' japes. They hooted at ridiculous Malvolio and suffered with him through his humiliation. Asides and winks that would be lost in a larger theater, like the one at Stratford, became complicit when tossed to groundlings standing an arm's length away.

The Bankside actors themselves say that being so close to the audience, and especially the groundlings, makes all the difference in communication with the playgoers. At one point, one poor groundling fainted and the actor playing Feste called for the paramedics without breaking stride or character. The audience applauded the good lines, shouted at the outrages, became totally involved in the play. It was, in truth, a little rowdy, not at all decorous — probably not all that much different from the good old days of the early 17th Century when the blades came across the river to find a bawd, a few drinks, and a good evening at that new theater, the Globe.

Sam Wanamaker, who always knew that Shakespeare could be fun, would have expected no less. Nor would he have been surprised at the fact that some Brits still haven't quite got the idea. West End newspapers, who used to treat the Globe as a Shakespearean theme park for American tourists, give the excellent productions serious reviews now. The theater fills 80 percent of its seats, and the bottoms in those seats aren't all American. The Globe, unlike the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, gets no state subsidy. The RSC and some reviewers still turn up their noses at the populist Bankside upstart, treating it as a theme park (and one dreamed up by an American, at that). But truth to tell, recent performances I've seen in Stratford have been stuffy, even a little snoozy after a good dinner, while the Bankside productions are meant to be enjoyed. Stratford actors recite and declaim, while the Bankside actors act. Shakespeare would have understood, and approved.

To go to the Globe

The season runs from May through September. The Globe stages no plays during the winter, but tours go on year-round. The schedule of plays and other information are available on the web site, www.shakespeare-globe.org. Tickets for seats range from 10 to 27 pounds (about $15-$40). Standing room in the groundlings area is 5 pounds ($7.50). An online site to order tickets is in preparation, but tickets can be ordered now by telephone (from the US, dial or fax ( Tickets often are available on the day of the play, but don't bet on it; reservations for both plays and the restaurant are advisable. The closest tube stops are Blackfriars, London Bridge, Mansion House, Cannon Street, and Southwark; signs point the way to the theater.

Performance at Shakespeare's Globe — "this wooden O," — featuring in this photograph Twelfth Night. Image by John Tramper provided through the courtesy of the Shakespeare's Globe, London.

Shakespeare’s Globe. Image by Nik Milner provided through the courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe, London.

See images of Stratford Festival

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