Friday, February 21, 2014

Shakespeare’s Reconstructed Globe Theater and Me (a sort of love story)

by Stephanie Cowell

The reconstructed Globe Theater, Bankside, London

For the longest time I wanted to go home, but it was a place I could only travel in my mind. Nothing remained of it in London: only a plaque on a brewery wall. And well over three hundred years had passed since it had been callously destroyed.

It was the famous Globe Theater in Bankside on the Thames, raised up by a group of young actors in 1599 in the last few years of Queen Elizabeth’s life. One of the actors was the vibrant Will Shakespeare and the stage saw the first performance of his play Hamlet. He was long dead when the Puritans pulled the Globe down because they thought theater and pretty much of everything else was immoral. But so many years after the theater had been gutted, it rose again on the banks of the Thames thanks to a visionary American actor Sam Wanamaker who dedicated his life to doing it.

In 1949, Sam Wanamaker crossed the ocean and visited the site of the original Globe, finding only that time-darkened plaque. Sam was one of many actors blacklisted during the McCarthy era and moved to England. He worked as an actor there but never lost his passion to reconstruct the Globe and began seriously to campaign for it in 1969.It took 25 years but he never looked back. He enlisted theater people and people who could give money and in 1993 construction began on the New Globe Theater a short distance from the original site which was now under a building.

Visionary actor Sam Wanamaker who recreated the Globe

They did it with great care. A study was made of what was known of the construction of The Theater, the building from which the 1599 Globe obtained much of its timber and of other theatrical documents from the period. The architect was Theo Crosby and construction was done by McCurdy & Co. The modern theater has a circular yard, a thrust stage and three tiers of circular seating. The only covered parts are the stage and the seating areas. Those who choose to stand may be rained upon! Plays are given between May and early October and you can tour it year round. There is no amplification now as there was none in 1599. The theater is constructed entirely of English oak; it is an authentic 16th century timber-framed building with no structural steel used. The seats are plain hard benches and the roof is thatched.

My first novel (on Kindle)
In spring of 1993, I had my first novel coming out about an Elizabethan boy who becomes an actor (Nicholas Cooke: actor, soldier, physician,priest) and I went to London hoping to see the newly recreated theater. I saw one fourth of it. It had taken twenty years or so for Sam to get enough support to build this much and they were trying to raise enough money for the rest. His assistant, Mrs. Blodgett, gave me a tour. “Sam’s not here,” she said. “He’s always off somewhere trying to get some wealthy person to give English oak!” So I returned to America, sent him an advance copy of my book, and he wrote me back how much he liked it.

He died in December that year, never to see the complete rising of his new Globe. I was never to meet him but he knew before he died that that the theater would live again.

In 1997, four years after Sam’s death, I traveled to London with my husband to see The Merchant of Venice at the completed Globe. All those of you who love English history, and have spent much of your life recreating it in your mind through what you read or write, will understand that when I walked through those doors and saw the rising galleries and the stage I felt faint. I was choked with tears. It was as if it were waiting for me. I almost expected the handsome Shakespeare, then in his thirties and sporting one gold earring, to rush up to me and say, “Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you!”

Marcello Magniin the clown in MERCHANT

The Italian clown jumped into the groundings (those who stood in the pit) and teased and joked with them.

Thanks to a visionary actor we do not only have a weather-worn plaque on a brewery to commemorate the theater now, but the theater itself has risen again from the ashes. Shakespeare, if he walked in it, would be surprised by the sprinkler system under the thatched roof and the lighted exit signs (concessions to modern building safety code) but I think he would feel at home. Sam Wanamaker’s Globe is a grand and vivid testimony to what those of us who love English history will do to bring it back to life again.


About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet.  She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Stephanie is currently finishing two novels, one on the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and the second about the year Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and all the troubles he had! Her website is


  1. It sounds wonderful! I've only seen it in photos, but have promised myself a visit on my next trip to England, whenever that is! Do they go all the way and have only male performers?

  2. What a beautiful post! We toured it in 2008 but didn't get to see a play there. Maybe some year. (Apologies for the deleted post above. I was signed into my work account!)

    1. Thanks,LK! It was a very magical experience in my life and I was so happy to share it here!

    2. Will Nicholas Cooke come out in e-format other than kindle?

    3. I don't know. I don't know much about e-book things. Do you think it should? You can get a second-hand hard copy. When I finished the third Nicholas book I'll get them all back in print.

    4. Ah, nice to know. I'd rather wait for the print but I may check my library in the meantime. A lot of people don't buy from Amazon so ebooks should be widely distributed. It's frustrating to have a different reader (Nook, Sony) and not have them available that way.

  3. Sometimes, Sue. I am in NYC and we just had the Globe production of two plays, all men. It was marvelous...they danced and they sang! They have a web site to let you know what they are doing when in London. (You can also buy a DVD of the all male 12th Night.)

  4. Wonderful post and it shows one should not give up on a dream...or discount the gifts of adversity...If Sam wasn't driven out the US, would the new Globe be there today ? As the Russians say : There is no evil that does not contain good .
    ( that is not the same as saying blacklisting was good! l )

    Thank you for posting this great story !


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