"O, for a muse of fire......."
Henry V (I,i)
Be very, very careful what you wish for.
This Saturday, June 29th, will mark the 400th anniversary of the day in 1613 when Shakespeare's Globe Theatre burned to the ground. The fire had started during a performance of All is True, the play more familiar to us as King Henry VIII.
Three days later, Sir Henry Wotton, an eyewitness to the calamity, wrote in a letter to his nephew:
The King's players had a new play, called All is True, representing
some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII.......certain chambers
(cannon) being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff,
wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where
being thought at first an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to
the show, it kindled inwardly and ran round......consuming within less
than an hour the whole house to the very grounds.
Luckily, no one was killed or seriously injured, although one man reportedly realized that his breeches were on fire and put out the flames with bottled ale. Evidently, the men responsible for setting off the gunpowder-packed cannons near a thatched roof were not mobbed and roughed up for being so incredibly dense. That is somewhat surprising.
Pictured above are some of the sandstone tiles (not all are original) on the roof of Agecroft Hall, which stood in Lancashire, England at the time of the Globe fire. When the Globe was rebuilt the following year, tile was used on the roof. Before the fire, Shakespeare had owned a fourteenth part of the theater's shares and would have faced a similar proportion of the cost of its rebuilding, as Peter Ackroyd pointed out in his masterful Shakespeare: The Biography (New York, 2005). The playwright might very well have sold his shares in the Globe at about this time.
The earlier thatched roof of the Globe had been an obvious fire hazard, but a thatched roof was relatively cheap to construct (the roof of the nearby Rose Theatre was also thatched). This reflected the financially perilous nature of the theater business itself. The London stage industry was still in its infancy: there were plenty of worries for proprietors.
The recurrence of plague could and did keep theaters closed for extended periods, particularly in the last decade of the sixteenth century but also at times thereafter. The increasingly puritanical bent of London authorities meant constant grumbling from those who regarded theaters as dens of iniquity, hotbeds of whoring, riotous behavior, even political intrigue.
As if all that weren't enough, theater owners faced the usual threats of miserably wet weather, fire and flood, theft and endless disputes over money, and a host of other dangers that could prove ruinous. Both the Globe and the Rose stood in a seedy area known as Bankside in Southwark, across the Thames from London proper. The playhouses had to compete with playhouses of a different sort: the brothels or "stews" that dotted the neighborhood, along with bear-baiting exhibitions that by today's standards were horrific in their cruelty.
It was not a business for the fainthearted. Nor was it a business for people who played with matches.