Monday, 17 April 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: East Bankside - Blood Sports and Theatres

A visitor to London, following the south bank of the River Thames from London Bridge towards Westminster Bridge, emerges from Clink Street onto Bankside. Today, this stretch of the riverside is crowded with tourists, attracted by its bar and restaurants, as well as by cultural institutions, including the reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe and Tate Modern.

The reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Bankside. Photo: ChrisO (licensed under GNU).

Throughout much of the Twentieth Century, however, Bankside was very much part of the working environment of the London Docks. The blog-site, "A London Inheritance," has an extensive collection of "then and now" photographs (the former inherited by its author from his late father), which can be seen here and here. Ironically, however, if we imagine ourselves back to the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, the atmosphere of the area would have been more akin to that which we experience today, albeit with a rather different range of attractions.

Bankside incorporates parts of two ancient "liberties," that of The Clink, and that of Paris Garden, both of which fell outside the jurisdiction of City and Shire authorities, and in both of which were consequently to be found numerous brothels, gambling dens, and rowdy taverns. Other popular entertainments, from the mid-Sixteenth Century onwards, included bull-baiting and bear-baiting.

Bull and bear-baiting rings on Bankside, c1580. William Smith's manuscript of The Description of England (image is in the Public Domain). 
The Bear Garden, Bankside, before 1616, Visscher's Map of London (image is in the Public Domain).
Bear-baiting, by Abraam Hondius, 1650, private collection (image is in the Public Domain).

In the 1580s, two entrepreneurs, Philip Henslowe and John Cholmley, both of whom had financial interests in brothels and blood-sports, embarked on what might, today, be called a "brand extension," investing money in the construction of The Rose Theatre, in the liberty of The Clink. The commercial theatre was a relatively new (and uniquely English) phenomenon, but earlier theatres had, for the most part, been situated to the north and east of the City of London.

London's early play-houses (image is in the Public Domain).

The Rose was used by the Lord Admiral's Men, and produced plays by, among others, Christopher Marlowe. Its foundations have been partially excavated, and small-scale productions are staged there - an unforgettable experience for a modern visitor to London. Henslowe's "diaries" (actually more of a ledger-book) are also preserved, with records of loans and payments to writers, including Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, and Ben Jonson.

The Rose Theatre today, with the outlines of stage and stalls picked out by lights. Photo: David Sim (licensed under CCA).
Henslowe's "Diary," Dulwich College (image is in the Public Domain).

Henslowe built The Hope Theatre with another business partner, Jacob Meade, in 1613-14, on the site of the old Bear Garden (they equipped it with a removeable stage, so that it could still be used for blood-sports, as well as for theatrical performances). It opened on 31st October 1614, with a production of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair.

When Philip Henslowe died in 1616, his share in the theatres passed to his son-in-law, Edward Alleyn, an actor who had made many of the great Marlovian roles his own (Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, Barabas in The Jew of Malta). When Alleyn's first wife (Henslowe's step-daughter, Joan) died, he married Constance Donne, the daughter of the poet, John Donne, who was also the Dean of Saint Paul's, but her father disapproved of the union: perhaps he thought that some of Alleyn's business interests made him an inappropriate husband for a clergyman's daughter; or perhaps he suspected that the affection between them had begun before Joan's death, making it adulterous, in thought, if not in deed.

Edward Alleyn, 1626 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Swan Theatre, meanwhile, had been built by another impresario, Francis Longley in the liberty of Paris Garden. Johannes de Witt, a Dutchman who visited in 1596, described it as having a capacity for 3000 spectators.

The Swan Theatre, 1595, Arnoldus Buchelius, after Johannes de Witt (image is in the Public Domain).

The Globe Theatre was opened in 1599 by William Shakespeare's company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, and probably saw the first performances of Henry V and Julius Caesar during the course of that year. The theatre burned down in 1613, during a production of Henry VIII, the fire apparently caused by the discharge of a theatrical cannon.

The Globe, 1647, by Wenceslaus Hollar (image is in the Public Domain). The adjoining buildings were used to prepare food for sale to theatre audiences.

The theatrical attractions of Bankside were to be short-lived, however. The fictional character of Malvolio, in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, prefigured the rise of the historical Puritans, who banned play-acting, bear-baiting and bull-baiting in 1642. When the English theatre was given new life, under the restored monarchy of Charles II, it was in the very different environment of Covent Garden's indoor theatres (no bull or bear-baiting there), with the female roles played, for the first time, by actresses, rather than by boys.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


1 comment:

  1. The theatre is my field, and I absorbed as much as I could when I visited London years ago. I stumbled on the Rose Theatre, which wasn't as well lit then as your picture shows it now. But it was daytime, and I saw enough to thrill me. And of course, caught a show at The Globe. "Julius Caesar, starring Mark Rylance.

    It wasn't until I read your post that I realized Philip Henslowe was a real historic figure. I've only known him as the character so memorably played by Geoffrey Rush in "Shakespeare In Love." (Perhaps not historically accurate, but delightful nonetheless.)