Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Shakespeare's First Theater Uncovered

"Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors make their way to Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe Theatre, on the Thames, to explore Shakespeare's intriguing past.

Not surprisingly, an unremarkable plot of land on New Inn Broadway, just north of London's medieval City wall, does not rate a mention on the Shakespeare tourist trail, since before now only the most fervent history buffs were aware of the site's significance in the playwright's life.

However, that history can be laid bare after an archaeological dig at the Shoreditch site uncovered the remains of The Theatre - one of the capital's first playhouses — where Shakespeare's works were first performed in the 16th century.

In what the Museum of London Archaeology has described as “one of the most exciting finds of recent years”, an excavation last month uncovered a large section of what is believed to be the original brick foundations of the theatre.

The Theatre, built in 1576, was home to the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the company in which Shakespeare first performed as an actor before his writing career flourished.

Located outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, where puritanical magistrates and city leaders frowned on the debauchery of the theatre movement, Shakespeare and other playwrights were free to express themselves. It is believed that some of his earliest works, perhaps Romeo and Juliet and Richard III, were performed there.

However, their occupancy of the site came under threat after a nasty dispute over the lease on the land in 1598.

The story has it that in the dead of night during Christmas that year the actors and playwrights dismantled The Theatre and moved it, piece by piece, to the South Bank of the Thames, where the original Globe Theatre was erected. Historians have long been aware that the open-air playhouse had stood in Shoreditch, but traces of it had proved elusive until now.

Julian Bowsher, a senior archaeologist at the museum, said that there could not be 100 per cent certainty about the remains. However, he said it was very likely, because the bricks form a polygon, which documentary evidence suggests was the shape of the theatre. “It's certainly in the right area and it's certainly very important,” he said.

Mr Bowsher said that the find was highly significant, not only because it added to Shakespeare's history but also because it would enable comparisions with other early playhouses.

And as Shakespeare might say, “the wheel has come full circle” — the discovery was made during excavations on the site to prepare it for the construction of a new theatre.

The Tower Theatre Company, which performs a Shakespeare work every year, will design its modern playhouse around the remains of the original. Jeff Kelly, the chairman of the company, said: “We're thrilled. It's an incredible coincidence that we want to build our theatre on the site of Shakespeare's first playhouse. It unveils a secret past.”

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