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Complete guide to James Burbage and The Theatre

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Complete guide to James Burbage and The Theatre

If you were asked to name influential people in the founding of British theatre, you may not say James Burbage. A 16th century theatre builder, Burbage built “The Theatre”, known as the first permanent theatre in British history, which played Shakespearean productions from 1576. Find out more about James Burbage with us, as we take you back in time to showcase just how important The Theatre really was.

James Burbage and The Theatre

Who is James Burbage?

James Burbage

As he was born in 1531, not much is known or validated about James Burbage’s life and early childhood. Rumoured to have been born in Kent or Stratford-Upon-Avon, Burbage lived a comfortable childhood, where he demonstrated a prowess for building and carpentry from an early age. Growing up to become a joiner, he later found himself in the acting world.

In 1572, James Burbage began to perform and was put in charge of the Leicester’s Men, one of the leading theatrical groups at the time. Competing for audiences against other acting troupes, Burbage managed to attract people to his shows and in 1574, he became the first Englishman to be granted a theatrical license, in a time where actors were said to have the same status as a vagabond. According to Kate Pogue, Barbage:

“bridged the gap between late-medieval drama in England and the flowering of the great Elizabethan Theatre”

After numerous shows, James Burbage began to make the jump from acting to working on the other side of the curtain, becoming involved in theatrical management. In 1576, he partnered up with John Brayne, determined to build the first permanent stage for London acting groups to perform on.

The Theatre

From 1572, planning for the theatre began. To assist building works, Burbage worked with Dr. John Dee, an alchemist and architectural connoisseur who would help the pair to build an attractive, stable theatre. Materials used to build the playhouse included brick, sand, lead and iron, as well as a tile roof to ensure that performances could take place, come rain or shine.

It was built in 1576 on land which was leased from Giles Allen who was a staunch puritan. Giles Allen was opposed to all theatrical activities on the land but was unable to stop James Burbage from building ‘The Theatre’ on the site.

The Theatre is rumoured to have cost £700 to build, equating to over £166,000 in today’s money! This did not mean that everyone wanted a theatre built, especially Puritans who would eventually ban all productions. Giles Allen tried to stop the theatre from being built, however after years of building works, The Theatre was finally finished in 1576.

Together, Burbage and Brayne helped to finance the theatre, with plays being performed in an incomplete building in order to raise funds to get the job done. Audience members were charged one penny to stand in the open yard, two pennies if they wanted to stand in the galleries or three pennies if they wanted to sit down.

The Theatre is said to have been built near his family home on Holywell Street, which used to be near the Strand until it was demolished to widen the Strand.

Why was The Theatre so important?

The Theatre was home to a number of important productions, including the earliest performances of Shakespeare plays including Love’s Labour Lost and Much Ado About Nothing. It also marked a level that all productions had to live up to, meaning productions at other playhouses including The Rose and The Swan had to improve as well. Plays that took place at The Theatre would feature canons, smoke effects and actors making “flying” entrances on the stage, which led the way for the first Globe Theatre that opened in 1599.

Does The Theatre still stand today?

Although The Theatre does not exist anymore, the building is commemorated with plaques at the crossroads on Curtain Road and New Inn Yard, both in Central London.

What happened after The Theatre?

After the success of productions at The Theatre, the need for another establishment managed by James Burbage grew. Waiting for the perfect opportunity, Burbage seized on the opportunity to convert a religious building into a playhouse. Opened from 1596, the Blackfriars Theatre welcomed in audience members for shows put on by theatrical troupe Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who performed at the theatre until 1609 when rival performers The King’s Men took over.

Did James Burbage have any children?

Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage

James Burbage had four children with his wife Ellen, named Cuthbert, Richard, Ellen and Alice. Both of his sons went on to become important figures in Shakespearean theatre, with Cuthbert Burbage holding an important role in maintaining the popularity of the King’s Men. Richard Burbage (pictured) was one of the leading performers in the King’s Men, going on to become one of the best-known actors of his time. He was awarded with a royal patent in 1603 whilst in the troupe. Alongside William Shakespeare, he was appointed into the Royal Household and was given a coronation procession.

When did James Burbage die?

James Burbage died in 1597 and was buried on 2nd February 1997 at St Leonard’s Church in London. In honour of the building lease expiring at The Theatre, Richard Burbage was part of the building team behind the Globe Theatre, becoming one of the most popular theatres around the world.

Want to find out more about the Globe Theatre? Read our guide on everything you need to know about the iconic Shakespearean playhouse. 

Photo credit: Walter Hodges