Shakespeare's Theater: The Blackfriars

The large size of the Globe allowed the companies to pack in the ticket buying public, but bad weather could create problems for the audience and actors. In 1596, James Burbage purchased property in a London neighborhood called Blackfriars, which was the site of an old monastery. His idea to build a theater on this site was not without controversy. In a petition from November 1596, people from the neighborhood submitted a petition to the Privy Council to keep a theater from opening in Blackfriars. The petitioners created a panicked picture of what would happen if the theater was opened. The locals were afraid of being overrun by a “gathering togeather of all manner of vagrant and lewde persons”, playing on stereotypes of theatergoers. They also felt that Burbage’s attempt to move a theater to the outskirts of London would allow him to avoid the restrictions put on theater companies within the city limits. The Privy Council must have found these arguments compelling, because the opening on the Blackfriars was delayed until 1608.


Photo Courtesy of the National Archive (UK)

Eventually, James’s son Richard Burbage was able to open the Blackfriars for theater productions. It was England’s first purpose built indoor theater. By its nature of being an indoor theater, the Blackfriars had less seating than the Globe. But on the plus side, the company could perform year round, and they could charge more for tickets. In comparison to the ticket prices at the Globe, the cheapest tickets at the Blackfriars were a sixpence. Wealthy patrons could pay 2 shillings to sit on the side of the stage. This begins a shift in the audience that could see Shakespeare’s plays to more upper class patronage.

If you would like to experience what it would be like to attend a play in an indoor theater in Shakespeare’s time, there is a recreated theater in Stauton, Virginia. After pausing due to Covid, The American Shakespeare Company will begin performances at the recreated Blackfriars Theater in May of 2021.


Photo Courtesy of the American Shakespeare Center and Lauren Parker


Sources:

"Shakespeare's Theater" Folger Shakespeare Library

"Shakespeare's Playhouses" Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library

"Neighbors' Petition of November 1596 against a Playhouse in Blackfriars" Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library

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