Blackfriars Theatre was the name of two separate theatres in the Blackfriars district of the City of London during the Renaissance.
Both theatres began as venues for child actors associated with the Queen's chapel choirs; in this function, the theatres hosted some of the most innovative drama of Elizabeth and James's reigns, from the euphuism of John Lyly to the stinging satire of Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston.
The second theatre eventually passed into the control of the King's Men, who used it as their winter playhouse until the theatres were closed in 1642.
The second Blackfriars was an indoor theatre built elsewhere on the property at the instigation of James Burbage, father of Richard Burbage, and impresario of the Lord Chamberlain's Men.
In 1596, Burbage purchased, for £600, the frater of the former priory and rooms below.
This large space, perhaps 100 feet long and 50 wide (30 by 15 metres), with high ceilings allowed Burbage to construct two galleries, substantially increasing potential attendance. As Burbage built, however, a petition from the residents of the wealthy neighbourhood persuaded the Privy Council to forbid playing there; the letter was signed even by Lord Hunsdon, patron of Burbage's company. The company was absolutely forbidden to perform there.
Three years later, Richard Burbage was able to lease the property to Henry Evans, the lawyer who had been among those ejected more fifteen years earlier. Evans entered a partnership with Nathaniel Giles, Hunnis's successor at the Chapel Royal. They used the theatre for a commercial enterprise with a group called the Children of the Chapel, which combined the choristers of the chapel with other boys, many taken up from local grammar schools under colour of Giles's warrant to provide entertainment for the Queen.
While it housed this company, Blackfriars was the site of an explosion of innovative drama and staging. Together with its competitor, Paul's Children, the Blackfriars company produced plays by a number of the most talented young dramatists of Jacobean literature, among them Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston.
Chapman and Jonson wrote almost exclusively for Blackfriars in this period, while Marston began with Paul's but switched to Blackfriars, in which he appears to have been a sharer, by around 1605.
In the latter half of the decade, the company at Blackfriars premiered plays by Francis Beaumont (The Knight of the Burning Pestle) and John Fletcher (The Faithful Shepherdess) that, although failures in their first production, marked the first significant appearance of these two dramatists, whose work would profoundly affect early Stuart drama.
Prefaces and internal references speak of gallants and Inns of Court men, who came not only to see a play but also, of course, to be seen; the private theatres sold seats on the stage itself.
In 1608, Burbage's company (by this time, the King's Men) took possession of the theatre, which they still owned, this time without objections from the neighbourhood.
There were originally seven sharers in the reorganised theatre: Richard Burbage, William Shakespeare, Henry Condell, John Heminges, and William Sly, all members of the King's Men, plus Cuthbert Burbage and Thomas Evans, agent for the theatre manager Henry Evans. Sly, however, died soon after the arrangement was made, and his share was divided among the other six.
After renovations, the King's Men began using the theatre for performances in 1609. Thereafter the King's Men played in Blackfriars for the seven months in winter, and at the Globe during the summer.
In the reign of Charles I, even Queen Henrietta Maria was in the Blackfriars audience.
The theatre closed at the onset of the English Civil War, and was demolished in 1655.
* Adams, Joseph Quincy. Shakespearean Playhouses. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917.
* Bentley, G. E. The Jacobean and Caroline Stage. Seven Volumes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.
* Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. Four Volumes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923.
* Cook, Ann Jennalie. The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London, 1576–1642. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1981.
* Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574–1642. 2nd ed.; Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
* The Blackfriars Playhouse, the world's only replica of Shakespeare's original.
The Blackfriars Theatres were built on the grounds of the former Dominican monastery; the black robes worn by members of this order lent the neighbourhood, and theatres, their name.
In the pre-Reformation Tudor years, the site was used not only for religious but also for political functions--perhaps most notably, the divorce trial of Catherine and Henry VIII which would, more than a century later, be reenacted in the same room by Shakespeare's company.
After Henry's expropriation of monastic property, the monastery became the property of the crown; control of the property was granted to Thomas Cawarden, Master of the Revels. Cawarden used part of the monastery as Revels offices; other parts he sold or leased to the neighbourhood's wealthy residents, including Lord Cobham and John Cheke.
After Cawarden's death, the property passed to Sir William More. In 1576, Richard Farrant, then Master of Windsor Chapel leased part of the former buttery from More in order to stage plays.
... limited attendance at the theatre to a fairly select group of well-to-do gentry and nobles.
For his playing company, Farrant combined his Windsor children with the Children of the Chapel Royal, then directed by William Hunnis. The landlord More appears to have remained patient with this use of his property until shortly before Farrant's death in 1580, when More attempted to prove that his tenant had broken the lease. This attempt came to nothing; supported by a letter from Robert Dudley, the widow Ann Farrant was allowed to lease the theater to Hunnis.
Hunnis continued to produce plays at the site until 1583, when he sold his lease to Henry Evans. There followed a confused period of legal actions involving Hunnis, Ann Farrant, Evans, and More.
The result, apparently orchestrated by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, placed the theater under the control of Hunnis and de Vere's secretary, playwright John Lyly. Lyly's plays and others were, for a year or two, performed at the theatre before production at court. In 1585, however, More obtained a legal judgement voiding the original lease. The theatre was shut down after this judgement for more than a decade.
Coordinates: 51°30′46″N, 0°06′09″W
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