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Monday, October 24, 2011

Shakespeare's Blackfriars Playhouse--in Virginia

My family and I just spent a marvelous weekend in Staunton, Virginia (pronounced by the locals as “Stan-ton”). One of the things that took us there--other than views of the brilliant autumn leaves in the glorious Virginia countryside-is the town’s replica of the Blackfriars Theater in London, the indoor companion theater to the Globe that was used by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later to be known as the King’s Men.

Unsurprisingly given the name of “Blackfriars,” there is an interesting connection of the theater to English Catholic history--though the connection is to a rather sad episode: the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries by Henry VIII. Here is what Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt has to say about the Blackfriars Theater in his captivating book on Shakespeare, Will in the World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004):
"During the rein of Elizabeth, in 1596, the entrepreneur James Burbage (the father of the famous actor) paid six hundred pounds for property that had, until the dissolution of the monasteries, been part of a large friary, belonging to the order known as the Friars Preachers or Black Friars [i.e., the Dominicans]. The location was a desirable one: though it was within the city walls, it was a “liberty” and hence outside the jurisdiction of the city fathers. A theater had already been established twenty years earlier in one of the Blackfriars halls, where a succession of children’s companies had performed. But this enterprise had collapsed after eight financially troubled years, and the indoor theater had gone silent. The enterprising Burbage smelled a profit, if he could reopen it for performances by what was then the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He had built the Theater, one of England’s first outdoor playhouses; now, by reconstructing the hall where the children’s companies had played, he would open England’s first indoor playhouse for adult actors. The location was prestigious--not in the suburbs, hard by the bearbaiting arenas and execution grounds, but right in the heart of the city. The Blackfriars hall was much smaller than the Globe, but it had the great advantage, given the vagaries of the English weather, of being roofed and enclosed. It was, at least by comparison with the open amphitheaters, a place of decorum and even luxury. Disorderly crowds would not stand restlessly around the stage; instead, everyone would be seated. Hence admission prices could be greatly increased--from the mere pennies at the Globe to as high as two shillings in Blackfriars--and, it was possible to illuminate the hall by candlelight, there could be evening as well as afternoon performances" (pp. 366-67). 

We saw two performances at the Blackfriars Playhouse put on by the repertory company of the American Shakespeare Center: on Friday night, Henry V, and on Sunday afternoon, The Tempest. Both performances were hugely enjoyable, living up to the company’s motto of “serious fun.” Both performances aimed at being as accessible as possible, and they mostly hit the mark extremely well, though at times giving in a bit too much to buffoonery and sexual gags (not in Shakespeare’s text).
But it was a charming discovery to find this replica of the Blackfriars Theater in a small town in central Virginia. It is a testimony to what the arts--privately funded as far as I can tell-can be in our polity.    

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