Playhouse Yard, EC4
Leave Blackfriars tube station and head northwards towards the Old Bailey and shortly on the right hand side of Black Friars Lane you will find an unprepossessing alleyway called Playhouse Yard. There is nothing there to indicate that there is or was anything of note here. But you would be wrong to walk on by. Instead, if you enter the yard you will find that it leads to an obscured churchyard and a warren of alleys which are probably unchanged from the 17th century.
The area between the river and Ludgate Hill had been occupied since 1275 by a monastery of the Dominican order, who were known colloquially as the Black Friars because of their black habits. As well as hosting the activities you would expect to find in a monastery, it was a frequent venue for parliament and the Privy Council and the hearing of Henry VIII’s divorce petition against Catherine of Aragon took place there in 1529. When Henry VIII called time on the monasteries the Dominican gaff closed down in 1538 and bits of the land and the buildings on it were divided up and sold or leased.
Although public playhouses were banned the former refectory was used as a private theatre by Richard Farrant, the Master of the boy choristers known as the Children of the Chapel Royal, on the basis that the singers needed somewhere to practise. The theatre closed in 1584 and in February 1596 the building was bought for £600 by James Burbage, a travelling player, who set about constructing two galleries in the main building which measured 100 feet long by 50 wide to provide a capacity of between five and six hundred.
The local residents kicked up a fuss, claiming that a theatre would lower the tone of the area and in order to placate them Burbage’s son, Richard, converted the building into a private theatre. In 1600 he leased the building to Henry Evans for 21 years for a rent of £40 per annum but in 1608 took back control of the building and opened it up for public entertainment. Burbage entered into partnership with a group of players known as theLord Chamberlain’s Men and then later the King’s Men which featured amongst others a certain William Shakespeare.
The actors performed in what was now known as the Blackfriars Theatre in the winter season before transferring in the summer to the open air theatre at the Globe, south of the river. It is almost certain that many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed here. The revenues earned from a performance at the Blackfriars was twice that could be generated at the Globe and shareholders could earn as much as £13 a performance, aside from what was paid to the actors. The cost of admission was between one and three pennies.
As the area around Playhouse Yard was a fashionable area at the time it is no surprise to learn that the popular playwright bought a house nearby, in Ireland Yard. The house, which the bard willed to his daughter Susannah, overlooked St Ann’s churchyard and the Provincial’s hall, another building from the old monastery. All that remains is a bit of wall from the monastery in Ireland yard.
The local residents tried to close the theatre again in 1619 but were thwarted by the Privy Council’s intervention. The theatre received royal patronage with King Charles I’s wife, Queen Henrietta, attending performances in the 1630s. The theatre’s days, however, were numbered when Cromwell’s puritans took over control of the country, the curtain finally coming down in 1642. The building soon fell into disrepair and on 6th August 1655 was demolished. Alas, nothing remains of this famous landmark and tenements were built on the spot.