There is not even a plaque to draw attention to it, but it was arguably the most iconic place in William Shakespeare’s life. When you consider that he is the most written about writer in the world, it is bizarre that there is nothing to record the site of the Blackfriars Theatre, the playwright’s main money earner, which was situated in the former Blackfriars monastery. If you want to know what the playhouse looked like you will have to go to Staunton in Virginia where Shakespeare-loving Americans have built a replica. The only clue to its former presence in London is that the spot it stood in lies in what is now called Playhouse Yard.
The monastery building actually contained two separate theatres. The first staged performances by boy actors, children of the chapel royal, from 1576 until 1584 and the second was built after the actor and impresario James Burbage purchased the Upper Frater or refectory rooms in 1596. Burbage was a leading member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company to which Shakespeare belonged. They had been forced to leave the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch after a dispute with their landlord, and Burbage’s intention was that his new Blackfriars playhouse would be the company’s new home.
But they were thwarted by a lobby to end all lobbies – a very powerful group of Puritanical Blackfriars residents led by the formidable Lady Elizabeth Russell, a confidante of Queen Elizabeth, whose single-mindedness makes Mrs Thatcher look like a girl guide. She not only harnessed her gold-plated address book – which listed her brother-in-law the all-powerful Lord Burghley as well as Elizabeth herself – to her campaign, but also managed to persuade other locals to join in. These included Shakespeare’s childhood friend Richard Field and Lord Hunsdon who as patron of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men would have benefitted financially from a Blackfriars venue. But not in her backyard.
Lady Russell’s petition to the Queen succeeded, so instead of moving to Blackfriars after their eviction from Shoreditch, Shakespeare’s troupe had to revert to Plan B and move across the Thames to build the Globe Theatre, a replica of which – built by an American! – is the best known symbol of Shakespearean drama in the world. The new Blackfriars did not go unused, however. It too put on shows by boy actors, which were thought generally harmless. But times changed, Lady Russell met her demise, and from 1609 or 1610 “Shakespeare’s company”, now known as the King’s Men following the crowning of King James in 1603, at last began performing there. They continued to until 1642.
Unlike the Globe, the Blackfriars was an expensive, candle-lit, all-weather indoor venue seating 700 people, who paid five times as much to get in as at the original of now more famous theatre reconstructed across the river, and proved highly profitable for Shakespeare as actor and part owner. It is a sobering fact – recounted in detail by Chris Laoutaris in his fascinating book Shakespeare and the Countess – that if the troupe had not been driven out of Blackfriars there would have been no Globe. Amazing thought. London is often accused of hiding its history but seldom has anything been as deeply buried as memories of the Blackfriars Theatre.
Read every previous instalment of Vic Keegan’s fabulous Lost London series here.