The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse often evokes sighs of wonder and reverence, the same that a beautifully painted chapel might do. Will Tosh looks at the similarities between the church and the playhouse experience, and where they differed.

If you have a question for Will on this aspect of his research head over to Twitter (@The_Globe) on Monday 3 February. Tweet us your question with the hashtag #SWPAskWill and we’ll get him to answer it between 12.45 and 1.45pm

The atmosphere of our new playhouse – wooden, candlelit and alive with intimacy – is very different to its al fresco cousin the Globe. In the playhouse, interior scenes feel unmistakably indoors: when Antonio, in The Duchess of Malfi, refers to ‘fair lightsome lodgings’, he gestures to the branches of candles and the exquisite painted walls in the same way that a Globe performer might invoke real-life clouds or rain.

Interior of Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (c) Pete Le May

Interior of Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (c) Pete Le May

Precisely what sort of room the playhouse reminds us of is another question. Many of our visitors feel that the space has a suggestively sacred air – one online commentator remarked that it looked like a synagogue, or a Unitarian chapel. For us, it’s probably the timber galleries and the richly-decorated frons scenae(scenic back-wall) that evoke religious architecture, as well as our associations of candlelight and the smell of beeswax with church ceremony. For Jacobean theatregoers, indoor playhouses had an even stronger connection to the church. The Blackfriars theatre, used first by the Children of the Chapel and then by the King’s Men, was built within the medieval hall of a former monastery; the Children of Paul’s, a company of boy actors who performed from the 1570s to the early years of the seventeenth century, used a converted chapel in the precincts of the cathedral for their plays.

Even companies which confined themselves to London taverns or purpose-built amphitheatres might perform in country churches when they went on tour. For all that early modern England was alive to issues of religious sensitivity, church buildings were often surprisingly worldly places. Paintings frequently show church naves bustling with commercial activity: merchants making deals, hawkers selling their wares. As a community resource, a local church was a very satisfactory venue for a touring company – the rood screen making a fine frons. In 1580, the writer and professional contrarian Anthony Munday was appalled that travelling players were permitted to ‘publish their mametree [mummery] in everie Temple of God […] so that now the Sanctuarie is become a plaiers stage, and a den of theeves and adulterers.’

If church playing declined at the end of the sixteenth century, the new indoor playhouses retained the air of those older sites of performance. Audience members would have recognised the heritage. As gallants and ladies took their seats in a side-stage box, a lock-able private space for display and for intimate spectatorship, they might have been reminded of the pews in their own church, often stalls protected from the rest of the congregation by a wicket gate. Londoners might even have gone to church in pursuit of some of the same aural thrills that they enjoyed at the playhouse – sermon-going was a hugely popular activity in early modern London, and not just among the joylessly puritanical. Popular and skilful preachers had fans every bit as committed as the playhouse habitués.


 Joseph Nash, c.1839: the interior of a Jacobean chapel (probably a study for his later ‘Mansions of England in the Olden Times’) Source: –

Joseph Nash, c.1839: the interior of a Jacobean chapel (probably a study for his later ‘Mansions of England in the Olden Times’)

Such associations were calculated to enrage the pious minority who saw theatre as the work of the devil. Play-acting had long been a potent charge to lay against religious enemies: church reformers attacked priestly robes as ‘disguises’, and Catholic ritual was scorned as empty performance. Bishop John Jewel, a mid-sixteenth century Protestant, recoiled from sacraments that were ministered ‘like a masquery or a stage-play’. The Eucharist – a mimetic performance in which the officiating priest acted out Christ’s sacrifice – was unendurable to the godly.

By no means all ardent Protestants despised theatre, but the tone of anti-theatrical polemic became more and more intemperate in the seventeenth century. The development of lavish indoor playhouses, with their seductive atmosphere and gorgeous decoration, was intolerable. Playhouses tempted people from divine services, and play-going engendered habits that rendered them unfit to take the benefit of religious instruction. In the satirist Joseph Hall’s Characters of Virtues and Vices(1608), a profane man is described as one who ‘comes to Church as to the Theater, saving that not so willinglie, for companie, for custome, for recreation, perhaps for sleepe, or to feed his eyes or his ears.’ For Joseph Hall, plays turned people into passive consumers of gaudy show.

William Prynne, the obsessive anti-theatrical whose lengthy work Histrio-Mastix (1633) stands as a monument to single-minded hatred of theatre, was in no doubt that playhouses were the ‘temples’ of Satan, the ‘Divels Chappels’ where ‘Adulterers, Adulteresses, Whore-masters, Whores, Bawdes, Panders, Ruffians, Roarers, Drunkards, Prodigals, Cheaters, idle, infamous, base, prophane, and godlesse persons, who hate all grace, all goodnesse, […] make a mocke of piety’ (he’s talking about the audience, not the actors). Prynne too saw a relationship between religion and theatre, and it wasn’t a happy one: ‘many who visit the Church scarce once a week, frequent the Playhouse once a day,’ he complained. Playbooks were ‘more vendible than the choycest Sermons’. He was particularly sore about the fact that ‘Shackspeers Plaies are printed in the best Crowne paper, far better than most Bibles.’


William Prynne, Histrio-Mastix. The Players Scourge, or, Actors Tragaedie (1633) (source: JISC Historic Books Online)

William Prynne, Histrio-Mastix. The Players Scourge, or, Actors Tragaedie (1633) (source: JISC Historic Books Online)

Prynne saw theatre as the church’s devilish alter ego, corrupting the men and women of England with lascivious shows that were an appalling inversion of sombre religious ceremony. Few theatre practitioners agreed with him, although one gets the impression that some seventeenth-century playwrights enjoyed the frisson that came with ‘jesting with religion’, in Cariola’s words. John Webster knew when he wrote Malfi that the sulphurous fantasies of his Duke Ferdinand would be aired in a former monastery – an arresting meeting of the profane and the sacred. We can recapture some of that excitement in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a sensuous room that simultaneously brings with it a fleeting memory of church rites and catechism.


Further reading:

Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

Paul Whitefield White, ‘Drama “in the Church”: Church-Playing in Tudor England’, in Leeds Barroll and James Shapiro (eds), Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England VI (New York: AMS Press, 1993), 15-35: