05 June 2013

Public Entertainment: The Rose Theatre, Bankside 1587-1606

In 1989, workmen constructing an office building on Bankside unearthed the remains of one of London’s earliest theatres after The Globe.  These remains came under threat, until a campaign to save the site was launched, and thus the building was suspended, leaving the theatre’s remains conserved underneath, kept dark to prevent algae growth and covered in sand, cement and water.
The Rose Theatre, Bankside
During excavation, the theatre was discovered to be polygonal, with a yard that sloped forwards; the stage itself unexpectedly shallow and tapering at the sides. The Museum of London staff found more than 700 small objects which are now housed in the museum, including jewellery, coins, tokens and fragment of the money boxes used to collect entrance fees from the audience.
William Shakespeare
Portions of the theatre's foundations, under the ingressi (wooden stairs leading to the galleries), were found to be littered with fruit seeds and hazelnut shells. When combined with cinder and earth, these shells provided a tough floor surface - so tough, that 400 years later archaeologists had to take a pick axe to it to penetrate it. 

The hazelnuts were probably not eaten, the nutshells being brought to the site from a nearby soapworks, where the kernels were crushed for their oil.

Plans are in place to complete the excavation and open it to the public permanently, in the meantime there is an exhibition, accessed from Park Street.
Building of The Rose

Bankside in the late 16th Century was the area south of the River Thames reached by the old London bridge, notorious for its brothels, bull and bear baiting arenas and gambling dens. 

Little Rose was the name of a boggy area that contained substantial rose gardens and two buildings, leased by Philip Henslowe, a property developer from the parish of St. Mildred, whose business investments included starch-making and pawn-broking.

Together with a grocer named John Cholmley, and a carpenter called John Griggs, Henslowe built the first purpose-built playhouse to stage a production of Shakespeare's plays in 1587. 

Cholmley used one of the buildings as a storehouse, while Henslowe leased the other as a brothel. The new theatre was a fourteen-sided polygon of about 72 feet in diameter, constructed of timber, with a lath and plaster exterior and thatched roof.
The Rose Excavations
This was the fourth public theatre after The Red Lion, [1657] The Theatre [1576], the Curtain [1577], and the one at Newington Butts [1580]. Building these playhouses in Southwark put them outside the jurisdiction of the City of London's civic authorities.

These were open-air "public" theatres who charged a penny paid for entry. The three other London theatres, Blackfriars [1599], the Whitefriars [1608] and the Cockpit [1617], and the Salisbury Court Theatre [1629] near the site of the defunct Whitefriars were smaller, enclosed buildings for smaller audiences and charged more for entry.

In 1592, Henslow’s step-daughter married the actor Edward Alleyn and by 1593, Alleyn was associated with two theatre companies, Lord Strange's Men and the Admiral's Men who staged performances at The Rose. Alleyn certainly performed the roles of Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus, and he probably also played Barabas in The Jew of Malta.  

The Rose soon needed enlarging to allow another five hundred spectators. This enlargement work was done by the builder John Grigg, who gave the theatre its distorted shape, described as ‘bulging tulip’.

Between 1592–4, severe outbreaks of bubonic plague closed the London theatres, so the companies were forced to tour to survive. Some, like Pembroke's Men, fell on hard times. By the summer of 1594 the plague had abated, and the companies re-organized themselves, principally into the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the Admiral's Men. The latter troupe, still led by the actor Edward Alleyn, resumed residence at the Rose.

Henslowe kept meticulous accounts and diaries during his management of the theatre company, including the costs of costumes and payments to playwrights, and the licensing fees to the Master of the Revels. He mentions in his diaries a lady he refers to as, ‘Black Luce’ who was one of his tenants and apparently kept a brothel.

Lucy’s name appeared in a number of texts, including the ‘Gray's Inn Christmas Festivities’ when the students ruled the Inn for the day, appointing a Lord of Misrule called the Prince of Purpoole. Shakespeare performed at the Inn at least once, as his patron, Lord Southampton was a member.
Edward Alleyn-Actor
Perhaps Shakespeare knew of Lucy through her acquaintance to Henslowe and The Rose, which could indicate she may have been the mysterious ‘Dark Lady’, Shakespeare mentions in his plays. His sonnets, Nos 127-154, are known as the “Dark Lady” sonnets where the poet mentions a mysterious woman with black hair and "raven black" eyes. Phebe in As You Like it, says "He said mine eyes were black and my hair black"

However, there was more than one dark lady in London during the late 16th century, so who knows, but these are interesting coincidences.

The repertory who played at The Rose included Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine the Great, Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s Henry VI part I and Titus Andronicus.

Prompted by complaints from city officials, the Privy Council decreed in June 1600 that only two theatres would be allowed for stage plays: The Globe Theatre on Bankside, and the Fortune Theatre in Middlesex Thus the Rose fell out of use and by 1606 was abandoned as a theatre as the lease had run out, so was most probably demolished.

Museum of London
Anita's Blog

Anita Davison is a Historical Fiction Author whose latest release, ‘Royalist Rebel’ a biographical novel set in 17th Century England, is released by Claymore Books under the name Anita Seymour