History Trails
  The Founding
  Faculties, Departments & Schools
  People A-G
  People H-O
  People P-Z
  Buildings & Campus Development
  Affiliated Institutions
  Clubs & Groups
  Speeches and Addresses
Space Misc
Reconstructing Shakespeare's Globe

A University of Alberta professor is contributing his expertise to the rebuilding of the theatre where many of Shakespeare's plays were first performed.

Somewhere beneath the paved surface of a brewery parking lot in central London may lie answers to questions that have shaped John Orrell's scholarly research for more than 20 years.

There is nothing particularly eye-catching about the parking area of the Courage Brewery, which has operated under one name or another from the same site in the central London borough of Southwark for about 300 years. Save for a rather mundane plaque on the surrounding fence, there is nothing to indicate that the most famous theatre in the history of English drama once occupied this very ground: here the Globe theatre flourished from its construction in 1599 until it was shut down by Oliver Cromwell in 1643. The Globe was Shakespeare's theatre; in it many of his finest plays were first performed.

(There were, in actuality, two Globes in Shakespeare's time. The first theatre was burned to the ground in 1613 when a cannon shot fired during a performance of Henry VIII ignited the theatre's thatched roof. A new Globe, somewhat grander than its predecessor and boasting a tile roof, was immediately rebuilt on the same foundation.)

Some 6,700 kilometres away, Dr. John Orrell, a professor of English at the University of Alberta, sits at the dining room table of his venerable (by Alberta standards) home in Edmonton's Old Strathcona district and discusses his quest for Shakespeare's Globe. Around him are strewn a variety of papers illustrating bits of evidence in the mystery that has for so long been at the centre of his life as a scholar.

The first surprise is how little evidence exists to provide clues to the precise shape and size of the theatre, which was dismantled when it was labelled a hotbed of immorality and closed by Cromwell's Puritan regime: a few drawings (some done by people who had never been to London), some surviving Elizabethan building contracts, passing references in correspondence, suggestive stage directions, and little more. (You can discount those models you were shown in your high school English classes. In a general way they are reasonably accurate-the theatre was basically O-shaped, featured oak-beam construction, and was open to the elements-but in precise detail they are considerably more suspect.)

The second surprise is how fertile the scant evidence has proven. Diligent research has wrung from it a picture of the theatre that fits the available evidence so neatly that Dr. Orrell is confident that in the most important regards—size, shape, seating, orientation, and so on—it is possible to accurately reconstruct the famous theatre.

Such a reconstruction is not simply an academic exercise. Dr. Orrell is the prime architectural consultant to the International Shakespeare Globe Centre which will include an exact-as-possible rebuilt Globe theatre in a complex being built less than 200 metres away from the original Globe site. (Intrusion by an approach to Southwark Bridge ruled out reconstruction of the theatre at its historic location.)

"The rebuilding is just fundamentally important," says Dr. Orrell. "It's not only curious, it's extraordinary that it hasn't been done before."

He continues: "The aim is to restore Shakespeare to his own voice. What we are doing is recreating Shakespeare's original instrument. The building will provide most of the physical conditions that Shakespeare took for granted when he wrote his plays. "

The Globe Centre will also include a small indoor theatre built using the original seventeenth century plans drawn by Inigo Jones, exhibition space, and a restaurant and pub. The theatres will be constructed by craftsmen using material and construction practices duplicating as nearly as possible those of Shakespeare's time.

The Centre was originally envisioned by the American-born actor-director-producer Sam Wanamaker, who resides close to the Globe site in Southwark. Its roots go back some 20 years, says Dr. Orrell, to the time when Mr. Wanamaker, looking for signs of Shakespeare in the area where his works were first performed could discover nothing beyond the "tedious-looking" plaque on the Courage Brewery fence.

"Being an American, he immediately thought ' we should do something about that,"' says the professor, a native of Kent who first came to Canada in 1954 to fly Harvard training aircraft at Moose Jaw. He returned in 1958 to study at the University of Toronto and accepted an appointment in the English department at the U of A in 1961.

As a first step in bringing Shakespeare back to the bank of the Thames, actor-producer-director Wanamaker acquired some rights ("rather tenuous rights," says Dr. Orrell) to property in Emerson Street, a stone's throw away from the Globe site, and persuaded the Southwark Borough Council to allow him to operate a tent theatre, in which he mounted Shakespearean and contemporary dramas. That lasted until the theatre fell victim to a tremendous windstorm, says Dr. Orrell.

Mr. Wanamaker had also begun a Shakespeare museum and a small theatre in a warehouse just around the corner in Bear Gardens and from these beginnings the International Shakespeare Globe Centre project has emerged. Among the supporters of the $35-million privately-funded project is His Royal Highness, The Duke of Edinburgh, who is its honorary patron. On July 16, 1987 he took part in a dedication ceremony to mark the commencement of work on the project, which was targeted for completion in 1992.

Dr. Orrell became involved with the project in 1979 when his work related to the theatre came to Mr. Wanamaker's attention. At a scholarly conference held that year in Detroit Dr. Orrell, who, had he not followed his interest in the theatre into his present profession, would likely have become an architect, had presented a paper showing that the Globe's foundation had almost certainly been established using the ancient ad quadratum method of laying out a building using a single measure. It is Dr. Orrell's contention that the Globe was designed in this manner using a three-rod (about 15 metres) chain for the single measurement. This would, he believes, have been employed in such a way that it would result in the nearly circular Globe being exactly six rods in diameter.

Corroboration for this contention comes by way of a drawing by Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar done in about 1638 in preparation for his later etching "Long View of London," printed in Antwerp. Among the handful of surviving drawings, etchings, and written accounts that survive to give clues to the Globe's exact nature, Hollar's sketch has proven to be the most fruitful, for Dr. Orrell has been able to confirm its "astonishing accuracy" in regard to perspective and location. The sketch, it has become evident, was not done in any haphazard way but through the employment of a topographical glass or some very similar device. The topographical glass, which consists of a fixed eyepiece and a glass frame, was often employed by artists of the seventeenth century, who used it to achieve exact perspective in drawings, particularly panoramic views.

Given the demonstrated accuracy of the Hollar sketch (demonstrated by comparing it closely to modern maps) Dr. Orrell has been able to subject it to trigonometric analysis, and has achieved some most interesting results. These not only support his thesis as to how the Globe was laid out (the drawing shows the Globe to be to be just over 30 metres wide, and six rods converts to 30.175 metres) but provide for some interesting speculation about the building's orientation.

Surprisingly, the theatre was so designed that during the afternoon, the time when the plays were performed, the sun would shine riot upon the stage, as we might well expect, but into the eyes of the audience in front of the stage. (This is less surprising when we consider that in Elizabethan theatres the most expensive seats were behind the stage and at the far sides-there the occupants would be the most visible.) With help from a fellow U of A professor, astronomer Douglas Hube, Dr. Orrell has been able to demonstrate that the Globe may well have been oriented directly in line with the azimuth of the midsummer sunrise at the latitude of Southwark.

Dr. Orrell has also turned his attention to the Globe's seating arrangements and capacity. The only direct evidence related to capacity, says Dr. Orrell, appears to be that contained in a dispatch sent to Madrid in 1630 by the Spanish Ambassador, who was reporting on a furiously anti-Spanish play being staged at the Globe. In his communication the ambassador reported that "there were more than 3,000 persons there on the day that the audience was the smallest."

While a number of Shakespeare scholars have chosen to discount this evidence (perhaps attributing it to a Latin penchant for hyperbole) and put forward lower estimates of capacity based on a variety of body-space formulas applied to equally varied estimates of the theatre's size, Dr. Orrell has shown that—incredible as it seems—the Globe doubtless did accommodate crowds in excess of 3,000.

Dr. Orrell makes his convincing argument with reference to an almost-overlooked seventeenth-century drawing, once thought to be German, tucked away among miscellaneous German manuscripts in the Additional Manuscripts collection of the British Library. Dr. Orrell is able to show that the copiously annotated drawing, which gives a seating plan for a temporary theatre, is not German at all but English, and that the Hall in which the seating was to be arranged must surely have been Christ Church, Oxford. The occasion would almost certainly have been the royal visit of James the First and his court in 1605.

Not only does the drawing document the typical seating arrangement for a theatre of the time-"seates 18 ynches a sunder whereof the seat conteyns 6 ynches," — but it also gives precise figures related to audience capacity. Simple calculations based on these figures show that the average spectator, seated on a 15.24 cm (6 inches) wide bench with legroom of only twice that, would be allotted no more than 45.72 cm (18 inches) of seating width. Taken together with the probable steepness of the Globe's seating arrangements, the fact that minimal provision would have been made for crowd circulation (the audience would be expected to clamber down to the seats the best they could) and the dimensions he has proposed for the theatre, these "cosy" seating arrangements would easily make possible an audience in excess of 3,000, says Dr. Orrell.

(Although the Globe is being rebuilt as closely as possible to its original configurations, some compromises are being made related to seating. Not only would modern audiences, consisting of individuals substantially larger, on average, than Elizabethans, find the conditions most uncomfortable, but modern regulations wouldn't permit them.)

While Dr. Orrell is confident that the theatre which is to be the showplace of the International Shakespeare Globe Centre is as it is now designed a faithful replica of the original, he admits that all of the evidence which has gone into shaping it is "either indirect or very nearly indirect." And very soon some direct evidence may emerge.

In February of this year a team of archeologist digging a short distance away from the Globe site uncovered remains of another Elizabethan theatre, the Rose. The find was unexpected. "Miracle of miracles," says Dr. Orrell, "despite all things, including a huge office block which had been built on the site in the 1950s, six feet underground were distinct remains of the Rose.

The findings from the Rose site confirmed rather than challenged the conclusions that had shaped the design for the rebuilding of the Globe (though first indications are that the Rose's orientation differed from the Globe's). But again the evidence, welcome as it was, was only indirect. It did, however, point to the possibility of the survival of direct evidence about the Globe—evidence which might be found under the Courage Brewery parking lot.

And another recent development makes it likely that that evidence, should it be there, will be unearthed later this year. In late March the present owners of the Courage Brewery property announced plans for redeveloping it; prior to that the London Museum will have six months to investigate the site. Archeological work is scheduled to begin this summer.

Naturally, Dr. Orrell is excited by the prospect. "Nobody thought there would be evidence of the Rose extant," he says. "Perhaps beneath the rows of Volvos and Minis, bits of Shakespeare's theatre may still exist."

Is he worried that the evidence of the Globe, should it be unearthed, will turn years of careful scholarly work into nothing more than a collapsed house of cards? He doesn't appear to be, even though in April when he addressed the University as a 1989 Gordin Kaplan Award laureate he did allow (with a smile) that he was "relieved" that the research prize had already been awarded—and on a non-returnable basis.

Published Summer 1989.

ua logo