Theater Predating Shakespeare Believed to Be Found in East London

the red lion has possibly been unearthed in whitechapel

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Red Lion, London’s earliest playhouse, may have been found, BBC News reported. Several kinds of structural components indicative of the theater were found during excavations in Whitechapel, last year. Early theater differed greatly from modern times.

Modern theatre stage
The first Elizabethan playhouse, called the Red Lion, was built in 1567 by John Brayne and was located outside of London. Photo by Kozlik / Shutterstock

According to BBC News, the theater that was uncovered last year has incredible history behind it. “The Red Lion is thought to have been built in about 1567 by John Brayne, ahead of his construction of The Theatre in Shoreditch, which he completed with James Burbage in 1576,” the article said. “Burbage was a member of acting company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and The Theatre was the first permanent home for acting troupes, staging a young William Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s.”

The Red Lion wasn’t only Shakespeare’s first theater; it set the standard for modern theater to this day.

Life in the First Theater

The Red Lion set many important precedents for what we now know about theater.

“This is the invention of modern theater as we know it: a public space where people will pay money to watch a play performed,” said Dr. Marc C. Conner, the Jo M. and James M. Ballengee Professor of English at Washington and Lee University. “Within three decades, a host of theaters like this one would arise in London: the Theater, the Curtain, the Rose, the Swan, and Shakespeare’s own, the Globe.”

According to Dr. Conner, the theaters were build outside the original Roman walls that contained the city of London, because the city was controlled by Puritan leaders who “despised and distrusted theater,” in his words. The Puritans argued that we must all be who God created us to be, and theater practiced deception.

“On stage you have commoners acting like—pretending to be—lords, ladies, kings, and queens,” he said. “And during Shakespeare’s day it was illegal to have women onstage, so you have boys or young men pretending to be women. To the Puritans, this was deeply unsettling, even sinful, and so they outlawed theater within the city limits.”

Picturing the Theater

The crowds that plays drew in Shakespeare’s time were as eclectic as one could imagine.

“There could be as many as 3,000 spectators for any play, a huge number for a city of about 200,000 people, as London was at this time,” Dr. Conner said. “And it would attract the whole range of the population, meaning many classes would mingle here, from wealthy landowning gentry to the emerging middle class all the way down to the poor, who could enter the theater for a mere penny and stand on the ground in front of the stage and cheer, boo, and catcall their way through an entire play.”

He said the interiors of the theaters were usually round or octagonal, complete with box seating going up three or more sides of the theater. Additionally, the stage was a “thrust stage,” meaning it stood in the center of the theater with the audience surrounding it. In addition to the stage placement, there was one more immersive element to early theater that is often eschewed in the 21st century.

“The Shakespearean theater was much more in your face, for the actors could see and even interact with the audience, and vice versa,” Dr. Conner said. “So keep this in mind as you’re listening to a soliloquy, or solo speech—those intimate speeches are meant to be a shared intimacy between the actor and ourselves.”

With luck, the rediscovery of the Red Lion will cause a resurgence in the classical theater and audiences can once more experience drama as the English did in Shakespearean times.

Dr. Marc C. Conner contributed to this article. Dr. Conner is the Jo M. and James M. Ballengee Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Professor Conner earned his bachelor’s degrees in English and philosophy at the University of Washington and his master’s and doctoral degrees in English literature at Princeton University.