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Ground plan of The Theatre. The "common sewer" is now marked by Curtain Road, and the "ditch from the horse-pond" by New Inn Yard
Ground plan of The Theatre. The "common sewer" is now marked by Curtain Road, and the "ditch from the horse-pond" by New Inn Yard
The Theatre is labelled in the top right of this London street map. Enlarge
The Theatre is labelled in the top right of this London street map. Enlarge

The Theatre was an Elizabethan playhouse in Shoreditch (in Curtain Road, part of the modern London Borough of Hackney), just outside the City of London. It was the second permanent theatre ever built in England, after the Red Lion, and the first successful one. Built by actor-manager James Burbage, near the family home in Holywell Street, The Theatre is considered the first theatre built in London for the sole purpose of theatrical productions. The Theatre's history includes a number of important acting troupes including the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which employed Shakespeare as actor and playwright. After a dispute with the landlord, the theatre was dismantled and the timbers used in the construction of the Globe Theatre on Bankside.

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  • ✪ Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty: Crash Course Theater #43
  • ✪ The Theatre of Dionysus
  • ✪ Beckett, Ionesco, and the Theater of the Absurd: Crash Course Theater #45


Hey there, I’m Mike Rugnetta, and this is Crash Course Theater. Yorick, you are looking especially dead today. How fitting! Because today it’s the Theater of Cruelty, a style developed by the French genius Antonin Artaud—a guy who believed that theater in the West had become way too hung up on realism. He wanted theater to get out of the living room and to return to its origins—magic, myth, and ritual. Today we’ll be looking at Artaud’s life, and his influential book of essays and one of his plays—the show about scorpions crawling out of a wet nurse’s vagina that you never knew you needed. Lights up! INTRO Antonin Artaud was born in 1896 in Marseilles. When he was four, he came down with meningitis. He survived, but his health was seriously weakened. Artaud was a depressed teenager. He had his first breakdown at sixteen, and his parents arranged several sanitarium stays for him. In 1916, he was briefly conscripted into the French army but soon discharged for sleepwalking. He went back to the sanitarium where his doctor prescribed opium. Which is (A) not helpful for depression. And (B) a really bad idea BECAUSE IT’S OPIUM. He developed a lifelong addiction. In his twenties, Artaud moved to Paris and hooked up with the Surrealists, acting in a couple of films and writing the scenario for at least one other. But the Surrealists rejected him. Not cool, Surrealists! Artaud is Surreal as heck. Apparently they were miffed because Artaud wouldn’t renounce theater as a bourgeois commercial art form. You tell ‘em Artaud! But if you consider Artaud’s theories and subsequent theatrical career, this failure-to-renounce the commercialism of theater is legit hilarious. Because there’s uncommercial… And then there’s Artaud. From 1926 to 1928, he co-ran the Theater Alfred Jarry, producing work by August Strindberg. In these years, he started to develop the theories he would explain in “The Theater and Its Double”—more about that in a minute. And he tried some of them out in his staging of Percy Shelley’s incest-heavy verse drama, “The Cenci,” which did about as well with critics and audiences as you would expect an incest-heavy verse drama staged to actively unhinge the spectator to do. Then Artaud went to Mexico, took peyote, wrote some memoirs, and detoxed from heroin (though he would later retox ). He returned to France, went to Ireland, and was brought back to France ... in a straitjacket, literally, because he’d suffered a major psychotic break and tried to attack some people. He was diagnosed with “incurable paranoid delirium” and underwent electroshock treatment. Eventually, he was released, and his friends paid for him to stay in a private psychiatric clinic. He continued writing, including poems and a script for a radio broadcast that French radio never aired, because it was strange and rude. Diagnosed with cancer, Artaud died in 1948. Okay, so he may have had a dramatic life, but why are we devoting a whole episode to a guy who did a little acting, a little directing, took peyote, and wrote a play or two before confronting extreme mental, and eventually physical illness? Because his theories are still a huge influence. Looking at the portrait we’ve painted over the last number of episodes, you’ll maybe have noticed that modern theater had a nonstop identity crisis about how to capture real life. Sometimes theater is like, we’re going to make it as real as possible. Those toilets onstage are going to flush! And sometimes theater is like, heck no! The only way to capture real life is with myth and magic, poetry and violence. Everything on stage is a metaphor for toilets! On the anti-realist side, Artaud is pretty much king. In 1938, Artaud published “The Theater and Its Double.” The book and its theories had a lot of important influences: Surrealism, Symbolism, the works that he helped produce at the Theater Alfred Jarry, as well as the works of Jarry himself—all super significant. But maybe the strongest influence was a performance by a troupe of Balinese dancers that Artaud had seen at the Paris International Colonial Exposition in 1931. The dance consisted, he wrote, “of everything that occupies the stage, everything that can be manifested and expressed materially on a stage and that is addressed first of all to the senses instead of being addressed primarily to the mind as the language of words.” Now, to be accurate… Balinese dance does have words. And stories. And specific meanings. Artaud was doing the thing a lot of Western artists did where they saw what they wanted to see in the art of Eastern cultures. In Artaud’s case, he wanted a performance style that transcended psychological realism, which he called “psychological and human stagnation.” Inspired by the dance, he imagined a style that would “restore the theater to its original destiny,” a mix of dance, song, and pantomime, “fused together in a perspective of hallucination and fear.” Real talk? Count me in. Artaud called this new form, the Theater of Cruelty, a place “in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theatre as by a whirlwind of higher forces.” Now, Artaud wasn’t talking about actual physical violence—well, he wasn’t only talking about actual physical violence—but rather a violent impulse that would rupture ordinary perception and the boring normcore way that most people conduct their day-to-day lives. Society, he thought, had become sick, complacent, lulled by bourgeois illusion. People needed ceremony and ritual—“a magic exorcism”—to heal. Artaud believed that the theater had learned all the wrong lessons from Aristotle, with his emphasis on plot and language, and his meh attitude toward spectacle. The Theater of Cruelty was going to be all spectacle, all the time! It would use music, dance, and certifiably bananas lighting design that would wake up the audience to how bizarre and violent real life actually is. He wanted a theater that would “leave an ineffaceable scar.” In his words: “The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theater a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigor and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.” Catharsis! Let’s book a babysitter and go! Artaud called for a style of performance that would emphasize the mise-en-scene—sound, lights, costumes, basically everything that isn’t text. And yet, he didn’t really believe in sets or props. He wanted actors who would operate not from a place of psychological realism, but from a place of emotion, sensation, and pure physicality. He called these actors “Athletes of the Heart.” He envisioned a theater in which the audience would sit in the center, helpless, and the play would surround them in an act of “organized anarchy.” Take that, proscenium arches! Oh, and what’s the Double after “Theatre and its...”? That’s tricky and not completely articulated in the essays, but the basic idea seems to be that it’s life, or what life could be if we allow theater to work on our senses and awaken us to something better, truer, stronger, and way more intense than life as we know it. To Artaud, good theater should actually be more “real” than boring everyday life. Let’s put these theories into blood-spattered practice by looking at Artaud’s early play “The Jet of Blood” or “The Spurt of Blood.” I guess it all depends on how you like your high-velocity blood flow. The play was written in 1925—maybe in a single day. Help us out, ThoughtBubble: A young man and a young girl, who may be brother and sister, are being all lovey-dovey. Then a hurricane arrives, and here’s a fun stage direction: “Two stars are seen colliding, and from them fall a series of legs of living flesh with feet, hands, scalps, masks, colonnades, porticos, temples, alembics, falling more and more slowly, as if falling in a vacuum: then three scorpions one after another and finally a frog and a beetle which come to rest with desperate slowness, nauseating slowness.” Then a knight comes in, pursued by a wet nurse who is holding her swollen breasts. The knight eats some cheese and chokes. Night falls, the earth quakes, lightning flashes, and an enormous hand comes out and grabs a prostitute by her hair and shouts, “...look at your body.” The prostitute shouts, “Leave me alone, God!” And she bites him. Cue enormous jet of blood. That title was not a metaphor! More lightning—because God does not like to be nibbled upon!—and then everyone is dead except for the prostitute and the young man. They fall into each other’s arms . The wet nurse, who doesn’t have breasts anymore, re-enters, dragging the corpse of the young girl. Scorpions crawl out from underneath the wet nurse’s dress and here’s another fun stage direction: “Her vagina swells up, splits and becomes transparent and glistening like a sun.” The young man and the prostitute run away, at which point the young girl sits up and says, “The virgin! Ah that’s what he was looking for.” And scene. Thanks, Thought Bubble. A lot … going on there. And it all happened in about three pages of text! The whole history of the universe, from the Garden of Eden to the apocalypse, in three gonzo pages. I’m gonna go ahead and say, yup, that’s the Theater of Cruelty. I don’t know about you... I definitely feel fused together in a perspective of hallucination and fear. “The Jet of Blood” was scheduled for the Theater Alfred Jarry season of 1926–1927. But it was never produced in Artaud’s lifetime. Artaud spent a lot of his life in various institutions, and various states of mental discombobulation. His writing and art, especially in his later years, is cryptic, strange, and sometimes gross. Still, he’s been a huge influence on theater-makers and theater companies who feel let-down by realistic writing and Stanislavski-style acting. Jean Genet, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, the Living Theater—all big fans. Also John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and even Jim Morrison. As legacies go, not too cruel. Thanks for watching! We’ll see you next time, when we explore yet one more way to give the theatrical finger to realism. We’re going to meet the mostly Marxist, totally dialectical, often smelly theatrical mastermind Bertolt Brecht. It’s going to be epic. But until then...Curtain.



The Mayor and Corporation of London banned plays in 1572 as a measure against the plague, not wanting to attract crowds of strangers. In 1575 they formally expelled all players from the city.[1] This prompted the construction of playhouses outside the jurisdiction of London, in the liberties of Halliwell/Holywell in Shoreditch and later the Clink, and at Newington Butts near the established entertainment district of St. George's Fields in rural Surrey.[1] The Theatre was constructed in 1576 by James Burbage in partnership with his brother-in-law, one John Brayne, (the owner of the Red Lion)[2] on property that had originally been the grounds of the dissolved Halliwell Priory (or Holywell). Brayne had advanced Burbage the money needed to build The Theatre, and in return, Brayne received a portion of the profits and owned some of the property (Burbage married Brayne's daughter Ellen in 1575).[3] The Theatre was in Shoreditch, beyond the northern boundary of the City of London and outside the jurisdiction of civil authorities, who were often opposed to the theatre. This area in the "suburbs of sin" was notorious for licentious behaviour, brothels and gaming houses. A year later the Curtain Theatre was built nearby, making the area London's first theatrical and entertainment district.[4] "When Burbage and Brayne mortgaged The Theatre, Brayne had just recently resolved another fight with one of his brothers-in-law over a different mortgage" [5] Brayne and Burbage had never written a contract, which eventually led to many quarrels concerning who spent what on getting The Theatre started.[6]

Throughout the building of The Theatre, Burbage and Brayne continually became indebted to each other. To fix this they constructed schemes to keep the building of The Theatre going. John Hind was one of the creditors for the construction of The Theatre, however, almost nothing else is known about him except that there was also a contract between him and Burbage/Brayne which entailed that he arrange players for them. One of their schemes was to put on plays in The Theatre while it was still being built, to raise money for further construction.[7]

Although Burbage's son later claimed the Theatre as the first permanent playhouse in the London conurbation, it may not have been the first permanent theatre to serve Londoners. The Newington Butts Theatre may have been built as early as 1575,[8] certainly actor Jerome Savage renewed a lease on the site on 25 March 1576, three weeks before Burbage's lease in Shoreditch.[9] Newington Butts was clearly established by Lady Day 1577,[10] and Wickham et al. interpret the available documents as saying that Savage was adapting an existing building constructed by Richard Hicks rather than building from scratch.[11]

The design of The Theatre was possibly adapted from the inn-yards that had served as playing spaces for actors and/or bear baiting pits. The building was a polygonal wooden building with three galleries surrounding an open yard. From one side of the polygon extended a thrust stage. The Theatre is said to have cost £700 to construct, which is a considerable sum for the age.[12]

The open yard in front of the stage was cobbled and provided standing room for those who paid a penny. For another penny, the attendees were allowed into the galleries where they could either stand or, for a third penny, procure a stool. One of the galleries, though sources do not state which, was divided into small compartments that could be used by the wealthy and aristocrats. The playhouse was a timber building with a tile roof; other materials used to construct the Theatre were brick, sand, lime, lead, and iron. Owing to a lack of paperwork not much is truly known about the Theatre's appearance, but it has been described as an "amphitheater".[6]

The Theatre opened in the autumn of 1576, possibly as a venue for Leicester's Men, the acting company of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester of which James Burbage was a member. In the 1580s the Admiral's Men, of which James Burbage's son, Richard was a member, took up residence. After a disagreement between the company and young Burbage, most of the company left for the Rose Theatre which was under the management of Philip Henslowe.

In 1594, Richard Burbage became the leading actor of the Lord Chamberlain's Men which performed at The Theatre until 1597. Poet, playwright and actor William Shakespeare was also in the employ of the company and some of his early plays had their première at The Theatre. "At Christmas 1594 [Richard] was summoned with two other members of his company, William Kempe and William Shakespeare, to act before the queen at Greenwich Palace... Numerous performances before Queen Elizabeth followed, and Shakespeare doubtless often accompanied Burbage on many subsequent professional visits to one or other of the royal palaces."[3] Richard's most noted role is—which holds close to his namesake — his part as Richard in Shakespeare's Richard III. After the Burbages stripped The Theatre of its materials to erect The Globe, many of Shakespeare's plays were performed at the famous theatre in the summer and the Blackfriars house, another of the Burbage's theatres, was used as a winter playhouse.[3]

Towards the end of 1596, problems arose with the property's landlord, Giles Allen. Consequently, in 1597, the Lord Chamberlain's Men were forced to stop playing at The Theatre and moved to the nearby Curtain. The lease had been granted to Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert Burbage upon the death of their father. The lease that the late James Burbage had obtained from Allen in 1576 was to last only twenty years, but when that day did come, in 1596, Allen "stipulated that the playhouse should only be applied to theatrical purposes for another five years. This stipulation was contested by Burbage, and he and his sons began a harassing lawsuit with Allen. But before the dispute had gone very far Burbage died (in the spring of 1597) and the suit was continued by his sons Richard and Cuthbert."[3] The sight of the deserted Theatre prompted these lines from a minor satirist of the day:

...But see yonder,
One like the unfrequented Theatre
Walks in dark silence and vast solitude.

— Edward Guilpin, Skialetheia, 1598

Brayne's widow, Margaret Brayne, and former business partner, Robert Myles, filed a lawsuit against the Burbages after Brayne's death in 1586. When Brayne passed the Burbages halted their payments to Margaret for their debt. When they filed lawsuit, Margaret and Robert showed up at The Theatre demanding half of everything inside of it—in disagreement, Richard Burbage physically assaulted Robert Myles, and Robert and Margaret left empty handed. However, this was not the end as Myles attempted to bring down the Burbages in another two lawsuits, which both ended in failure. "The old disputes of the Theatre were overtaken by the new litigation of the Alleyns-the original owners, when the Burbages dismantled the Theatre and rebuilt it as the Globe." [13] At the time of Margaret Brayne's death there were still lawsuits that had not been settled, and in her last will and testament she left all of her prospective winnings to Robert Myles.[6]

Though Giles Allen was the landlord John Hyde legally owned the lease to the Theatre and would return the lease to Richard and Cuthbert Burbage and Margaret Brayne for the sum of £30. Cuthbert then went to Walter Cope, a trusted business man, and had Cope ask Hyde if Cuthbert could outright pay for the lease and own it himself. Cuthbert paid and outright owned the lease now, ultimately squeezing Margaret Brayne out of the business. They justified this by stating that now that the lease was in Cuthbert's name and no longer in James’ name John Brayne had no dealings with the Theatre and therefore neither did Margaret Brayne.[6]

This state of affairs forced the Burbage brothers to take drastic action to save their investment. In defiance of the landlord and with the help of their friend and financial backer William Smith, chief carpenter Peter Street and ten or twelve workmen, they dismantled the theatre on the night of 28 December 1598 and moved the structure piecemeal to Street's yard near to Bridewell. With the onset of more favourable weather in the following spring, the material was ferried over the Thames to reconstruct it as The Globe.[14][15] Giles Allen then sued Peter Street in January 1599 for trespassing on the property of the Theatre, stating that Street had no right to dismantle the Theatre and move the supplies. He also attempted to sue Cuthbert and Richard Burbage for trespassing.[6]

Archaeological investigation

In August 2008 archaeologists from the Museum of London excavating in New Inn Broadway, Shoreditch, announced they had found the foundation of a polygonal structure they believed to be the remains of the north-eastern corner of The Theatre.[16][17][18] The Theatre and Shakespeare's involvement with it are commemorated by two plaques on 86–90 Curtain Road,[19] the building at the corner with New Inn Yard currently occupied by a Foxtons office.[20]

See also


  1. ^ a b Fairman Ordish, Thomas (1899), Early London Theatres: In the Fields, London: Elliot Stock, p. 30
  2. ^ Bowsher, Julian; Miller, Pat (2010). The Rose and the Globe—Playhouses of Shakespeare's Bankside, Southwark. Museum of London. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-901992-85-4.
  3. ^ a b c d Stephen, Leslie, ed. (1886). "Burbage, James" . Dictionary of National Biography. 7. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 285.
  4. ^ Mullaney, 1988.
  5. ^ Berry, Herbert. "Brayne and his other brother-in-law". Shakespeare Studies. Literature Resource Center. Retrieved 11 March 2013.
  6. ^ a b c d e Berry, Herbert. English Professional Theatre, 1530–1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  7. ^ Mateer, David. "New Light on the Early History of the Theatre in Shoreditch [With Texts]." English Literary Renaissance 36.3 (2006): 335–375. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.
  8. ^ Gladstone Wickham, Glynne William; Berry, Herbert; Ingram, William (2000), English professional theatre, 1530–1660, Cambridge University Press, p. 320, ISBN 978-0-521-23012-4
  9. ^ Ingram, William (1992), The business of playing: the beginnings of the adult professional theater in Elizabethan London, Cornell University Press, p. 164, ISBN 978-0-8014-2671-1
  10. ^ Ingram (1992) p170
  11. ^ Wickham et al (2000) p321
  12. ^ Egan, 2005.
  13. ^ Capp, Bernard. "The Burbages At Law (Again)." Notes & Queries 47.4 (2000): 433. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.
  14. ^ Shapiro, James (2005). 1599—a year in the life of William Shakespeare. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-21480-0..
  15. ^ Schoenbaum 1987: 206–209
  16. ^ Hamilton, Fiona (6 August 2008). "Dig reveals The Theatre – Shakespeare's first playhouse". Times Online. Retrieved 9 March 2009.
  17. ^ "The Bard's 'first theatre' found". BBC News. 6 August 2008. Retrieved 6 August 2008.
  18. ^ "Shakespeare's first theatre found". BBC News Online. 9 March 2009. Retrieved 9 March 2009.
  19. ^ "The Theatre and Holywell Priory". London Borough of Hackney. 28 February 2007. Retrieved 14 June 2010.
  20. ^ Dunthorne, Joe (10 July 2010). "Shakespeare's ghost". The Guardian. London. p. R5.


  • Egan, Gabriel (2005), Platonism and bathos in Shakespeare and other early modern drama accessed 13 November 2006.
  • Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage 1574–1642. Third edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Theatre. 4th edition. London: Oxford UP, 1983. p. 964.
  • Moreton, W. H. C. (1976) "Shakespeare came to Shoreditch" LBH Library Services Text accessed 10 November 2006.
  • Mullaney, S. (1988) The Place of the Stage: Licence, Play and Power in Renaissance England. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Schoenbaum, S. (1987) William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Oxford University Press.
  • Thomson, Peter. "The Theatre". in Banham, Martin, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, London: Cambridge UP, 1992.
  • Wallace, Charles William, (1913), The First London Theatre, Materials for a History , Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska.
  • Ticket-Taker, (1993), "The Theater", TURNS
  • De Young, J. and Miller, J. (1998) London Theatre Walks, New York: Applause Books.

Berry, Herbert. "John Brayne and his other brother-in-law." Shakespeare Studies (2002): 93+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.

External links

This page was last edited on 10 September 2019, at 05:48
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