Welcome to Episode #039 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.
I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare's plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.
When we talk about Shakespeare’s theaters, most often we mean The Globe, with it’s iconic “O’ shape, we sometimes forget that Shakespeare’s plays were actually performed in a variety of venues, and that William was involved in starting the first indoor theater anywhere in the world when he, and his longtime business partner Richard Burbage, established the then-risky venue, The Blackfriars.
With the only accurate replica of The Blackfriars in the world, no one knows the history of this theater better than The American Shakespeare Center, which is why we’ve asked Sarah Enloe, the Director of Education at The ASC to visit with us today and take us behind the curtain to look at the history of Shakespeare’s lesser known, but equally as innovative, indoor theater, The Blackfriars.
Sarah Enloe is the Director of Education at the American Shakespeare Center. She holds a Master of Fine Arts with an emphasis in dramaturgy, a Master of Letters with an emphasis in teaching from Mary Baldwin’s Shakespeare and Performance Program, and a B.F.A. in theatre studies from the University of Texas at Austin. At the American Shakespeare Center, Sarah directs programming in the areas of College Prep, Research and Scholarship, Life- Long Learning, and Educator Resources. She serves on the Advisory board of The Shakespeare Factory, the Editorial Board of the online journal This Rough Magic, and is on the executive board of the Shakespeare Theatre Association. Sarah co-edited Shakespeare Expressed and contributed “Playing with Character – Audience Members in Early Modern Playhouses” to the collection. Sarah’s current work is focused on the practical application of performance techniques for the English classroom.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Sarah about :
- Why was Shakespeare’s indoor theater called Blackfriars?
- What happened to the original Blackfriars theater?
- What was different about Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare’s partnership or business arrangement that saw them succeed with their Blackfriars theater where John Lyle, just a few years prior, ended up essentially filing bankruptcy?
- Richard inherited the theater in 1597, before the opening of The Globe, but he didn’t form his company of owners until 1608, which is over a decade later. Why did he wait so long?
The Blackfriars theater was built on what used to be a Dominican Monastery. Historically, it was the site where a lot of major events had been held like where Henry VIII had his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, for example. Ironically (perhaps intentionally?), Shakespeare's play, Henry VIII, would re-enact that very moment in history on the very grounds where it had originally taken place. After Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries in the late 1530s, control of the property was granted to the then sitting Master of Revels, Sir Thomas Cawarden. Several portions of the monastery were used for theater performances by many companies, boys choirs, and players.
Until Cawarden's death, the site was used for the Revel's offices, and parts of the monastery were leased or sold to wealthy nobles.
There was a section of a monastery known as a buttery, which was essentially a large pantry. The monks had used it to house provisions to take care of passersby that would show up unannounced and need care. After it was no longer a monastery, this open room was converted into a small theater.
The man who leased that section was named Farrant. He used the section of the monastery, he claimed, for the choir boys to practice for their performances for the Queen, but he also charged admission to theatrical performances there at ticket prices which were substantially greater than anywhere else, meaning the clientele was limited to nobles and the very wealthy.
The Old Dining Room
James Burbage's Blackfriars Theater (Richard Burbage's father) was actually not on the same site as the first Blackfriars theater. They were both part of the same old Dominican Monastery, but all the various parts and rooms of the property were quite regularly portioned off to be sold, leased, and even subleased.
So when Burbage started his theater in 1596, he purchased the Frater (Or dining room) of the old monastery to convert intoa theater. Blackfriars is known as a small theater, but this space was substantial–big enough for Burbage to install two galleries on the sides of the room in order to increase the number of seats available, and therefore number of tickets he could sell.
The King's Men started performing at Blackfriars in 1609. There's an elaborate history of why it took so much trouble to be able to perform there, one that involves formal documents forbidding their performance signed by Burbage's patron the Lord Hudson and one of Shakespeare's neighbors. However, once they did start performances there, they took full advantage of the new space, innovating various techniques and approaches to theater. The most famous, perhaps, is the use of indoor lighting and candles to light the stage, as well as the addition of music between acts. Some historians believe Shakespeare's Cymbeline was written specifically to be performed at Blackfriars.
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