Permanent theatres

The rise of non-religious drama

When England became a Protestant country during the reign of Henry VIII and again under Queen Elizabeth, the Church no longer supported the use of drama. Instead, there was a rise in secular plays.

The actors still had no fixed playhouse, but performed either in venues around the country – such as inn-yards and barns – or in aristocratic houses.

Government attitudes to drama

Since the plays performed by these companies could be politically provocative, the government eventually made moves to restrict them, in particular by targeting the touring actors — or ‘strolling players' as they are sometimes called.

In 1572, Parliament passed an act which imposed severe penalties on vagabonds: touring actors came into this category unless they were in the service of an aristocratic master. Fortunately, the Earl of Leicester, who already had an interest in a particular group of actors, applied for an official licence for them and they became known as Lord Leicester's Men.

The role of James Burbage

The leader of Lord Leicester's Men was James Burbage. He later headed the Lord Chamberlain's Men with whom Marlowe's contemporary, Shakespeare, wrote and acted. Burbage was a carpenter by trade as well as an actor and decided to build the first permanent theatre in England.

Burbage faced a problem, however, because the authorities of the City of London had decided that they did not want theatres within their jurisdiction. They disapproved of theatres both morally and politically:

  • Morally, because some people felt that the very act of dressing up and pretending to be someone else was a provocation to immoral behaviour
  • Politically, because any unsupervised gathering of a large number of people represented a threat of moral disorder.

In order to avoid these problems, in 1576 Burbage leased a site just outside the jurisdiction of the City and constructed the first English playhouse, which he called simply The Theatre.

The increase in theatres

Within a short while, several other theatres, such as the Curtain (1577), the Rose (1587), the Swan (1595) and the Fortune (1600), were also built. By 1599, when the lease of the land on which The Theatre was built had run out, Burbage's sons and their company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, had constructed the most famous theatre of all, The Globe, on the south bank of the Thames.

Theatres were also seen as a breeding-ground of contagion during years when the Plague was prevalent in London. During Marlowe's career, there were several short closures of months or weeks and, just after his death, there was a closure of nearly two years.

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