Permanent theatres

The rise of non-religious drama

When England became a Protestant country during the reigns of Edward VI and 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, or in the houses of aristocrats.

Government attitudes to drama

Since these plays 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 - such as Shakespeare depicted in Hamlet.

In 1572, Parliament passed an act which imposed severe penalties on vagabonds – and touring actors came into this category unless they were in the service of an aristocratic master. Fortunately for the development of theatre, the Earl of Leicester, who already had an interest in a particular group of actors, applied for an official licence for this group, 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 (who, when James I came to the throne, became known as the King's Men) with whom 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: the London City Council had decided that they did not want theatres within the City. So 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 popularity of theatres

Within a short while several other theatres, such as The Curtain, The Fortune and The Swan, were also built. By 1599, when the lease of the The Globeland 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.

In 1604 The Red Bull Theatre was built in Clerkenwell. Like The Globe it was situated outside the walls of the City of London and it was home to Queen Anne's Men (Queen Anne was the wife of King James I). It was an open-air theatre that is believed to have specialised in providing simple, escapist drama for a largely working-class audience, and had a reputation for ‘boisterous' entertainment.

Staging Webster's plays

  • The White Devil was first performed in the Red Bull Theatre in 1612, but Webster's highly intellectual and complex play was unpopular with its audience
  • The Duchess of Malfi was probably performed by the King's Men in the smaller, indoor Blackfriars Theatre in 1614. It would have played to a more highly educated audience that might have appreciated it better.

The two plays would have been very different in their original performances:

  • The White Devil would have been performed outside, probably in one continuous action
  • The Duchess of Malfi was performed in a more controlled environment, with artificial lighting, and musical interludes between acts.

Closure of the theatres

Like all other theatres the Red Bull was closed in 1642 by the Puritans. This Christian group had strict religious views which deplored any kind of finery or flippant behaviour. They disliked the theatres and many of the people they attracted.

Objections by the Puritans to the theatres had gradually escalated, supported by other Londoners. Respectable citizens were concerned about the rise in crime and the bawdy nature of some of the plays. Theatres were associated with fighting and drinking, and it was feared that that there was a risk of spreading the bubonic plague with so many people gathered together.

The Puritans grew in power and influence from the late sixteenth century onwards, finally seizing control during the English Civil War (1642-1648) and the Commonwealth that followed it (1649-1660). During the 1640s the English Parliament, under the influence of the Puritans, passed laws to make it increasingly difficult for theatres to function and they were permanently closed thereafter, until the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660.


The population of London was still closely knit enough for the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre to have a profound impact on the whole of society. It was a powerful medium to entertain, and to unite popular sentiment and provoke thought, something that ‘everybody talked about'.

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