Not just theatre but the capital at its very best
The project to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe was initiated by the American actor, director and producer Sam Wanamaker after his first visit to London in 1949. Twenty-one years later he founded what was to become the Shakespeare Globe Trust, dedicated to the reconstruction of the theatre and the creation of an education centre and permanent exhibition. After 23 years spent tirelessly fundraising, advancing research into the appearance of the original Globe and planning the reconstruction with the Trust’s architect Theo Crosby, Sam Wanamaker died in 1993, the site having been secured, the exhibition undercroft structurally complete and a few timber bays of the theatre in place. Three and a half years later the theatre was completed.
What did the first Globe look like? Nobody knows for sure. Printed panoramas, such as those by John Norden and Wenceslaus Hollar, give some idea of the theatre’s exterior; written accounts, usually by visitors from overseas, building contracts and one sketch (of the Swan theatre) tell us something about the interior. In addition, there are suggestive descriptions included in the plays themselves, such as the famous Chorus which begins Henry V: ‘And shall this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France / Or may we cram within this wooden ‘O’...’
All the same, the Globe itself was not a truly circular building. The archaeological excavation of the Rose Theatre in 1989 revealed what most scholars had long suspected, that the Elizabethan playhouses were polygonal buildings. In the same year, a small portion of the Globe itself was excavated, from which two important inferences were drawn: that it was a 20-sided building with a diameter of 100 feet.
Techniques used in the reconstruction of the theatre were painstakingly accurate. ‘Green’ oak was cut and fashioned according to 16th-century practice and assembled in two-dimensional bays on the Bankside site; oak laths and staves support lime plaster mixed according to a contemporary recipe and the walls are covered in a white lime wash. The roof is made of water reed thatch, based on samples found during the excavation.
The stage is the most conjectural aspect of the reconstruction. Almost nothing survives from the period to suggest the appearance of this part of the theatre. Its design was drawn from evidence provided by existing buildings of the period and practical advice offered by the actors and directors who participated in the 1995 ‘Workshop’ and 1996 ‘Prologue’ seasons.
Other than concessions to comply with modern day fire regulations such as additional exits, illuminated signage, fire retardant materials and some modern backstage machinery, the Globe is as accurate a reconstruction of the 1599 Globe as was possible with the available evidence.
The reconstruction is as faithful to the original as modern scholarship and traditional craftsmanship can make it, but for the time being this Globe is – and is likely to remain – neither more nor less than the ‘best guess’ at Shakespeare’s theatre.
Sam Wanamaker was born in Chicago on 14 June 1919.
His first job in the theatre was acting in Shakespeare, ironically in a representative Globe which was one of the highlights of the Great Lakes’ World Fair in Cleveland, Ohio. This early experience significantly influenced his entire career.
After a period in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II, Sam returned to the US where he received his ‘big break’ on Broadway at the age of 27 playing opposite Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Lorraine. Within two weeks he took over direction of the play and became a huge success. After producing, directing, and acting in several Broadway plays, he moved to Hollywood where he directed and acted in a clutch of films.
In 1949 Sam paid his first visit to the UK to star in the film Give Us This Day. He returned in 1951 for another film and stayed to produce, direct, and star in Clifford Odet’s Winter Journey with Sir Michael Redgrave. He decided to remain in Britain. Sam had his own theatre company in Liverpool, taking over the Shakespeare Theatre. There, he created the first arts and performance centre in Britain. He also continued his acting career, performing as Iago with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Othello opposite Paul Robeson.
In 1960, Sam returned to the US to star in Macbeth in Chicago, and on Broadway in A Far Country, a play about Sigmund Freud. He then acted in, and directed, over a dozen television shows for major US networks, as well as acting and directing in over 50 films including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Superman IV, Baby Boom and Guilty by Suspicion opposite Robert De Niro. He also participated in two long-running TV series, Holocaust and his own series, The Berengers.
Sam also directed opera, notably War and Peace for the opening of the Sydney Opera House, two new Sir Michael Tippett operas at Covent Garden (King Priam and Icebreak), as well as Forza del Destino. He directed Pavorotti’s debut in Aida in San Francisco and Tosca in San Diego, as well as staging the 25th Anniversary Gala of the Lyric Opera House in Chicago.
In 1970 Sam founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust, and International Shakespeare Globe Centre - the final attempt to build a faithful recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe close to its original Bankside, Southwark location. He also established the Shakespeare’s Globe Museum.
While many had said that the Globe reconstruction was impossible to achieve, he had persevered for over twenty years, overcoming a series of monumental obstacles. At the Royal unveiling of two sections of the Globe in June 1992, Sam saw clearly that his life had come full circle.
In July 1993, Sam Wanamaker was made an Honorary Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by the Queen, in recognition of the remarkable contribution that he had made to relations between Britain and the United States and, of course, for all he has done on behalf of the Shakespeare Globe project.
He died in London on 18 December 1993.
The Globe was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in June 1997.
Sam Wanamaker was a recipient of the Royal Society of Arts’ Benjamin Franklin Medal; an Honorary Doctor of Law, University of New Brunswick, Canada; Honorary Doctor of Dramatic Arts, Roosevelt University, Chicago; Doctor of Letters, University of London; Distinguished Graduate, The Theatre School, DePaul University, formerly the Goodman School of Drama, Art Institute of Chicago; Fellow of St Mary and Westfield College, University of London; Honorary Doctor of Literature, University of London.