On June 29, 1613 during the first on-stage production of Henry VIII, the Globe Theater of Shakespeare fame burned to the ground. Quickly erected and quickly raised, the theater reminds fans of the Elizabethan era that even the best figures from history had their problems.
Built in a few short months in 1597 and 1598, the Globe was an open air amphitheater constructed of wood with two flights of stairs on either side of the stage and a single entrance for performers and theater goers. With the capacity to house over 1500 guests, the theater was not small by old or new standards and was the venue for the latest Shakespearean productions. Unheated and with very few lights, the theater had high balcony seats covered with thatch straw roofs. A veritable overcrowded and unsafe tinderbox.
Shakespeare and his band of thespians known as “The Chamberlain’s Men” performed theater in the round which meant that the audience and the actors had the intimate experience of close proximity. There were no female actors at the time as such a practice was illegal and viewed as obscene. So whether the character was Romeo or Juliet, the actor was male and this was not strange. In fact, the tradition of male actors playing female leads continues today in British pantomime (Christmas Plays) performances.
As theater developed into its modern form, the plays, performances and skills of the various actors and writers were a constant source of conversation. Those who performed best, created the most drama and put on the most captivating stories were rewarded with packed houses and good reviews in the morning papers. For this reason, special effects played a large role in productions and Shakespeare and his company were no exception to this as during his life, he was just another writer trying to improve his credentials.
And so it was that in the arsenal of Globe Theater special effects (that included fireworks, trap doors and pulley operated flying systems) was a small cannon that was fired to mark the onstage arrival of prominent characters. The cannon was loaded with gun powder and fired during the performance of the play, igniting the roof of the theater.
There appears no record as to the number of casualties or whether anyone died that night. But with 1500 people trying to flee a burning building by one exit with little light and a burning roof, there must have been quite a panic. The stampede effect of such circumstances is well known. No one was available to put out the fire and the first Globe Theater, the jewel of London’s theater circuit, burned into oblivion.
Without modern safety equipment such as fire extinguishers and smoke alarms and without the close proximity of a municipal fire brigade, devastating structural fires were common during the period. In fact it would be only a few decades later that the Great Fire of London (1666) would take place, raising a vast portion of the capital to the ground.
In 1614, a second Globe Theater was built on the same spot but would only last for 30 more years. In 1644, the Puritan movement swept through England and public theatrical performances were banned. Considered heretical and distracting, theater was not the choice of the conservative simple life outlook of the Puritans and the Globe was demolished never to be rebuilt.
After the English Civil War, theater came back into fashion but too late for the famous bard to enjoy. William Shakespeare died in 1616. The Swan Theater in Stratford Upon Avon Shakespeare’s birthplace still stands today and is home to the Royal Shakespeare Company.
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