Everyone loves an underdog story. And when the underdog wins because of his wit and smarts, beating out someone who is supposedly more powerful, it just makes things even better. This was what seemed to happen in 1598 when The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the theater company employing Shakespeare and managed by Richard Burbage, was unable to renew their lease for their unimaginatively-named Theatre on Curtain Road in Shoreditch.
The Theatre had been built in 1576, on the grounds of a dissolved monastery, the Halliwell. It was an area outside the City of London, and so not subject to the rules against theaters that were starting to spring up as the century came to a close. The Puritans were gaining power – they would continue to gain power until the English Civil War when they went so far as to outlaw music in the Capital. In 1596 they outlawed plays and theaters in London, though there were several other reasons why people went along with it. First, having a thousand people all together could lead to a mob or riot, of which the monarch really wasn’t a fan. Second, it could spread the plague. And then, third, were the Puritans going on about immorality.
But being up in Shoreditch, the Theatre was exempt from this ban. Still, there was some kind of problem with the lease when it came up for renewal in 1596. In part this goes to the fact that James Burbage (Richard’s father, who built the place) had never signed proper contracts with his business partners. It also probably had something to do with the fact that Giles Allen, the landlord, went all Puritanical during the time the lease was in effect, and didn’t want plays to be staged there any longer. Burbage had a 21 year lease on the land, but had apparently owned the building itself. The lease gave him the right to dismantel the building, but the legality of doing so after the lease had run out was iffy.
But Giles Allen was all, “no, when the lease expired the theater building became mine, ha ha.” Burbage had to do something daring. The morale of the company was failing. He needed to produce plays to earn money. But what could he do? He could hatch a plot.
That autumn The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were playing Johnson’s Every Man in his Humor, which was super popular, and they confidently expected invitations to Court for the holidays that year. It was a record-breakingly cold winter, and the Thames had frozen solid. On the 26th of December, Burbage was at Court performing. But on the 28th, during the long London night, he arrived with his mother, brother, financial backer William Smith, architect Peter Street, and about a dozen friends, outside the Theatre.
Allen was out of London celebrating Christmas at his country home. People tried to stop Burbage, but the group persevered and throughout the night they dismantled the theater one beam at a time. They carried the timbers down Bishopsgate and into the City. The Thames was most likely still frozen that night, and it’s possible that the beams and timbers were literally slid across the solid river.
I should add here that some sources online say that the timbers were stored in a warehouse near the river until the Spring. But I don’t like that story quite as much. If you’re going to be daring enough to dismantle a huge theater in one night with just you and a gang of friends, I think you would be daring enough to slide the timbers across the river, too.
Either way, by February there was an agreement signed for the Globe Theater, 100 yards or so back from the River in Southwark. And Giles Allen was the very angry owner of a plot of land with a bunch of discarded timber on it.