January 17, 2018

As The Globe Burns

On this day in 1613, The Globe playhouse, of which Shakespeare was part-owner, burned down. The fire started during a performance of Shakespeare's Henry the Eighth (also called All This is True) when sparks from a cannon set off to announce the King's entrance in Act I ignited the thatched roof, destroying the building in an hour. There are a number of contemporary descriptions of the event, including the cheeky "Sonnett upon the pittiful burneinge of the Globe playhowse in London." This was published anonymously, but as competition for the entertainment pence was fierce in Elizabethan England, such verses as the following might suggest that the poem was written by an owner at one of the rival open-air playhouses:
    No shower his raine did there downe force
    In all that Sunn-shine weather,
    To save that great renowned howse;
    Nor thou, O ale-howse, neither.
    Had itt begunne belowe, sans doubte,
    Their wives [i.e. of the owners] for feare had pissed itt out.
    Oh sorrow, pittifull sorrow, and yett all this is true.

    Bee warned, yow stage strutters all,
    Least yow againe be catched,
    And such a burneing doe befall,
    As to them whose howse was thatched;
    Forbeare your whoreing, breeding biles,
    And laye up that expence for tiles.
    Oh sorrow, pittifull sorrow, and yett all this is true. . . .
London's new, open-air Globe playhouse - it opened in 1997, and is packed each summer - did not follow this advice on the roof. It was reconstructed 200 yards from the 1613 Globe, and is as close in design and materials as scholars and building codes could manage: the thatch is of Norfolk reed, the beams are of green oak, and the plaster is of the Elizabethan sand-lime-hair recipe - though the modern British cow, not having a good decade, was found to have hair too short, and replaced by the goat. Attempts at replicating the Elizabethan theatre experience extend to some performances being done with an all-male cast and, says artistic director Mark Rylance, to a style in which actors play and sometimes talk directly with the audience." There have been complaints over this, or over the behavior of the "groundlings" who pay only £5 to stand, eat and mull about in the "yard" around the stage, but nothing close to the complaints in Shakespeare's day. Playwrights then took aim at "A dull Audience of Stinkards sitting in the penny-galleries of a Theater, and yawning at the Players"; oppositely, the playhouse-closing Puritans targeted those who came only to frolic either during the play or at the customary dance afterwards:
    ... at all the playhouse dores,
    When ended is the play, the daunce, and song,
    A thousand townsmen, gentlemen, and whores,
    Porters and serving-men together throng.
The newly-reconstructed Globe may have to be closed in order to be re-reconstructed: some scholars say that, among other errors, the diameter of the building may be wrong, throwing off the original acoustics and sight lines.

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