Red Lion (theatre)

Not to be confused with the Old Red Lion Theatre, a modern London performance space.
The Red Lion Theatre
Address Whitechapel High Street
London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Coordinates 51°31′10″N 0°03′40″W / 51.519444°N 0.061111°W / 51.519444; -0.061111
Owner John Brayne
Type Elizabethan playhouse
Capacity standing yard with galleries
Years active 1567–1568
Architect William Sylvester and John Reynolds (carpenters)

The Red Lion was an Elizabethan playhouse located in Whitechapel (part of the modern Borough of Tower Hamlets), just outside the City of London. Built in 1567, by John Brayne, formerly a grocer, this theatre was a short-lived attempt to provide a purpose-built playhouse, the first known in London,[1] for the many Tudor touring theatrical companies.

The Red Lion had been a farm, but a single gallery multi-sided theatre (constructed by John Williams), with a fixed stage 40 feet (12.2 m) by 30 feet (9.1 m), standing 5 feet (1.5 m) above the audience, was built by John Reynolds, in the garden of the farmhouse. The stage was equipped with trapdoors, and an attached 30 feet (9.1 m) turret, or fly tower – for aerial stunts and to advertise its presence.[2][3] The construction cost £20, and while it appears to have been a commercial success, the Red Lion offered little that the prior tradition of playing in inns had not offered, and it was too far from its audiences to be attractive (at the time, the area was open farmland) for visiting in the winter. But even this material has only been in the public domain since 1983, when historian Janet S. Loengard discovered neglected legal documents revealing this information (it was an enclosed, walled construction – from the records of the Court of King’s Bench). From such legal documentation, we know that the playhouse was up and running before July 1567, but anything else is still an unfortunate mystery.

The only play known to have been presented here was The Story of Samson, after some corrections had been made to the structure[3] and there is little documentary evidence that the theatre survived beyond the summer season of 1567, although the lawsuit, from the little we know of it, dragged on until 1578.

On 15 July 1567, John Brayne made the following complaint about the standard of the work of the carpenter who built the Red Lion theatre:

‘Court holden the 15th day of July 1567 ... by master William Ruddock, Master Richard More, Henry Whreste, and Richard Smarte, wardens, and Master Bradshaw. Be it remembered that ... where certain variance, discord, and debate was between William Sylvester, carpenter, on the one party and John Brayne, grocer, on the other party, it is agreed, concluded, and fully determined by the said parties, by the assent and consent of them both with the advice of the master and wardens above said, that William Buttermore, John Lyffe, William Snelling, and Richard Kyrby, carpenters, shall with expedition go and peruse such defaults as are and by them shall be found of, in, and about such scaffolds as he the said William hath made at the house called the Red Lion in the parish of Stepney, and the said William Sylvester shall repair and amend the same with their advice substantially as they shall think good. And that the said John Brayne on Saturday next ensuing the date above written shall pay to the said William Sylvester the sum of £8 10s lawful money of England, and that after the play which is called The Story of Samson be once played at the place aforesaid the said John shall deliver to the said William such bonds as are now in his custody for the performance of the bargain. In witness whereof both parties hereunto hath set their hands.’

The exact location of the theatre remains unknown, with commentators identifying the eastern edge of Whitechapel, where it meets the western edge of Stepney as the most likely location.[4] This is the junction of Whitechapel High Street with Cambridge Heath Road, where there are proposed works for London's Crossrail project. A survey has been prepared that argues for a position on the southern side of Whitechapel High Street, closer to the site of the 18th-century London Hospital and opposite the contemporary Boar's Head Inn, with The George, a further playhouse 300 metres (328 yd) to the east.[3] The first reference to playing in one of the speculated locations for the Red Lion is when actors were paid to perform at Mile End on the 6th August 1501. The lasting debate on the location of The Red Lion is that the theatre was not the only location that held that name. Public houses named the Red Lyon and streets named Red Lion made investigations into certain locations complicated and confusing. Researchers are looking into maps and histories of the locations to try and eliminate certain locations and hopefully narrow it down.

In 1670 Philadelphia Wentworth, lady of the manor of Stepney, made a 99-year lease of a property called the Red Lion on the north side of the road, a part of Mile End Green, with four houses built on the street frontage. By 1764 two of these four houses had become a public house called the Red Lyon. By 1791 the property was described as the Red Lion public house and two other messuages in Whitechapel Road. Although the location of the plot was described as “lying on the north side of the King’s highway leading from Whitechapel to Stratford at Bow, and westward from the King’s highway leading to Bethnal Green”, this is a description which was applied to all the plots of waste on this part of Mile End Green, probably stretching at least as far west as the line of Vallance Road. This Red Lion is, therefore, another red herring.

The little that is known of the Red Lion comes principally from lawsuits between Brayne and his carpenters, and also with Edward Stowers, a blacksmith of Averstone, Essex (the modern Alphamstone). Brayne was married to Stowers' sister Margaret. The suit concerned 6 acres (24,000 m2) of land straddling the Essex-Suffolk border, and alleged that Brayne raised a mortgage on the land, by trickery, to build the Red Lion. Separate actions were brought against the carpenters. In July 1567, William Sylvester, the constructor of the galleries for the spectators, was brought before the Court of the Carpenters' Company and resulted in arbitration.[5] The second was against John Reynolds in the Court of King's Bench in January 1569, and the outcome is not known.[6] The location stated in the Carpenters’ Court case is simply at the house called the Red Lion in the parish of Stepney; whilst in the King’s Bench case it is stated as the messuage or farm house called the sign of Red Lion at Mile End in the parish of St Mary Matfelon or Whitechapel, and which had formerly been known as Starke House. It was not, therefore, an inn. The playhouse is stated to have been constructed within the court or yard lying on the south side of the garden belonging to the house. More research on the area would be possible, although it cannot be certain that this would produce a definite site for the Red Lion Theatre. While a complete run of Stepney manorial records exists from the middle of the 17th century onwards, they survive only sporadically from the early 14th century to 1654, the series now scattered between the National Archives, the British Library, London Metropolitan Archives and the Guildhall Library.

The venture was soon replaced by a more successful collaboration between Brayne and another brother-in-law, the actor-manager James Burbage at Shoreditch, known as The Theatre. The Red Lion was a receiving house for touring companies, whereas The Theatre accepted long-term engagements, essentially in repertory, with companies being based there. The former was a continuation of the tradition of touring groups, performing at inns and grand houses, the latter a radically new form of theatrical engagement.

References & Reading

  1. Bowsher, Julian; Miller, Pat (2010). The Rose and the Globe—Playhouses of Shakespeare's Bankside, Southwark. Museum of London. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-901992-85-4.
  2. Egan, Gabriel. 2005e. "Platonism and Bathos in Shakespeare and Other Early Modern Drama." Refiguring Mimesis: Representation in Early Modern Literature. Edited by Jonathan Holmes and Adrian Streete. Hatfield. University of Hertfordshire Press. pp. 59–78
  3. 1 2 3 Red Lion Theatre, Whitechapel Christopher Phillpotts (CrossRail Documentary Report, prepared by MoLAS accessed 21 March 2011
  4. Chambers, E K,, The Elizabethan Stage (1923)
  5. GL MS 4329/1, printed at Marsh (1915), pp95-6, and Chambers (1923), ii 379-80
  6. KB27/1229 m30, printed and translated at Loengard 1983, 306–310
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