Red Bull Theatre

The Red Bull is labelled in the top centre of this London street map. Enlarge

The Red Bull was a playhouse in London during the 17th century. For more than four decades, it entertained audiences drawn primarily from the northern suburbs, developing a reputation for rowdy, often disruptive audiences. After Parliament closed the theatres in 1642, it continued to host illegal performances intermittently, and when the theatres reopened after the Restoration, it became a legitimate venue again. It burned in the Great Fire of London, among the last of the Renaissance theatres to fall.


Less is known of the Red Bull's provenance than of other contemporary venues such as the Globe Theatre and Fortune Theatre. It was constructed in 1604 on St John Street in Clerkenwell; court documents reveal that it was built by renovating an inn with a central square. This origin accounts for its square floor plan, a design shared only by the original Fortune among period playhouses. It may have been named for cattle that were driven down St John Street toward the markets at Smithfield.

Apart from these few facts, little is known of the theatre's particulars. Scholars assume that it was roughly the same size as the Globe and Fortune, its competitors; at least in its early decades, its companies offered credible competition to the King's Men and Prince Henry's Men. W. C. Lawrence argued that the theatre was roofed over in the early 1620s, but his arguments were largely refuted by Leslie Hotson and G. E. Bentley. The Red Bull was most likely similar to the other outdoor theatres against which it competed, with an uncurtained thrust-forward stage backed by a tiring house and balcony, surrounded by standing room, and overlooked by galleries on three walls. Its occupancy was perhaps slightly less than the nearly 3,000 of the Globe.


Jacobean and Caroline

There is no documentary proof that the Red Bull was occupied before 1607, when Queen Anne's Men are known to have performed there; however, court records show that the theatre was built in 1604, and references in the royal patent for the venue mention Thomas Greene, comedian of the Queen's company, suggest it was built for that troupe. In addition to Greene, Martin Slater, Aaron Holland (a servant of the Earl of Devonshire as well as a Queen's Man), and Thomas Swinnerton were involved in the planning. Perhaps because they had learned from Philip Henslowe's recent problems with neighbourhood opposition in building the Fortune, they did not approach the court for approval until they had already placated their parish neighbours—as Henslowe had—by contributing liberally to poor relief.

Queen Anne's Men stayed at the theatre until 1617. They employed prominent playwrights: most of Thomas Heywood's tremendous output was staged there, as were John Webster's The White Devil and The Devil's Law-case, Thomas Dekker's If This Be Not A Good Play, the Devil Is in It, and John Cooke's well-known Greene's Tu Quoque. It also came into possession of some older plays, including Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, and as the period progressed, the Red Bull companies, along with those at the Fortune were associated with old-fashioned plays performed for noisy, ignorant audiences. The audience appears to have booed The White Devil in 1611, and in later years it was the cause of, or scene of, numerous brawls violent enough to result in court cases.

In 1617, the Queen's Men, now directed by impresario Christopher Beeston moved to Beeston's new Cockpit Theatre; the move prompted a mob of apprentices (presumably angry that their favourite plays were now to be staged at the more expensive indoor theatre) to burn the Cockpit on Shrove Tuesday 1617. The Queen's Men returned to the Red Bull, however, only until the Cockpit was repaired. They were succeeded at the Red Bull by Prince Charles' Men, partly financed by Edward Alleyn. The disintegration of Queen Anne's men after Anne's death in 1618 produced a little-understood reshuffling of these companies. In the decline of the Jacobean period, this company produced plays including Dekker and Massinger's The Virgin Martyr, Thomas May's The Heir, and Gervase Markham and William Sampson's Herod and Antipater.

After James's death, Charles assumed patronage of the King's Men, and the former Prince Charles' Men disbanded. From this date, an even less reputable company took up residence at the Red Bull. Scholars generally call this troupe the Red Bull company, as the actors called themselves when in London; when touring, as they did frequently, they styled themselves the King's Players. In 1627, Henry Herbert, acting on a request from John Heminges, ordered this company to cease performing Shakespeare's plays. In November 1629, the theatre hosted visiting French actors who had earlier played at the Fortune and Blackfriars Theatre; a contemporary reference may indicate that this troupe, which included women, was poorly received in Clerkenwell.

By 1634, the Red Bull housed a new company patronized by the child Prince Charles II. By this point, the Red Bull's reputation was irrevocably tarnished; its name appears rarely on quarto title pages, suggesting either that its offerings were not worth publishing, or that publishers doubted the name would aid sales. But the new company boasted a popular comedian, Andrew Cane, and it was able to survive the Privy Council's anger over the slanderous play The Whore New Vamped, which mocked an alderman by name and complained of recently levied taxes.

After 1642

Along with all the other theatres in London, the Red Bull was closed for plays in 1642 by the Puritans. In the short term, the prohibition was of limited effect; as late as 1648, the Red Bull hosted a performance of Fletcher's Wit Without Money; advertisements for the performance were thrown into gentlemen's carriages. There followed a crackdown on performances by Parliament, which grew wiser to the real implications of advertisements for "rope dancing" and other entertainments at the old theatres. On 20 December 1649, the Red Bull was successfully raided, a number of actors arrested and imprisoned, and their clothes and properties confiscated.

The Red Bull is the only theatre incontestably associated with the droll, those brief farces taken from the most popular older plays. In 1653, Robert Cox was arrested at the Red Bull for a performance which crossed the line and was deemed a play. Sir William Davenant and Sir George Fletcher reportedly watched a play at the Red Bull in February or March 1655.[1] In September 1655, the Red Bull was raided again as part of the same sterner attitude that led Cromwell's soldiers to deface the Fortune and Blackfriars, and actors were arrested for performing there in 1659.

A collection of drolls was published by Francis Kirkman, some attributed to "the incomparable Robert Cox", as The Wits (1662, and enlarged 1672–73). Kirkman said many had been performed at the Red Bull; however, the frontispiece to his volume does not, as used to be supposed, represent a performance at the Red Bull.

The theatre was re-opened in 1660 upon the Restoration of the monarchy, as home for Michael Mohun's company and George Jolly's troupe. Its new management returned to the business of staging crowd-pleasing drama; Samuel Pepys recorded seeing a revival of William Rowley's All's Lost by Lust there. The Red Bull was eventually destroyed in 1666 in the Great Fire of London. After the fire, buildings were constructed on its foundations, and the outline of its structure, including the passageway from the auditorium to the street, can still be found in the street now known as Hayward's Place off Woodbridge Street.[2]


Founded in 2003, Red Bull Theater of New York City takes its name and inspiration from the original Red Bull. Productions have included Pericles, The Revenger's Tragedy, The Changeling, The School for Scandal, The Maids, Loot, The Mystery of Irma Vep, Edward the Second, Women Beware Women, Volpone, The Duchess of Malfi, and The Witch of Edmonton.[3]


  1. Deborah C. Payne, "Patronage and the Dramatic Marketplace under Charles I and II," in Brown; p. 167.
  2. Griffith, Eva (2001). "New Material for a Jacobean Theatre: The Red Bull Theatre on the Seckford Estate". Theatre Notebook. 55: 5–23.
  3. Red Bull Theater website


External links

Coordinates: 51°31′27″N 0°6′16″W / 51.52417°N 0.10444°W / 51.52417; -0.10444

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