The story about Sam Wanamaker's 27-year battle to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe theater in London more than 400 years after it was closed down by order of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan government.
Imagine this: it’s three o'clock on a blazing hot August afternoon, and we're in London, in a theater perched on the edge of a murky river Thames, and the place is jam-packed. Up on the stage they're near the end of a performance of Julius Caesar, and the evil Cassius is face-to-face in the dead of night with the ghost of the slain emperor:
“Who comes there? I think it is the weakness of mine eyes that shapes this monstrous apparition. It comes upon me. Art thou any thing? Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil, that mak’st my blood run cold . . .”
Spellbinding, isn’t it? But there’s something strange going on. Who are those rowdy, rough looking people milling around in front of the stage, their heads level with the actors’ feet. A while ago one of them grabbed Brutus’s sandaled foot when he was in full stride! They’re a boisterous mob. They cheered Caesar when he first came on, and they tossed tomatoes at Brutus. It’s quite a spectacle!
If you think that’s odd, look around you. Other things don’t ring true; the audience is all done up in Elizabethan dress! And why are Caesar and Brutus’s wives, Calphurnia and Portia, being played by teenage boys? Why are there no women actors? And yuk! This is disgusting, there’s an ammonia-like stench seeping out of our neighbors sitting on these hard wooden benches. It's as though nobody’s had a bath for weeks, months, even. And there, at the foot of the stage, is that man really peeing on the floor? Yes, by God, he is!
The theater itself is unusual yet attractive. The building seems circular, but if you look more carefully you’ll see it really has twenty sides. About three-quarters of the thatched-roofed circle have three stories of oak benches, all facing inwards. And in the heart of it all there's a big space open to the sky that lets in the daylight and London’s much maligned weather, not to mention one or two pigeons and sparrows.
Out into this open space juts the stage, big, more than forty feet wide. The theater’s roof, supported by stout columns, at least protect the actors from the elements. In the rest of the sunlit open area, on the three sides of the stage, and with no seating at all, are all these noisy, unruly people. There must be several hundred of them.
So what's going on? You’ve probably guessed what’s going on. The truth is that we're back in time, and the year is 1599. This is The Globe, the very cradle of world theater, on whose stage many of Shakespeare's plays – and those of many others – were seen for the first time. Little does this crowd know that, fourteen years from now, during a spirited production of Henry V, a cannon will be fired to mark the king’s entrance, and a shower of sparks will set the theater’s thatched roof ablaze and destroy the place in little more than an hour. The Globe was rebuilt, and performances continued until 1642, when Oliver Cromwell’s burgeoning Puritans, who thought theater to be immoral and blasphemous, closed down every theater in England. Two years later the site was leveled and tenement housing rose in its place. And Londoners, aware neither of Shakespeare's greatness nor of his legacy to literature, forgot about The Globe and left no monument, stone or other mark of its fame or its existence.
Or so it seemed. But 300 or so years later, in 1945, there was a sudden glimmer of hope that The Globe might be brought back to life. American actor-director Sam Wanamaker was on a working visit to London and took an hour or two off to search the south bank of the Thames for such a memorial. There, on the actual site of the long defunct theater he found a blackened, neglected bronze plaque on a brewery wall.
Over the years, Sam Wanamaker and his friends claimed that Shakespeare’s historic theater deserved more worthy recognition, and it was more than a dozen years before he came up with an inspired idea. Suppose he could raise enough money to rebuild the theater on its original site, exactly as it was in the 1500s, built by master craftsmen using the same materials? No nails or screws please, but real joinery, with good old Elizabethan doweling. And suppose there were buildings nearby housing an education and a theatrical research center, with an exhibition, together with a movie theater, an Elizabethan tavern, car parks, and apartments for the people who’d staff these places? Now, there would be a worthy commemoration of the man, his work and his theater!
But Sam soon found that the stuffy, conservative British establishment was skeptical of his ambitious plan, believing the theater would turn out to be a flashy tourist attraction. Partly to overcome this, with the help of Diana Devlin, a noted drama academic, he began to promote his vision to the British public, and in the U.S. In 1972 (all of twenty-seven years after he found that bronze plaque on the bank of the Thames) he staged Hamlet with a cast of talented actors in a rough and ready canvas and scaffolding auditorium near the original site of The Globe. I was there, and it was a boldly avant-garde production, and some thought it too much so. In the play, the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern roared into Elsinore on motorbikes in black leather gear; old Polonius, from behind the arras, used a tape recorder while spying on Hamlet's conversation with his mother in her bedroom. And in the final, murderous fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, the points were lit up on a garish digital neon scoreboard.
Though the show certainly started people talking about Sam, the production may have done his venture more harm than good. It played into the hands of his many critics, those modern day Puritans who already believed his plan was to create a Disney-like commercial showplace. And dammit, wasn’t this fellow an American? The British media were scornful and academics, to whom Shakespeare was deadly earnest stuff, questioned his gravity and integrity. Truth be told, this first attempt failed to explain his brilliant concept to the skeptical Brits.
One year after the Hamlet production, Sam tried again, presenting a less sensational production of Anthony and Cleopatra on the same site, in which Vanessa Redgrave played the lead. This, too, was a failure, but for no fault of the now desperate Sam Wanamaker. Heavy rains flooded the makeshift theater, and the play was taken off well before the end of its season. By this time The Globe Playhouse Trust, which Sam had set up to raise funds, had become insolvent. The public hadn't taken Sam seriously, and an ill wisher warned Diana Devlin, "Working for Sam, you will have to prepare large quantities of ready mixed concrete to support his castles in the air. And he won't have the money to pay for the concrete . . . "
But Sam, seen by many as a willful and difficult man, was not ready to give up, and each obstacle he confronted only seemed to strengthen his resolve.
What his opponents never understood was that this was, for him, no mere business venture. It was a passionate one-man crusade to recreate not only a thriving Elizabethan theater, but also an educational center that would enable tens of thousands of adults and children to study drama, and to learn what it’s like to produce and act a play on The Globe’s unique stage. This side of the hoped-for enterprise, Globe Education, would offer a remarkably wide range of workshops, courses, lectures, on-stage readings, and even distance learning programs.
After the failure of Anthony & Cleopatra, Sam already faced a loss of £50,000 ($80,000). In the next year he lost more, and in the next more again. The ultimate blow came when the British government, itself in financial trouble, withdrew its annual grants of £37,000 ($60,000).
Six more years passed, while Sam’s plan lay dormant, and in 1982 he made a radical change of strategy. If Britain was unprepared to fund a living memorial to its greatest literary figure, he argued, why not turn to America for the lion’s share of the money? At home several years earlier he had set up the Shakespeare Globe Center (ISGC) in Chicago, an education and research body to study practices in 16th Century Shakespearean theater, and at the old Globe. Now, with help from mostly volunteer sources, he set up a flagship headquarters for the center in New York, and created several more across the country and in Canada. As a sort of parent to the SGC he registered an umbrella organization called the International Shakespeare Globe Center (ISGC). Artfully, he gave this a set of broad, non-commercial sounding aims, including “to improve . . . understanding of Shakespeare, both in performance and education.”
He then made an inspired choice. He persuaded Armand Hammer, the internationally known, egocentric oil billionaire, to become the nominal head of ISGC in New York. After nearly two decades of failure and disappointment, Sam and his supporters experienced a fresh upsurge of hope. Hammer gave a considerable sum of money to the new organization, and his name alone lent the plan both the legitimacy it needed, winning the support of a significant number of the tycoon’s friends and corporate leaders. Soon afterward, ISGC mounted a ten-city fund-raising tour in America and Canada that not only raised enthusiastic financial support but also created awareness of the Globe concept.
But there were more dark clouds ahead. A clause in Sam's contract with the landowners and the local town council for lease of the proposed Globe site had ordained that, if no building work had begun within two years, the agreement would become null and void. So when problems pushed the building schedule beyond that time, the deal fell apart in 1984. Quickly, Armand Hammer, a shrewd businessman and money manager, withdrew his active support from the plan, though he did agree to remain ISGC’s titular head.
Smarting from Hammer’s withdrawal, and infuriated by what he saw as a breach of contract, Sam sued the landowners and the borough of Southwark in London’s High Court, and the case lingered, wasting valuable time. But when the judge handed down his decision he ordered Southwark to pay ISGC £9 m). ($14 m.)
It looked as though the Globe plan was saved again. Flushed with confidence, Sam Wanamaker planned an International Shakespeare Week in Britain, which he conceived as a £16 million fund-raising campaign. However, after fewer than 1000 people took part compared with his estimated 20,000, the event ended with a net loss of £47,000 ($75,000). Fortunately, by this time Sam had won the hearts of a good proportion of the world's leading Shakespeare scholars. His tireless efforts, from international music concert tours and educational events to corporate and private sponsorship opportunities, had raised enough capital at least to begin work in earnest. From here on, Sam decided, he would fund a single segment of the theater at a time, cross his fingers and pray that money would come in bit by bit. A major morale booster was the fact that the Royal Family was taking an interest, and that Prince Philip had agreed to be the theater's patron, and be present at ceremonies to mark various stages in the theater’s construction.
On July 16, 1988, Shakespeare's birthday, Sam and his devotees celebrated the official start of work, during which actress Judi Dench donned a yellow hard hat and drove a bulldozer. In the following year the theater's foundations were completed. Progress was slow, but over the next five years the new Globe became an intriguing and much talked-about feature on the Thames bank. At last, everything was looking good.
And then, five years later in 1993, the unimaginable happened. Sam Wanamaker died of cancer at the age of 74, three and a half years before the curtain would rise for The Globe's first full season. But by then he was vindicated, and assured that the highs and elation of his 25 year crusade had been worth the abject lows of rejection and disappointment. Only seven months later, his chief architect and close friend, Theo Crosby, died. He, too, did not live to see the theater’s first performance. Nor did Sam’s wife, Charlotte, who also died only months before the opening ceremony.
But Sam and Charlotte were high in the audience’s minds at The Globe’s final opening ceremony in June,1997. Zoë Wanamaker, their daughter, watched by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, stepped onto the stage and spoke the lines from the Prologue to Henry V:
O! For a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention:
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene . . .
It wasn’t only the building materials – English oak, thatch from the county of Norfolk and plaster mixed with goat hair – that are identical to those in the original theater. The new Globe presents its plays in much the way it did in the late 1500s. There are no stage sets, no special décor, no microphones and no spotlights. Since performances are mostly held in daylight, the actors, never more than sixty-six feet from anyone in the auditorium, can see the faces of everyone in the audience, and interact with them. Remember that wild mob that was free to roam in the seat-less area around the stage? These were “the groundlings,” poorer citizens, sailors home from the sea and mostly illiterates, who came to the theater as a change from nearby entertainments such as bearbaiting and cockfights. There are still groundlings today, who pay only £5 ($8.00) for a ticket. Though better heeled, more educated and far better behaved, they can still get pretty rowdy and boisterous during performances.
Sam Wanamaker didn’t just rebuild a theater, though that would have been enough to hand down to posterity. Thanks to The Globe’s worldwide educational program, children and adults on every continent are learning to act, to understand and interpret Shakespeare’s nearly 40 plays, and to pass on their knowledge and passion to their own and future generations.
Now, there’s a true legacy.