On this date, June 29, the Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613.
For years I taught high school students about the Globe Theatre, but I never had a chance to see London or the new replica of the theatre. In March, 2011, through the auspices of my older son and daughter-in-law, I had the good fortune to visit London and the Globe. Because the trip was mainly to Italy, I had only a 24-hour layover in London, so I wanted to visit Westminster Abbey, Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the Globe, and any other sights we could manage in a short time. The trip to Southwark to see the new Globe was worth it.
A little background. The Globe was constructed in 1599 by Cuthbert and Richard Burbage from the timbers of another building known as The Theatre. The story goes that they took the timber across London Bridge in the dead of night to escape some legal complications. [Those theatre people were always in legal trouble, you know!] They built the Globe on Bankside on the south side of the Thames River in the suburb of Southwark–a dark, working class area even today. Many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed in this theatre. A line from Henry V, “Within this Wooden O,” caused historians to believe the building was circular or polygonal and the middle was open to the sky.
On June 29, 1613, it burned to the ground in less than two hours during Shakespeare’s historical play, King Henry VIII. A shot from a canon, probably to signal the king’s entrance in Act I, caught the Globe’s thatch roof on fire. No one died in the blaze and all the spectators got out the two narrow doors to safety. This, in itself, was an amazing feat, so I’d assume panic did not set in.
A second theatre was built in the spring of 1614 with a roof of fire-resistant tiles [Who says insurance companies don’t learn from their heavy losses?] It was used for 28 years until the Civil War and the Puritan Commonwealth deemed plays sinful and closed the theatres in 1642. This led to the demolition of Globe II in 1644. (You can read further about its history with Shakespeare here.)
I was fortunate to see the new Globe built by American actor, Sam Wanamaker, which was opened June 12, 1997, by Queen Elizabeth. (You can read about the twenty-year endeavor here.) It was a wet, gloomy, cold, March day and I could feel all the discomfort of the groundings in a wooden structure with no heat or electricity. The rain was pouring down during much of our tour, and the wooden benches were amazingly hard. I couldn’t imagine sitting for three or four hours, watching a play, on these seats. [And these weren’t the cheap seats.]On the tour I was gratified to discover that everything I had taught during all those high school years was accurate.
This year’s visitors to the Olympics will be able to see part of the 2012 theatre season at The Globe. It features such favorites as Henry V, Richard III, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet, among other plays. What an amazing opportunity to view Shakespeare as it was presented over four hundred years ago. [Make sure you check for the “exit” signs just in case they shoot a canon.]