In this post Professor Andrew Gurr explains in more detail what the Blackfriars Indoor theatre was like.
Shakespeare’s company was unique in its own time in a number of ways. Unlike their rivals at the Rose, for instance, they never enjoyed playing out of doors in the winter. Indoor venues, whether at Court for the long Christmas festivities, at private halls like Wilton, Exton House or the Middle Temple, were always in their minds as preferable to the outdoor Globe. So long as it was possible to play at inns inside the city, in winter they would use a large upstairs hall for their winter playing.
But in 1594 that changed. At the Lord Mayor’s insistence, a complete ban on plays inside the city was enforced. That was why the Blackfriars was fitted out in 1596 for Shakespeare’s company to use through the winter. Before it could open, though, the local residents blocked the company from using it, on the NIMBY (not in my back yard) principle. Not until late 1608 was the company finally able to do what it had always wanted: use the Globe in the summer and retreat indoors for the winter. Jonson’s The Alchemist was written in 1609-10 specifically to be performed as if staged in a real house in the Blackfriars. Shakespeare wrote The Tempest at the same time, with its own magician and offstage music, exploiting the new Blackfriars consort of musicians. Its opening storm plays a special joke on the gentry sitting on and around the Blackfriars stage. Its uproar was designed to startle the gentry sitting on the stage itself, softened up as they were by the musicians playing their preliminary concert of soft music.
In 1596 James Burbage built his new playhouse in a part of the old stone property which had once been a Dominican priory. Because of its origin, it was technically a ‘liberty’, free like St Paul’s from the Lord Mayor’s control. The Shakespeare company hung on to this idea for over a dozen years, until they were finally able to put it into action. In total contrast, the only other company licensed in 1594, the Admiral’s Men, stuck exclusively to the open-air Rose and Fortune playhouses throughout their more than 40 years of performing.
Sam Wanamaker’s original vision for his reconstruction was meant to follow the Shakespeare company scheme. A single company would perform at the Globe throughout the summer and at an indoor theatre throughout winter. So he needed an indoor playhouse to accompany the Globe. Neither he nor any other of his helpers like myself wanted to repeat the long struggle we went through to decide upon the best design for the Globe. The Blackfriars has left some evidence about its size and a few of its main features, but not much more than we had for the Globe. What had survived, though, was the set of drawings that we thought had been originally made by Inigo Jones in the Jacobean period. It seemed to have all the key features that the few anecdotes about the Blackfriars and the stage directions in plays written for the theatre suggested it had. So we opted to copy those features for the indoor theatre that we would build to accompany the Globe. Thinking it might have been a design for the first imitation of the Blackfriars in London, the Cockpit built in 1616 in Drury Lane, we named it the ‘Inigo Jones’.
The drawings, now housed at Worcester College Oxford, have all the main features that we know the original Blackfriars had: a small stage with three entrances, a balcony above with a central music room, boxes on each side, curved galleries, and seats in the pit. Its size was much the same as the Blackfriars, about 40 feet wide, with the flanking boxes reducing the stage’s width to about 20 feet — less than half as wide and rather less deep than the stage at the Globe. Unlike the Globe it had no stage posts, but the space would have been constrained and the view partly obscured by the 15 or more gallants arrayed in feathered bonnets, cloaks and swords who (by paying an extra sixpence) would have emerged from the tiring house to perch on stools on the stage itself. A legal document recording an incident at the theatre in 1632 tells us that the Countess of Essex sat in a box at the Blackfriars escorted by her stepson. The Irish Lord Thurles, soon to be the Earl of Ormond, found there were no stools left and so stood on the stage in front of their box, obscuring the Countess’s view. When the Countess’s stepson put out his hand to push him aside, Lord Thurles promptly drew his rapier and lunged at the young Essex, mercifully missing him. If nothing else, this tells us how crowded it could be on that small stage, and how careful the actors had to be to keep clear of the gallants and not trip over their swords.
Entry to the indoor venue cost at least six times the price of the Globe, so its audience was the richest playgoers, and it soon became the most fashionable place to be seen. As such, it set the model for all the new theatres built after the Restoration in 1660. They acquired proscenium arch staging, so spectators could no longer sit either at the sides or back of the stage. All subsequent theatres copied this plan, along with seat pricing that put the most expensive places closest to and directly facing the stage. This of course was a complete reversal of the priority given to the standers in the yard at the Globe.