The summer solstice had just passed and on a glorious sunny June day theatre goers keen for an afternoon’s entertainment crossed the River Thames to a theatre part-owned by one of London’s most popular playwrights of the day–William Shakespeare.
Four hundred years ago this week on the 29th June 1613 during the first act of All This is True a fire destroyed the original Globe Theatre.
[C]ompetition amongst the theatres on the Southbank was fierce and their owners would be always trying to produce new plays and dream up spectacular effects to produce them; dramatic battle scenes, trap-doors and rigging which allowed for flying entrances were all put in the mix.
The Globe was built in just six months between 1597 and 1598 from materials salvaged from a theatre in Shoreditch of a similar design called imaginatively – The Theatre.
Because of a long-standing dispute the owners dismantled The Theatre in the dead of night and carried the timbers over the River and rebuilt and renamed it The Globe. This reconstructed building was used as the open-air amphitheatre venue for The Chamberlain’s men for their summer productions; one of their company was William Shakespeare who was not present on that day having retired to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Three stories high and a 20-sided polygon approximately 100 feet in diameter the theatre was a huge thatched building made of timber accommodating an audience of up to 3,000.
Some of the audience would be Goundlings having paid one penny (almost an entire day’s wage) to stand in front of the stage, while the richer patrons would sit in the covered galleries, paying as much as half a crown (30 times as much) for their more comfortable seats. At the very top of the theatre going fraternity would be those wealthy and privileged enough to actually sit on the stage during the production. The monies for every production were collected in a box from which we get today the modern box office at a theatre’s door.
Shakespeare’s audience was far more boisterous than today. Composed of butchers, servants, shopkeepers, wig-makers and countless other tradesmen they were loud and hot-tempered and as interested in the happenings off stage as on.
The ceiling of the stage was painted with clouds and sky – The ‘Heavens’ – in close proximity to the thatched roof and some bright spark had suggested that cannon be situated here. This had been used successfully in the past to great dramatic effect to herald a grand entrance. The play that day which historians now believe to be re-named Henry VIII had his Majesty attending a masque at Cardinal Wolsey’s house and cannons being shot off at the Sovereign’s entry.
The cover for the muzzle of the cannon used to keep out dust and moisture was called a tampin and this it is believed set the thatched roof on fire. At first the audience ignored the fire, believing it was just smoke from the cannon, but as with thatched timber-framed buildings the fire soon took hold running round the roof like a train, consuming the whole theatre in less than an hour.
Only two narrow doors allowed for evacuation and those sitting beneath the thatched roof would have to scramble behind wooden benches and down through each of the galleries to access the stairs. Incredibly no deaths or serious injuries were recorded but one man had his breeches set on fire which he put out with the help of a bottle of ale.
The Globe was rebuilt by the following year but like all other theatres in London it was closed down by the Puritans in 1642 and was probably pulled down two years later.