Globe Theatre Story

The impossible dream: the legacy of Sam Wanamaker

  Barry Day looks back on the life and work of his friend, colleague, and our founder, Sam Wanamaker

7 minute read

“Is this it?” “This is it.”
“It” was a pit on the banks of the Thames filled with muddy water. The heavens above were doing their generous best to top it up as the three of us stood there – Sam, my wife Lynne and me.

I was there more or less by accident, I seem to recall – certainly not as some supplicant in search of a Grail. This was 1985 and I was creative director at an advertising agency, and Unilever was a key client. They had also indicated support for Sam Wanamaker in his project to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe playhouse on this soggy site and give it a degree of corporate responsibility. Their “point man” was Michael Perry and he and I had often worked together in the past, so when over lunch – for which I’m sure he paid – he muttered something about helping him build this “so-and-so theatre”, the answer was somewhat preordained.

A man stands on a ladder in a ditch of mud and dirt, wearing a hard hat.

“It” was a pit on the banks of the Thames filled with muddy water. Sam at the archaeological excavation of the site.

All I knew at this point was that Sam – who I was meeting for the first time – had been devoting more and more time to his impossible dream, since he’d been inspired by a dusty plaque on a brewery wall in darkest Southwark back in 1949, when he was in London to make a forgettable film. (It also kept him out of the way of the US House Un-American Activities Committee, which was beginning to show an unhealthy interest in his own activities back home.)

As Sam studied the soggy site, I studied him. I realised later that for him this was a rare moment of repose. I’d seen that face in photos but in life it looked even more craggy – a face that would fit Mount Rushmore to a T. Then the context of the terrain. It could have been a scene from an Italian neo-Realist movie – minus the subtitles.

‘All I knew at this point was that Sam had been devoting more and more time to his impossible dream, since he’d been inspired by a dusty plaque on a brewery wall in darkest Southwark back in 1949’

A finishing touch was the row of dustmen’s carts lining the pit. One of the dustmen was quoted as saying, “If that Shakespeare moves in here, I’m moving out.” Predictive but sadly pre-emptive. It would be some time before Mr S was ready to make his move. Meanwhile there was Sam with a muddy hole lined with a £2 million membrane – the last penny he had been able to raise so far – that would keep out Old Father Thames and keep in whatever the Clerk of the Weather chose to send. Ironically, Sam’s biggest success to date on the West End stage had been in 1956’s The Rainmaker.

The plaque was the only thing to commemorate the fact that once upon an Elizabethan time Shakespeare’s Globe playhouse stood there. “Why, that’s fantastic!” the innocent American said to his British acquaintances, “Why don’t you guys rebuild it?”

A man wearing thick-framed glasses stands by a plaque marking the location of the original Globe Theatre

The plaque was the only thing to commemorate the fact that once upon an Elizabethan time Shakespeare’s Globe playhouse stood there.

The answers he received were varied but added up to the same thing. We’ve got quite enough culture to be going on with, thank you, and if we do decide to do it, we don’t need an American telling us when and how.

When he’d heard quite enough of that, Sam gave his own unvarnished American reply – “Well, if you won’t do it, I will!”

I will do such things,
What they are, yet I know not – but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

King Lear, Act II, scene 4

Thirty some years on he was still doing it…

Go with me, and I will use your skill.

Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, scene 2

Before the rain stopped I’d apparently become Sam’s communications advisor (or some such thing). I’m still not quite sure how. We were on “an epic journey”, he assured me. Epic, indeed, and led by a man who – being an actor – could be in turn Hamlet, Lear, Henry V and could often exhibit more than a touch of Don Quixote. In short, “a force of nature”.

Two men stand next to a model box of a timber circular theatre.

Sam could also have been an effective ad man. He’d glide effortlessly through a crowded social setting before choosing a likely target for his pitch. Sam shows actor Cary Grant the model box of the Globe.

He could also have been an effective ad man. Time and again I’d observe him glide effortlessly through a crowded social setting before choosing a likely target for his pitch. Then the charm. The performance was never less than impressive but time was of the essence. There was a playhouse to be built and if he found the resonance to be inadequate, his glance would drift over the subject’s shoulder in search of his next target.

On the other hand, if the reception turned out to be positive, the conversation would end with the “subject” convinced that if he/she hadn’t exactly been promised the moon, then certainly a small constellation was a distinct possibility.

I relay this in no spirit of criticism but merely of comparative social comment. Sam was simply doing what any American entrepreneur would automatically do in this situation – he was selling. And selling successfully. When all the accounts were eventually settled, it could be seen that American money was the decisive factor in making the Globe possible. At the time I remember that there were many stiff ish English upper lips that found the method “vulgar” and “commercial” but, once the Globe was built, those voices were hushed and Sam’s “commitments” were honoured. Today there are few major cultural centres in the Western world that have not benefited from individual “commercial” contributions and don’t carry the personal “autographs” of their donors.

A man standing on a empty site lifts a document into the air, smiling, with the River Thames and the dome of St Paul's cathedral behind.

Sam celebrates the successful settlement of the 1986 High Court case against Southwark Council and Derno Estates. Photographer: Alan Butland.

Sam’s vision and his single-minded commitment was undoubtedly the driving force that kept the project on track through the decades and propelled it through the “down” moments.

Such as the time when opposing forces on the Southwark Council gave their good old left-wing vote and declared that the putative Globe site would be more responsibly devoted to building council houses. Yes, to do so would make them the most expensive public housing but so what? It’s the principle that counts.

Then there was the time when life outperformed drama. Elizabethan theatres seemed to pop up everywhere in Southwark. A nondescript off ice block had been thrown up and in its foundations lay the remains of the Rose playhouse – a keen competitor of the Globe in the Shakespearean day. This gave rise – with more than a little help from the media – to “Shakespeare’s Rose v. Wanamaker’s Globe”. Who wouldn’t prefer the real thing, inaccessible as it may be, to a replica?

Inevitably tempers cooled and the media moved on, as the media must. It could be argued that the long-term effect was to add even more credibility to the ongoing saga of Elizabethan theatre.

The passing of time – not to mention encroaching years – simply made Sam more determined and inflexible. And there were times when that threatened to become a negative factor.

The plan was the plan and the details were all worked out between Sam and his architect, Theo Crosby. Full steam ahead! But there was a little thing called the economy to contend with. Not for the first time.

A group of men stand before a model plan of a development site.

Between Sam and his architect, Theo Crosby, it was full steam ahead! J O’Grady, Theo Crosby, Sir Philip Dowson, Sir Ove Arup and Sam Wanamaker with a model of the Bankside Development, c.1971. Photographer: Pentagram.

I found myself asking Sam what seemed to be an overly obvious question.

“How much do we need to finish it?”

He gave me an impressive figure.

“Sam, is it all or nothing?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Well then, I would say it’s nothing. You’re just not going to raise that kind of money in this economy for a theory most people have trouble visualising.”

Silence.

“How much would it cost to put down foundations?”

He quoted a figure.

“How much to build one of the bays on that foundation?”

Another figure.

“Well, then, do that and people will begin to see what the Globe will look like and that sounds like an achievable figure. Build it and they will come.”

I’m not claiming credit for it, since other people clearly came to the same conclusion but – hey, I was the communications advisor! Once Sam embraced it and persuaded Theo to adapt to it, the concept of Self Build was born.

And in a strange way the ailing economy helped. A lot of builders were of necessity “resting”. When funds became available they could hire freelance and the work continued.

Bit by bit, Shakespeare’s Globe rose again from the Thames Bankside and as “this wooden ‘O’” rose, so did our hopes.

‘Bit by bit, Shakespeare’s Globe rose again from the Thames Bankside and as “this wooden ‘O’” rose, so did our hopes’

A man wearing a hard hat leans his leg on the trunk of a great oak tree which has been cut down.

Sam inspects some of the oak used to build the Globe.

And then…

In 1989 Sam learned that he had cancer. He didn’t even tell his family for three years but it clearly made him intensify his efforts.

In retrospect it’s obvious to me – as an Englishman who has lived in America for many years – that an underlying additional problem with the Globe project was one of Anglo-Saxon attitude.

Yes, clearly English and Americans are “divided by a common language” but it goes deeper. However long he lived among them, Sam couldn’t be expected to think like a Brit. If he had, he would never have achieved what he did. He knew that in America – and many other countries come to that – a project like his would have been completed long since. As it was, he came up against a latent attitude we Brits tend to share. If an idea comes from someone from somewhere else, we are inclined to resist. It took too many people far too long to dismiss Sam and his ideas as being “too American”, too – dare I say it? – “Disney”.

A man in a white shirt and black tie holds a hard hat

At the end of the day it got done – but it took an American to get it done. Sam outside the Build the Globe Museum.

Yet at the end of the day it got done – but it took an American to get it done.

The rest of the story is too well documented to need repeating.

One last personal memory:

It was just Sam and me. We’d been looking round the developing site. No rain this time, just the soft glow of sunset. I lost sight of him for a moment, then I saw him standing there, looking over the river to where the dome of St Paul’s caught the light, a monument in its own right that had come into being with a lot less pain than this one.

His arm was in a sling because of his condition but his face – even craggier than I’d remembered it – was peaceful and, again, Mount Rushmore came to mind. Then he smiled and brought me back to the present. (You never see them smile on Mount Rushmore.)

“It’s really going to happen isn’t it?” It was more of a statement than a question.

“Yes, Sam,” I said, “It’s really going to happen.”

Sam died in 1993.

The Queen opened Shakespeare’s Globe in 1996. Sam’s daughter Zoë spoke the prologue from Henry V.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

And fittingly, there was a monarch to behold the scene.

Her Majesty the Queen watches a performance in the Gentleman's Box of the Globe Theatre.

Her Majesty The Queen attends the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe, 12 June 1997.  Photographer Richard Kalina.

Postscript:

Sam was once quoted as saying – “I expected it all to happen very quickly, spring up in two or three years… Or I probably wouldn’t have started it…”

I don’t believe him. The lyrics of The Impossible Dream tell the true story…

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will be peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest.

Sancho Panza here, Sam, ready and waiting. Where’s our next quest?

A man sits before a model box of a circular timber structure theatre

Sam Wanamaker, Founder of Shakespeare’s Globe, with the impossible dream.

FINIS.

This post originally appeared as The impossible dream in the Summer 2019 edition of Globe Magazine and is one of the benefits of being a Member at Shakespeare’s Globe.

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