James Burbage, a sharer with the company of Leicester's players in the 1570s, oversaw the building of the Theater in Shoreditch in 1576. He leased the property from Giles Allen on 13 April for a term of twenty-one years (to 25 March 1597). For money, he turned to his brother-in-law, John Brayne, a successful grocer who had recently been the principal backer of the short-lived Red Lion playhouse at Mile End, 1567-9. The Theater was supposed to cost £200, but expenses rose to £700. The profits were supposed to pay off Brayne first, then be shared between the men, but the partners fell into dispute about the verbal agreements between them and the material profits from business at the playhouse. (Berry discusses the profits at the playhouse in "Aspects of the Design," 12-14.) Brayne was bankrupt when he died in 1586, and his widow filed a suit in common law against Burbage. This action set off a sequence of suits that outlived the widow and her cohort, Robert Miles, and nearly outlived the playhouse itself. For all intents and purposes, the Burbage family had prevailed in the suits by 1595.
Following the network of suits and countersuits between the Brayne faction on the one hand (the widow and Brayne's partner in an inn in Whitechapel, Robert Miles) and the Burbages on the other (initially James, but ultimately also Cuthbert) is challenging. Those seeking a narrative for the first decade of these wranglings, with documentary support, should see Ingram (182-218). Those seeking primarily a description of the documents, their archival location (change PRO to TNA), and the scholarly trail of discovery should see Berry, "A Handlist." Berry divides the documents into four categories and provides a headnote to each group. For transcripts of the documents, see Wallace. In all this legal evidence, the pieces of most interest to early modern drama enthusiasts has been the testimony of John Alleyn, elder brother of Edward Alleyn and colleague ofJames Tunstall, who described a heated exchange with James Burbage; this exchange occurred just after a quarrel between Burbage and the widow and Miles in which teenaged son Richard chased his father's legal adversaries out of the yard of the Theater with a broomstick (Wallace 100-2).
Scholars have reasoned that Leicester's players were the initial residents of the Theater, due to their association with James Burbage, but no documents literally put them there. Scholars have also believed that the Queen's players must have leased the Theater at some time in their heyday (1583-88), but this claim also is without documentation. The testimony of John Alleyn in one of the widow Brayne's many suits locates his company at the Theater in November 1590; further evidence is Alleyn's mention that James Tunstall, a fellow player, witnessed one altercation with Burbage about Alleyn's company's payment (Wallace 127). The problem, then, is identifying Alleyn's company. The odds are that it was the Admiral's men, but there is a slippery distinction between the Admiral's company and that of Lord Strange c. 1590. Andrew Gurr has given Pembroke's players the stage at the Theater in 1592-3 on the strength of his belief that James Burbage helped to organize that company for his son, Richard, who was an emerging star in the profession (269). The strongest circumstantial evidence for company activity at the Theater comes late in its history, perhaps as late as 1595. That evidence concerns the negotiations between the Burbages and Giles Allen for a renewal of the lease and scholars' confidence that the Burbage connection with the Chamberlain's players was so strong that the company must have been performing in the Theater.
Closure and Deconstruction
James Burbage died in February 1597, and his son Cuthbert pursued negotiations with Allen for a new (or extended) lease. But the parties could not agree. As 1598 came to a close, Cuthbert hired Peter Street and his crew of carpenters and workmen to dismantle the Theater and transport the timbers and wood to a location south of the Thames on Maid Lane to be recycled in a new playhouse to be called the Globe. This deconstruction took place late in December, with the Burbage family looking on (Berry, "Aspects of the Design," 5-6).
Berry, Herbert, "The Theatre", in Wickham 330-87.
——, "Aspects of the Design and Use of the Theatre in Shoreditch," in Shakespeare's Playhouses. New York: AMS Press, 1987. 1-17.
——, "A Handlist of Documents about the Theatre in Shoreditch," in Shakespeare's Playhouses. New York: AMS Press, 1987. 19-44.
Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearian Playing Companies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Ingram, William. The Business of Playing. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Wallace, Charles W. The First London Theatre: Materials for a History. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1913.
NB. This page is a work in progress; rather than attempting to represent a complete list of plays staged at the Theater, this page will continually be updated as new entries are created for Theater plays.