The Theatre was an Elizabethan playhouse located in Shoreditch (part of the modern Borough of Hackney), just outside the City of London. Built by actor-manager James Burbage, near the family home in Holywell Street, The Theatre is considered the first theatre built in London for the sole purpose of theatrical productions. The Theatre's history includes a number of important acting troupes including the Lord Chamberlain's Men which employed Shakespeare as actor and playwright. After a dispute with the landlord, the theatre was dismantled and the timbers used in the construction of the Globe Theatre on Bankside.
The Theatre was constructed in 1576 by James Burbage in partnership with his brother-in-law John Brayne on property that had originally been the grounds of the dissolved priory of Halliwell (or Holywell). The location of The Theatre was in Shoreditch, beyond the northern boundary of the City of London and thus outside the jurisdiction of civil authorities who were often opposed to the theatre. This area in the "suburbs of sin" was notorious for licentious behaviour, brothels and gaming houses, and a year later another theatre called The Curtain was built nearby, making the area London's first theatrical and entertainment district.
"This wooden O"
The design of The Theatre was possibly adapted from the inn-yards that had served as playing spaces for actors and/or bear baiting pits. The building was a polygonal wooden building with three galleries that surrounded an open yard. In Shakespeare's Henry V, the chorus' speech describes the theatre as, "This wooden O." From one side of the polygon extended a thrust stage. The Theatre is said to have cost £700 to construct, a considerable sum for the age.
The open yard in front of the stage was cobbled and provided standing room for those paying a penny. For another penny, the audience were allowed into the galleries where they either stood or, for a third penny, could procure a stool. One of the galleries, though sources do not state which, was divided into small compartments that could be used by the wealthy and aristocrats.
The Theatre opened in the autumn of 1576, possibly as a venue for Leicester's Men, the acting company of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester of which James Burbage was a member. In the 1580s the Admiral's Men, of which James Burbage's son, Richard was a member, took up residence. After a disagreement between the company and young Burbage broke out, most of the company left for the Rose Theatre which was under the management of Philip Henslowe.
In 1594, Richard Burbage became the leading actor of the Lord Chamberlain's Men which performed here until 1597. Poet, playwright and actor William Shakespeare was also in the employ of the Company here and some of his his early plays, possibly including an early version of Hamlet (the so-called Ur-Hamlet) were premiered here.
Foundation of the Globe
Towards the end of 1596, problems arose with the property's landlord, one Giles Allen. In consequence, in 1597, the Lord Chamberlain's Men were forced to stop playing at the Theatre and moved to the nearby Curtain. The lease, which had been granted to Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert Burbage upon the death of their father, expired the following year. The sight of the deserted Theatre prompted these lines from a minor satirist of the day:
But see yonder,
One like the unfrequented Theatre
Walks in dark silence and vast solitude.
This state of affairs forced the Burbage brothers to take drastic action to save their investment. In defiance of the landlord and with the help of their friend and financial backer William Smith, chief carpenter Peter Street and ten or twelve workman, they dismantled the theatre on the night of the 28th December 1598 and moved the structure piecemeal across the Thames. The pieces of The Theatre were then used in the construction of the Globe Theatre.
No remains of The Theatre survive. Its former site is marked by a plaque at 88-86 Curtain Road, Shoreditch.
The Red Lion
John Brayne, originally a grocer and one of the partners in The Theatre, had built an earlier playhouse in Mile End, called the Red Lion, in 1567. It appears to have been a success, but scant information about it survives.
The Red Lion was a receiving house for touring companies, whereas The Theatre accepted long term engagements, essentially in repertory. The former was considered a continuation of the tradition of playing at inns, the later a radically new form of theatrical engagement.
There is no evidence that the Red Lion continued beyond the summer of 1567, although the law suit, from which we know much of the little we know of it, dragged on until 1578.