Category:James Burbage

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James Burbage may accurately be called the father of the early modern English playhouse. He was part of the project known as the Red Lion in 1567, but most famously with the Theater in Shoreditch in 1576.

Early Life

James Burbage was born in London c. 1531 in St. Stephen's Coleman Street, and he was a joiner by trade (Ingram, "Early Career," p. 21). He married Ellen Brayne (whose family also lived in St. Stephen's) on the 23rd of April 1559, and they had several children, the most well known of whom to theater historians are Cuthbert (1565-1636) and Richard (1568-1619). James and his brother-in-law John Brayne (a member of the Grocers),were engaged in some manner in an enterprise called the Red Lion in 1567. For reasons not explicit in surviving documents, Burbage and Brayne followed the Red Lion engagement in 1576 to partner in the building of a playhouse, the Theater. Ingram conjectures that the Red Lion experience led the men to believe "that there was a substantial audience ready to support such a playing establishment; and" that the location of the Red Lion "was the wrong place for such an enterprise" ("Early Career," p. 34). Worthy of note here is that the only play mentioned in conjunction with the Red Lion is lost ("The Story of Samson").

Theatrical Career

By 1572, James Burbage was a member of a playing company, the earl of Leicester's men. No surviving documents suggest when Burbage formally became a player, but his apparent role as spokesman for the company in a petitionary letter to the company patron suggests that he had taken to the stage some years before. Leicester's men were among the most prominent in the 1570s (their existence dates back to 1559, and they played frequently in the provinces and at court). Despite three of their members' joining the Queen's men in 1583, the company persisted, touring at home as well as on the continent as late as 1588 (Chambers, ES, 2.85-91). James himself perhaps left playing in conjunction with the erection of the Theater in 1576; it is certain that his later years were marked by the desire to acquire playing spaces.
The Theater and Globe
In 1635, in answer to the petition of several players with the King's men who wanted to extend their investment in the profession by adding shares in the company's playhouses to their shares in the company itself, Cuthbert Burbage, the sole surviving son of James Burbage, testified to his father's role in the venture known as the Theater: "The father of us, Cuthbert and Richard Burbage, was the first builder of playhouses, and was himself in his younger years a player. The Theatre he built with many hundred pounds taken up at interest. ... He built this house upon leased ground by which means the landlord and he had a great suit at law, and by his death the like troubles fell on us his sons. We then bethought us of altering from thence, and at like expense built the Globe, with more sums of money taken up at interest, which lay heavy on us many years ... . Thus ... as concerning the Globe, ... we ourselves are but lessees" (Ingram, "Players and Their Playing Places," #162, "The so-called 'Sharers' Papers', 1635" (p.226).
The Curtain
The key name in addition to "Burbage" that drives the story of the Curtain playhouse in the 1580s is that of Henry Laneman. The playhouse itself was built in 1576 in close proximity to the Theater, but it becomes part of James Burbage's narrative specifically in 1585 when a deal of profit-sharing was struck. Laneman described the agreement as follows: "this Depot having the profittes of the playes Done at the housse called the Curten/ nere to the same/ the said Burbage and Braynes taking the Curten as an Esore to their their playe housse/ did of ther own mocion move this Depot that he wold agree that the proffittes of the said ij Playe howses might for vij yeres space be in Dyvydent betwene them" (Ingram, Business, p. 229). Ingram assumes that the odd term "Esore" indicates an arrangement by which Laneman acquired an "agent for the playhouse" and James Burbage was that man (p. 232). It is not clear whether Burbage himself acquired shares in the playhouse, but players including Thomas Pope and John Underwood had shares in their possession at their deaths (1604 and 1624, respectively; Ingram, p. 235).
The Second Blackfriars
In 1596, Burbage had his eye on yet another theatrical property; it was located in a complex of buildings "belonging to the former convent of the Dominican, or black, friars in London, south of Ludgate Hill" (Berry, "The Second Blackfriars," in "Playhouses, 1560-1660," English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660, p. 501). Burbage bought "the parliament chamber and allied places" on 4 February 1596 (p. 501), and he "made a playhouse out of the seven rooms into which the parliament chamber had been divided" (p. 502). However, he died before the property could be put to use (early February 1597).

Works Cited

Berry, Herbert. "Part Three: Playhouses, 1560-1660." In English Professional Theatre, 1530–1660. Ed. Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry, and William Ingram. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 287-674.
Eccles, Mark. "Elizabethan Actors I: A-D," Notes and Queries 236.1 (1991): 38-48.
Ingram, William, "The Early Career of James Burbage," The Elizabethan Theatre X (Port Credit, Ontario, 1988), 18-36.
———. The Business of Playing. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992.
———. "Part Two: Players and Playing." In English Professional Theatre, 1530–1660. Ed. Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry, and William Ingram. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 153-284.
Nungezer, Edwin. A Dictionary of Actors. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 (orig. Yale University Press, 1929).


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