Jennifer Ouellette

Archaeologists may have found site of the Red Lion, London’s first playhouse

Around 1567, a man named John Brayne built an Elizabethan playhouse called the Red Lion just outside the city of London to accommodate the growing number of traveling theatrical troupes. Its exact location has proven elusive to archaeologists—there were many streets and pubs named the Red Lion (or Lyon) over the ensuing centuries—but a team from University College London (UCL) believes it has found the original site at an excavation in Whitechapel.

The Red Lion is the earliest-known attempt to create a playhouse in the Tudor era, a precursor to the famed Globe Theatre. We know from historical documents—notably a pair of lawsuits involving Brayne’s project—that it was a single-gallery multi-sided theater. A fixed stage was constructed, with trap doors and a 30-foot (9.1 meter) turret for aerial stunts. It was technically a receiving house for touring companies, as opposed to an actual repertory theater, and included the Red Lion Inn as part of its complex.

The Red Lion doesn’t seem to have survived very long, perhaps because it was sited in open farmland and therefore only feasible for performances in the summer. Only one play seems to have been staged there, The Story of Samson. In 1576, Brayne partnered with his brother-in-law, actor/manager James Burbage, to build The Theatre at Shoreditch. (London banned plays in 1573 because of the plague—16th-century social distancing—which is why these early theaters were built outside the city’s jurisdiction, in the so-called “suburbs of sin.”)

This was a true repertory playhouse, offering a home for acting troupes, including the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Among the members of the latter: a young actor and playwright named William Shakespeare. His earliest plays likely premiered there, including Richard III (which scholars believe was written around 1593).

Alas, a dispute with the landlord in 1596—Brayne seemed to fight a lot with his business partners and contractors—led to The Theatre being dismantled; its timbers were repurposed to build the Globe Theatre. In the interim, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men moved their performances to the Curtain Theatre, constructed in 1577, just one year after The Theatre. Romeo and Juliet and Henry IV Part I and Part II were staged at the Curtain, and Shakespeare performed there in a 1598 production of Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. The troupe moved to the Globe once it was completed in 1599.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London uncovered the foundation of the remains of what they believe is The Theater in 2008. Excavations by a team from the Museum of London Archaeology between 2012 and 2016 revealed the remains of the Curtain. The theater was a rectangular structure, rather than being round, and there was evidence of a tunnel under the stage, as well as first-floor galleries. Archaeologists also uncovered a ceramic bird whistle and several ceramic money boxes used for collecting entry fees, among other artifacts.

Early last year, the UCL archaeologists were excavating a site at Stepney Way in Whitechapel and uncovered the remains of a rectangular structure whose dimensions matched those of the Red Lion, as outlined in the known court cases. There were postholes around the timber structure, corresponding with galleried seating.

They also found evidence of what were likely beer cellars, including beakers, drinking glasses, and tankards. According to the team’s historic buildings specialist, Michael Shapland, “Tudor period inns needed somewhere cool and secure to store their drink, as beer would have gone off much more rapidly than it does today.” The playhouse may have been repurposed as a dog-baiting pit in the 17th century, the researchers surmise, since they also found at the site the remains of dogs whose teeth had been filed down.

“It is not what I was expecting when I turned up to do an excavation in Whitechapel, I have to be honest,” said lead archaeologist Stephen White, from UCL Archaeology South-East. “This is one of the most extraordinary sites I’ve worked on. The strength of the combined evidence—archaeological remains of buildings in the right location of the right period, seem to match up with characteristics of the playhouse recorded in early documents.”



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