Friday, June 3, 2016

A Curtain call for Shakespeare’s London theater

Exterior of London's Globe Theater, rebuilt through the efforts of American actor Sam Wanamaker  (wikipedia)

LONDON – This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. How  ironic then that excavations for a new apartment tower in London have uncovered the remains of the 16th century theater known as the Curtain where some of his plays were first performed.

But the plot thickens with true dramatic flair thanks to a number of twists.

Archaeologists were surprised to discover that the Curtain was not round like most playhouses of the day. Rather it was square. Adding to the intrigue is the reference in the prologue of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, which was first staged at the Curtain, where the structure is called “this wooden O.”

Other London theaters during Shakespeare’s time, such as the better known Globe and Rose were circular in design.
The "Wooden O" today in London  (wikipedia)

Adding to the maze of curiosities surrounding Shakespeare and Elizabethan theater over the past four centuries, is the story of an American actor who was responsible for constructing a replica of the Globe theater in London.

During a visit to English capital in 1949, Wanamaker was astonished and dismayed to discover that only trace of the original theater honoring the memory of Shakespeare’s literary contributions was a grimy deteriorating plaque on an abandoned brewery.

With passionate determination Wanamaker created the Shakespeare Globe Trust in 1970 in an effort to raise money for the construction of a new playhouse. In 1997, the Globe reopened with a performance of none other than “Henry V.” Today, the Globe is the only thatch roofed building in the city.

Sadly, Wanamaker died in 1993, never see his dream come to fruition.

Oddly enough, the high cost of real estate is creating building projects throughout London, and the excavation process has accidentally established a bit of a “golden age” of archaeology in the city.
Standing room only for a performance of King Lear at London's Globe Theater  (wikipedia)
Other recent projects have uncovered skeletal remains of 14th century plague victims as well as Roman sandals.

Senior archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology, Heather Knight, claims the Curtain site “has probably the best preserved remains of any of the playhouses we’ve looked at.”

The recent excavations show that the Curtain was approximately a 100-foot by 72-foot rectangle that could accommodate about 1,000 people.

Though the Curtain was home to Shakespeare’s acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, from 1597 to 1599, and one of the oldest playhouses in London, it is also one of the least known.

The first performance at the "new" Globe was Henry V  (wikipedia)
As a tribute to Shakespeare’s literary contributions, Sam Wanamaker had a three-fold concept in mind for his Globe reconstruction. First, it would be an active playhouse where patrons can witness performances in much the same manner as they would have been staged during Shakespeare’s time.

Second, it is a school where actors can learn the techniques, nuances and historical styles of theatrical evolution through the centuries.

And finally it is a source of research for Shakespearean and Elizabethan studies.

Aerial view of Sam Wanamker's Globe...the only thatched roof building in London  (wikipedia)
For travelers to London, the Globe is also a living museum where children of all ages can gain a broader understanding of Shakespeare through a variety of ingenious interactive kiosks.

“The show must go on” as they say. Thanks to contemporary progress, some of London’s past has been unearthed and rediscovered. “All the world is a stage” as the Curtain rises like the Phoenix from the ashes of history.