Thursday, June 14, 2012

Theatre Thursday: Theatrical Entrepreneur James Burbage

James Burbage can enjoy the prestige of being the builder and owner of the first theatre in Elizabethan London, aptly named The Theatre

Originally a joiner, (a maker of furniture) Burbage abandoned his trade in favor of joining the Earl of Leicester's theatre company, Leicester's Men. It can be assumed due to his membership in the company in the year 1575 that Burbage took part in organizing and performing the elaborate festivities put on by Leicester when Queen Elizabeth visited him at Kenilworth. Elizabeth and Leicester's summit at Kenilworth is considered by most historians as Leicester's last great attempt to persuade Elizabeth to marry him.

A sketch of the Earl of Leicester, painted from life by Zuccaro as part of the Kenilworth festivities in 1575. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
A sketch of Queen Elizabeth I, painted from life by Zuccaro as part of the Kenilworth festivities in 1575. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In April of 1576, Burbage and his father-in-law began construction of The Theatre in response to the mayor of London's opposition to the performance of plays in the unregulated courtyards of city inns. The Theatre, an open-air round theatre enclosed by a wooden structure (a style later copied by The Rose, The Swan and The Globe theatres) was the first to be built especially for the performance of plays.

Burbage leased the site of The Theatre in Shoreditch from Giles Allen for twenty-one years. The Theatre opened in 1577 and was an immediate success. The Curtain was built to rival The Theatre's success. (For more information on the recent discovery of the remains of The Curtain, please see the link, below)

Burbage's background in performing with Leicester's Men allowed him to seamlessly make the transition from actor to director. Burbage selected, trained and managed his own company of actors.

Burbage's thriving theatre business was a family affair; he had married his business partner John Braye's sister, Ellen. Their son Richard would become, along with Edward Alleyn, one of the most celebrated actor's of the Elizabethan stage. Burbage's acting troupe happened to include his father-in-law, as well as Richard Tarlton, the celebrated comedic stage actor.

A detail from a portrait of actor Richard Burbage, James Burbage's son. Artist unknown. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In 1596, Burbage proposed turning part of Blackfriars, the historic Dominican monastery in London, into another playhouse, which he planned to call the Blackfriars Theatre. Strong opposition to a theatre district in the neighborhood (which would undoubtedly bring cut-purses and other crime into the neighborhood) delayed construction until after James Burbage's death in 1597.

That same year of James Burbage's passing, there was a dispute between the Burbage family and their landlord Giles Allen over the renewal of the lease for The Theatre. This conflict led James Burbage's sons to move the playhouse to Southwark, where it was re-christened The Globe. The Globe became the most iconic playhouse of the 16th and 17th century theatre scene, and it is inextricably linked with the earliest performances of Shakespeare's masterpieces.

The modern reconstruction of The Globe theatre on the Thames in London, England. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons, shared by photographer. Image public domain.


"Burbage, James." The Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World. Print. (By John A. Wagner)

Shakespeare's Curtain Theatre Remains Found: