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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

X. The Elizabethan Theatre

§ 9. Site and architectural features of the Theater

The opposition to playing in the city led to the erection, in 1576, of the first Elizabethan playhouse, the Theater. It was built by James Burbage, formerly a joiner by trade, and a member of the earl of Leicester’s company. Just outside the city walls on the north lay Finsbury fields, an open holiday ground where archery, fencing, sword-play and other sports were practised, and where the trained bands drilled. At the edge of these fields, on land that had but recently belonged to the priory of Holywell, and close to the road leading from Bishopsgate to Shoreditch church (the site is now in the triangular patch between Curtain road, Holywell lane and Great Eastern street) James Burbage put up his playhouse. It was outside the city, but on the edge of a neighbourhood inhabited by noblemen and “strangers born” (i.e. both foreigners and English people not of London birth and citizenship), and easily accessible from Bishopsgate, or through Cripplegate or Moorgate and across the fields. Burbage acquired the land by lease from Giles Allen for 21 years from 13 April, 1576, and borrowed 1000 marks (£666. 13s. 4d.) from his father-in-law, Brayne, with which to build his playhouse.

The word “theater” had been in use before for the platform on which shows were given, and Burbage probably named his playhouse the Theater on that account. In shape, as we know from several indications, as well as from the account left by de Witt, a Dutchman who visited London, probably about two years before its demolition, the Theater was an amphitheatre. Much has been written on the various influences which may have combined to cause the adoption of this shape. The Roman amphitheatres at Dorchester, Banbury and Shrewsbury, which were still in use for sports or dramatic exhibitions; the Cornish “rounds,” where the guirimir or miracle-plays were acted; the arrangement of stage and scaffold at a London performance of miracle or morality; even the disposition of the churches during a religious play—all these have been called in; while, for the internal arrangement of the building, the innyard is supposed to be largely responsible. It seems hardly necessary to go so far afield to account for what was the natural and simple plan. It must be remembered that already, on the south of the Thames, there were “rings,” “scaffolded about,” in existence within which bears or bulls were baited, and fencing or sword-play matches took place. For a spectacle which can be watched equally well from any point, the circle is the formation into which spectators naturally gather; and, just as naturally, there is one point of the circle that is left free for the convenience of ingress and egress by the performers to and from the ring. When James Burbage built his playhouse on the edge of Finsbury fields, a common meeting ground for sports, the drama, though it was rapidly absorbing these sports, had not taken their place, and the Theater was not confined to dramatic performances. To make his playhouse round, with the platform stage occupying a large part of the ground-space, but touching at one point the edge of the circle, was only to do what all constructors of amphitheatres had done before—the easiest thing. The erection of a room or building in which the actors could dress, and from which they could make their entrances, would naturally follow. The stage was a movable platform on trestles. When some sport for which it was not wanted was to take place, it was taken to pieces and packed away; and Burbage’s innovation, reduced to its fundamental principle, was merely the building of a high wall all round his ring, so that his spectators should be compelled to pay for admission. The innyard, doubtless, was responsible for the galleries round the inside of that wooden wall, which increased the housing accommodation and gave a measure of privacy to those who desired it. Neither to indoor performances at court, nor to those which may be supposed to have taken place in the courtyards of noblemen’s houses, can any debt be traced in the plan of the Theater.

The lease from Giles Allen to Burbage contained a clause by which, if the lessee, within ten years of the date of the lease, spent £200 in buildings, he should be entitled to an extension of the term to 1607 and to take down the buildings he might erect. In 1585, a new lease was prepared, but not executed. Early in 1597, negotiations began again for an extension of the lease, and it appears that Allen consented to execute it, on condition that the yearly rent was raised by £10, and that the Theater should be used as a playhouse for five more years only. James Burbage died in 1597, and was succeeded in the property by his sons Richard and Cuthbert. The lease expired, and the Theater was closed. The company probably moved to the Curtain; and, in the winter of 1598–99, availing themselves of the clause in the lease, the Burbages forestalled Allen by pulling the Theater down, to erect it on the other side of the river as the Globe.