It seems ironic that it was an American – a nice Jewish boy from Chicago, as Sam Wanamaker himself said – and not an Englishman – who became the champion of Shakespeare in Britain and who gave up so much of his time and career the best years of his life to work for a dream: that of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre being rebuilt.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre London – Sam Wanamaker
Wanamaker came to Britain to escape McCarthyism in the 1950’s and stayed on to pursue his goal of seeing a new Globe rise near its original site on the south bank of the Thames, opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral. For more than twenty years he pleaded and argued with England’s theatrical establishment to help him realize his dream and eventually his stubbornness and unstoppable energy won out and, at the time of his death in December 1993, a new Globe Theatre had begun to rise from the ashes.
His first visit to London was in 1949. He was shocked to see that Shakespeare’s theatre, the first setting for Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Twelfth Night, was commemorated only by a grimy plaque on the wall of an old brewery. He was determined to rebuild an exact replica of the theatre as an authentic venue for Elizabethan drama By 1970 he had founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust and spent the rest of his life determined to resurrect the Globe.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre London – Fund Raising
The main problem in the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s/Wanamaker’s Globe was fund raising but Shakespeare lovers from around the world rallied to the cause. As a symbol of support – literally – 24 nations contributed the 24 structural posts that form the shape of the Globe and there were donations from many other countries.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre London – The Original Globe Theatre
The original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 by a group of London actors, including Shakespeare himself. It was a daring venture. I was a circular building which held around 1200 spectators seated in three tiers in horseshoe fashion, partly open to the sky and partly covered with thatch.
Apart from financial problems, another complication was the fact that there was very little true evidence of the original theatre. So, the question hung in the air, if so little was known about the original building, just how authentic would the new Globe be? As the bard himself said: “Ay, there’s the rub.”
One of the ways to find out how the original Globe was built was to carefully examine similar buildings of the same era. A lot of the old skills were re-learned by dismantling old timber buildings that were under threat and re-erecting them. The team of carpenters and joiners fashioned the oak using the same techniques and tools as those available when the original Globe was built nearly four hundred years ago, right down to the wooden plugs that the Elizabethan builders used instead of nails. For evidence they looked at old techniques and drawings. It had to be as authentic as possible but it also had to be safe. And one of the main concerns was the risk of fire from the thatched roof.
The original Globe burned down in 1613; today’s Globe is protected with 600 litres of fire retardant chemicals and sprinklers.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre London – Great Fire of London
Thatching has been banned since the Great Fire of London in 1666 but this did not deter Sam Wanamaker when he was fighting with the authorities to get his Globe built – with his usual doggedness he managed to get special permission for the new Globe to have a thatched roof. The thatch was soaked in fire retardant, laid over fire-proof boarding and fitted with a hidden sprinkler system. As in the original, the roof over the tiers was thatched, but the main central area was left open to the elements and at the mercy of the English climate.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre London – The Achievement of Sam Wanamaker’s Dream
Although Sam Wanamaker’s dream was to build a Globe as near as possible to the original, he also wanted it to be a place of learning. The Globe is still the “jewel in the crown” but there also are other buildings devoted to the study and enjoyment of Shakespeare. There is a library and research facility, an indoor theatre for the winter months, a museum, a cinema, shops, offices, a restaurant and a pub.
Sam Wanamaker ‘s efforts to achieve his dream are a mosaic of tragedy and comedy but the greatest tragedy is that he died before he could see his dream become a reality. His work was carried on by a devoted team of craftsmen and women and fund-raisers and today, over three centuries after the original Globe went up in flames. We are able to see William Shakespeare’s plays in all their Elizabethan glory.
The new Globe Theatre opened in 1997 and has been a huge success. The quiet American succeeded. Yes, they are playing it again, Sam.