Blackfriars Theatre, World Theatre Day 2021

Author
Claudia Bacchelli, City of Information Centre

   After a year of thirsting for live performances, World Theatre Day is upon us again. As we dream to be able to enjoy live theatrical performances again soon, let’s celebrate the ability that theatres, actors and playwrights had and continue to have in drawing us into intense stories, sometimes transporting us to faraway places and to different eras during their shows. 

When we think of playwrights who significantly contributed to the history of theatre, our mind very likely goes to William Shakespeare,

‘a man not of an age but of all time’ as his friend and playwright Ben Jonson stated.

We also likely tend to associate William Shakespeare with the Globe Theatre, a replica of one of the venues where Shakespeare worked, which is located on the south side of the river next to Tate Modern in the borough of Southwark. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s best documented London property was just across the waters from the Globe in Blackfriars. A plaque on St Andrew’s Hill records that

‘On 10th March 1613 William Shakespeare purchased lodgings in the Blackfriars gatehouse located near this site’.
An outline map showing the river thames and outline of the City of London. It's titled 'Map of London Showing the Playhouses' and underneath there is a list of theatres. They're marked with an x on the map.
London map showing Shakespearean theatres, By Joseph Quincy Adams. Image credit C. W. Redwood, Wikipedia Commons

The date is known so well because the title deed to the property has survived in the archives. This also relates to the time of the Blackfriars theatre, which no longer exists and which was one of the few theatres in the City of London. In 1608 William Shakespeare’s brother Edmund and his mother died. In the same year the King’s Men, the theatrical company which he was part of, finally secured permission to open Blackfriars Theatre. It was located in the former Blackfriars Dominican priory in the City of London during the Renaissance. The Blackfriars became the template from which all subsequent indoor theatres evolved. Windows admitted some light, but candles provided most of the illumination. Spectators could, for an additional fee, sit on the stage, where they could show off their finery to maximum effect, and which was something not permitted at the Globe. It held only around six hundred people, but it was more profitable than the Globe because the price of admission was high: sixpence for even the cheapest seat.

A pencil drawing of the front facade of a tall two storey building.
View of Blackfriars Theatre, 1650 ©London Picture Archive

Starting in 1610, the King’s Men began a pattern that would last until the company’s dissolution. They would use the Globe during the summer months, and move to Blackfriars from the middle of October through to May. For all their success, the King’s Men could not avoid the political currents of the English Revolution. On 2 September 1642 the Blackfriars Theatre was closed and the company dispersed following the ordinance adopted by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. On 6 August 1655, the Blackfriars Theatre was torn down and the Great Fire of London erased the very last traces of this once grand playhouse. 

In 2014 the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, next door to the Globe, opened to the public. It was designed to replicate the indoor playhouses of the early 17th Century. As no reliable plans of the Blackfriars are known, the plan for the new theatre was based on drawings found in the 1960s at Worcester College in Oxford, at first thought to date from the early 17th century and to be the work of Inigo Jones. It's not a reconstruction of the Blackfriars Theatre, but its candlelight and intimacy bring us back to the lost venue. Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s inaugural production was The Duchess of Malfi, which was in the 1620s repertory presented at the Blackfriars Theatre, where the intimate space allowed for the actors to express much more depth in their performances.