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The Real Globe Theater

In response to:

New Light on the Globe Theater from the May 26, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

In its essentials, Frances Yates’s article on the reconstruction of the stage of the second Globe [NYR, May 26] boils down to the gallant but unlikely suggestion that the rear wall shown in the engraving of Michael Fludd’s “memory theater” is no less than a representation of the tiring-house wall at the Globe. This wall was presumably a “screen-wall” similar to the one shown in the famous “Swan” drawing and common in medieval and Renaissance architecture, being exemplified in England by specimens in cathedrals and halls all over the country and by many drawings of the pageant-arches of Shakespeare’s own time. According to its use or situation, the screen-wall is pierced by one or more portals at the ground-level, and on its upper level it is traversible by a kind of gallery to which access is given either from the back or sides. Fludd’s wall has all these qualities, as one might well expect, but the suggestion that it represents the Globe’s wall depends on a wholly dubious argument.

First, Miss Yates puts her faith in Fludd’s insistence that the “memory-theater” must be based on a real theater, and she assumes that he was therefore copying some particular place. This may well be true, but Fludd’s “real” may mean no more than “useable” and we cannot know how far his “memory-theater” is removed from actuality. If one goes along with Miss Yates, the meaning of real becomes a matter for manipulation, and before the Globe can be restored, Fludd’s theater has to be radically altered. The seating arrangements must be restructured, two walls removed, the center door of the back wall enlarged, a bay window turned into a chamber, and three utterly impossible columns done away with. All this done, one ends up with something that looks generically rather like an Elizabethan theater. One can only accept its particularity on faith. There is no logical reason why, provided that the essentials of the “screen-wall” are retained, the structural alterations should stop short of the five entrances, the shape of the bay-window structure, the battlements, and the rustication.

The argument for identifying the restored “memory-theater” with the Globe is even weaker. It simply won’t do to base the indentification on the fact of Fludd’s having dedicated his book to James I who was the titular patron of the Globe’s resident company. In short, the most one can say about Fludd’s theater is that at the back of its stage there is a modified tiring-house wall of a kind probably common to the Elizabethan open-stages.

The archaeology of the Elizabethan stage is a notoriously snarled subject, and there are matters for debate at almost every point of the article. Yet there is one further criticism to be made. Miss Yates’s most attractive point is that the ground plan of the Globe was based on the geometry of the square, the hexagon, and the equilateral triangle. That she bases the suggestion on the shapes of Fludd’s impossible columns seems to me neither here nor there; it is intrinsically sensible, especially from the craftsman-builder’s point of view. Yet when she proceeds to argue that this design is traceable immediately to neo-classical influence, and imagines James Burbage being inspired by the abstruse theorising of John Dee, one can only be surprised. Generations of builders and craftsman had used geometry out of the necessities of their crafts. The neo-classical revival was essentially a book-inspired movement, whereas the Elizabethan theater, in its essentials, was grounded on principles that, whatever their ultimate sources, were not immediately derived from literary authority. Insofar as Miss Yates suggests a neo-classical inspiration for the design of the public theaters, and bases her argument on rather recondite literary sources, her article is a regression rather than an advance in the scholarship of the Elizabethan theater. Not to mention the fact that had the King’s Mens’ theater been designed on consciously Vitruvian principles, and had their most important playwright and actor-sharer been aware of the fact, then Ben Jonson would have been a lot happier working for them than he evidently was.

F. W. Brownlow

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor

Frances Yates replies:

I suppose it is an indication of the novelty of the evidence about the Globe Theater brought forward in my article that it has provoked so much alarm and irritation from Professor Brownlow.

I will attend first to his doubt as to what Robert (not Michael) Fludd may have meant by a “real” theater; Professor Brownlow thinks that he may have meant no more than “useable.” As I tried to explain in the article one does really know from the history of the art of memory what Fludd meant by a “real” as apart from a “fictitious” building; he meant the actual places, as perceived by the eye, in some real building which were to be reflected in memory. My reasons for thinking that the “real” public theater which Fludd had in mind was the second Globe do not depend entirely on the dedication of the first volume of his book to James I; this is born out by the features of the tiring house wall shown in the engraving, with its upper chamber, terrace, and five entrances—features the absence of which in the only other known visual representation of the interior of an Elizabethan theater (the DeWitt sketch of the Swan) has worried Shakespeare scholars. When Professor Brownlow kindly admits that “the most one can say about Fludd’s theater is that at the back of its stage there is a modified tiring house wall of a kind probably common to the Elizabethan open stages,” he hands me the compliment of agreeing that the Fludd engraving must henceforth take its place as one of the only two pieces of visual evidence about tiring house walls.

I have not pretended that the Fludd engraving is a photograph of the Globe, nor minimized the fact that mnemonic distortions and other considerations do come between the engraving and Shakespeare’s theater. The Fludd evidence is far from perfect, as an accurate drawing or engraving of the whole interior of the theater would be. Nevertheless we must make the most of it and value it as more evidence than we have ever had before.

Professor Brownlow’s letter rather gives the impression that we have all seen hundreds of picture postcards of Elizabethan tiring house walls and that they are all rather like hall screens or pageant arches (curiously jumbled as roughly the same). Whereas the truth is that we have hitherto seen only one picture of a tiring house wall, that in the De Witt sketch of the Swan. The argument for the hall screen as the origin of the tiring house wall, has rested on what is seen in that sketch, an upper gallery and two doors below. Though this sketch has many drawbacks (it is a copy of the original sketch and probably full of inaccuracies) it has to be used as the only visual evidence available as to what the Swan type of theater was like. I am in agreement with those who have argued that the Swan was probably a “dual purpose” theater, used both for straight acitng and for naimal baiting, the stage being removed when the theater was being used for the latter entertainment. This would account for the trestles shown in the sketch, on which the stage rests, and for the generally rather rough and makeshift character of the stage. If this is so, then we have really never, up till now, seen the tiring house wall of a theater used solely for acting.

In the Fludd engraving we see a tiring house wall which is very different from the one in the De Witt sketch, and very much more like what we should expect from the requirements of the Shakespearean drama. I believe that we are here seeing for the first time the tiring house wall of a theater used solely for acting, as the Globe was. With this new evidence in mind we have to think again about the origins of the tiring house wall and what it was supposed to represent. I have been in the rather fortunate position of being the first to have the opportunity of reflecting about this. My thoughts are recorded in the article. The illusion attempted by the tiring house wall seen in the Fludd engraving seems to me to be that of the façade of a great house, palace, or castle, the five entrances in which recall the five entrances in the frons scaenae of the classical stage.

This brings us to one of the chief causes of Professor Brownlow’s annoyance with me. In suggesting neoclassical influence on the design of the public theaters I represent, he says, “a regression rather than an advance in the scholarship of the Elizabethan theater.” I am afraid that I must continue to regress, for the most striking fact about the Elizabethan theaters seems to me to be the fact that they were an absolutely new phenomenon. When James Burbage built a large permanent theater, open to the public on payment for admission, with a permanent stage specially designed for acting (thus freeing actors from dependence on temporary accommodation in inns, halls, moveable pageants, or what not) he did a thing of quite extraordinary modernity and novelty, a thing unheard of in mediaeval Europe and unheard of in England before his time. His “Theater” was really the first theater in the modern sense in England. Whence came the inspiration for this amazing innovation? There seems to me to be only one possible answer to that question.

In my article I said: “No one has as yet come forward to suggest that the London theaters might belong in the European revival of the classical theater.” I am very glad to have this opportunity of withdrawing that statement. Lily B. Campbell came forward to suggest it more than forty years ago. Depending on my memory of her book, Scenes and Machines on the English Stage (1923) I thought that she dealt only with the seventeenth-century stage, but when I looked into the book again about a week after my article was published, I found that she quotes John Dee on Vitruvius, says of Burbage’s theater “it would be strange indeed if a man of Burbage’s interests did not know something of Vitruvian theories and of continental opinion in regard to theatrical architecture,” records references by contemporaries to the London theaters as ancient theaters, points to passages in the theater contracts suggestive of classical influence, remarks that the Elizabethan so-called “apron stage” is obviously derivative from the classical stage. She also begins to explore Renaissance misunderstandings and adaptations of the classical theater in relation to English theaters. If the lines of research indicated by her had been followed up, considerable advance would have been made, even without the Fludd engraving with its five entrances to the stage, which was my point of departure for embarking on the geometry of the classical theater.

I am far from wishing to defend my article as a perfect production. It has many imperfections and should be looked upon as a beginning rather than an end, a tentative first attempt to use new evidence. I welcome criticism, and adverse criticism such as that of Professor Brownlow helps one to try to formulate one’s arguments and problems more clearly.

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