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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Fall 92 > Article

To Span the Globe
by Muriel Pritchett

All the world's a stage to Franklin Hildy, but right now he's most concerned with just one: the Globe.

For more than 10 years, the University of Georgia drama professor has traveled the world to study the history of theater architecture.

Now he's one of only three American scholars chosen to help reconstruct an exact duplicate of Shakespeare's Globe theater in London.

"It will be like stepping back into history," said Hildy of the new Globe, scheduled to be completed in time to celebrate William Shakespeare's 430th birthday April 23, 1994. "Everyone from theater-goers to Shakespearean scholars and actors will be able to experience the atmosphere and emotions of a 16th century playhouse."

And that's why Hildy -- an authority on theater architecture -- and his colleagues want to create an exact duplicate of the original.

But building such a reproduction is a tall order, especially since the original building burned to the ground nearly 400 years ago and no blueprints or other records of its design exist.

Hildy is among the scholars, architects, builders and craftsmen who have put their heads together to come up with what they hope will be an accurate reconstruction.

As they sift through sketchy historic descriptions, old maps and drawings, and examine the relevant archeological remains, they have not been unanimous in their conclusions.

"For years I have held the minority opinion that the Globe was smaller than my colleagues believed and that the stage was less deep than they had always argued" Hildy said. "Recent discoveries are bringing many of them around to my point of view."

Hildy has traveled far and wide to study historic theaters and has seen nearly a hundred of the oldest in the world. To compose a book that will document all existing Greek, Roman, Renaissance and Baroque theaters in Europe, he is "systematically identifying and visiting every existing theater in Europe that was built prior to 1800."

His research may prove pivotal to the Globe. The structure will be built on the south bank of the Thames River opposite St. Paul's Cathedral -- just a few hundred yards from the site of the original theater. When completed, the full-scale reproduction will be part of the International Shakespeare Globe Centre, which will include an Elizabethan indoor theater, a teaching facility and a museum.

Since work began in 1988, a building on the site has been razed and a 2'x 40' trench has been dug to hold back the river. Now that the site has been excavated, the floor poured and support posts built for the piazza, work has come to a halt. Before construction can proceed, the Academic Advisory Committee, which is charged with ensuring accuracy, must iron out its differences.

The Great Debate

That committee, composed of internationally known authorities on Shakespearean theaters and staging methods, must evaluate all research and information and settle scholarly debates. Chief among those debates is the dispute between Hildy and John Orrell, an English professor at the University of Alberta.

Hildy and Orrell both studied the partial remains of the old Globe, excavated in 1989, to calculate its original size and arrived at different conclusions. Considering that only 8 percent of the theater's foundations have been uncovered -- the rest lies under a major road and a historical building the government wants to save -- scholarly deductions are sketchy at best.

"My opinion could be wrong, but that is what this whole process is for," Hildy said.

Orrell concluded that, based on the angles apparent in the two segments of the excavated wall, the theater had 20 sides and was 100 feet across. But Hildy argues that Orrell's figures are off by two degrees on one angle, nearly a foot on one dimension and slightly more than a foot on another.

"These are small differences," Hildy said, "but if confirmed by other scholars that would mean Orrell's approach actually would produce a Globe theater that is 18-sided with a diameter 10 feet smaller than calculated. One degree or a few inches can greatly change the size of a polygon. A few inches when multiplied around the whole circumference of a polygon can make the difference between a theater 90 feet across and one that is a hundred."

Hildy is backed by Simon Blatherwick, one of the archeologists who excavated the old Globe foundations. Andrew Gurr, a professor of English at the University of Reading in England and chairman of the advisory committee, sides with Orrell.

Hildy's broad research on other European theaters may help bolster his argument for the Globe's dimensions.

Hildy's Research

Hildy considers a theater in Amalgro, in central Spain, important because it is the only remaining Spanish Renaissance theater and the only one that dates from Shakespeare's day. New discoveries there have already changed the most widely used textbook in theater history.

"I believe the Almagro theater was originally larger than what it is today and much closer to the Elizabethan theaters than anyone has previously believed," Hildy said. To confirm his theory he asked the Spanish government to excavate the site. But the next door neighbors don't want their courtyard dug up for historical evidence.

Such frustrations and disappointments seem to go hand in hand with Hildy's research. During another trip to Spain, a public employees' strike prevented access to a theater he had traveled by train two days to see. On a trip to Vienna, the person who had agreed to admit him to an important theater was called out of town on a family emergency. And in Italy, where the scholars traditionally aren't concerned about dates, Hildy says "they'll tell you they have a theater that dates back to 1605, then you find the original structure burned down and was replaced in 1890.

Hildy thought he had hit pay dirt when he traveled to the former Yugoslavia to see a theater built by the Venetians on the Island of Hvar in 1612. After arguing with communist government officials for three days about visas, Hildy found the original theater had been completely remodeled in 1803 by one of Napoleon's generals.

Yet for Hildy, even the discovery that a theater doesn't belong in his study is worth the trip. "It gives me a chance to set the record straight and eliminate a little more of the erroneous information that has been published," he said. Since reliable information about historic European theaters is scarce, Hildy plans to publish his research. But that will require more research in the Eastern Bloc nations, and that will have to wait until they become more politically stable. "Until then, it'll be difficult to find anyone to respond to inquiries about possible historic theaters within their borders," he said.

In the meantime Hildy is absorbed with his Globe research. The committee is meeting in London this fall to make their final decisions -- "decisions that will take shape in oak and plaster."

Test Bays Take Shape

Other Globes have been built around the world through the years. "But they only resemble the Globe on the outside; they do not offer a true educational experience," said American actor and film director Sam Wanamaker. Wanamaker has dreamed of building an exact replica since he first set foot in London in 1949. Under the direction of the Shakespeare Globe Trust, the $36 million International Shakespeare Globe Centre will offer a faithful reproduction with no electricity, lighting, sound amplification, recorded music, scenery, sound effects or air conditioning, he said.

Wanamaker compares building the new Globe from available information to a museum curator who takes a pottery shard and recreates the whole object.

But before they construct the entire building, they've begun with two bays, part of the timber frame or skeleton of the new Globe. Designed by project architect Jon Greenfield and senior architect Theo Crosby of Pentagram Design, the bays matched Orrell's interpretation of the old Globe's foundations.

The two bays were made by hand from 18 tons of carefully selected English oak trees sawed into beams. Each beam was individually shaped and fitted into place by master carpenter Peter McCurdy, an authority on the renovation of 17th century timber-framed buildings, at his shop near Reading. Then they were hauled to London and assembled on site. When construction resumes, McCurdy will select an additional 200 oaks, which are valuable a commodity in England.

McCurdy has studied the old Globe's foundation, the frameworks of 16th-century buildings still standing and documents on other Elizabethan theaters. "I read the original contracts for the builders and carpenters," which often stipulated size and dimensions, he said.

Although building the test bays has brought into focus the difficulties of determining the overall size of the Globe, Hildy said it has "brought into even sharper focus" other problems.

For example, getting fire code concessions to allow construction of a wooden building with a thatched roof in London is a big obstacle. Although oak doesn't burn easily, even when it does, it gives off no toxic fumes. "But putting a blow-torch to a thatched roof to prove it is fire resistant could be tricky," Hildy said. The original Globe, erected in 1599, burned down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII; a cannon sent sparks on to the thatch roof and literally brought the house down. It was rebuilt, only to be destroyed in 1644 when the Puritans took control of London.

Sizing Up the Stage

Debates also rage over the dimensions of the Globe's stage. "The size of the stage proposed by many scholars is too large," Hildy said flatly. He has argued in favor of smaller stages in the Elizabethan theaters for many years.

To Hildy and other Globe scholars the most important stage evidence was unearthed in 1989, when the foundations of the Rose Playhouse, built in London in 1592, were discovered. "The Rose was a comfortable, compact size, where you could feel close to the performers," Hildy said. "More importantly, if 400 people were in that theater, you would feel like it was a full house, even though it could hold 2,000 as long as people were seated in the front rows."

The Rose proved him correct. But the size of the stage is linked to the size of the building so the two issues must be argued together.

Hildy contends that if the new Globe is built as others have proposed, "it will take a lot more people to make it feel full. If it's built only 10 feet smaller, it will take fewer people to make it feel like a really crowded, energetic, dynamic space."

Shakespeare's audience was "much freer to respond and interrelate to what was happening on stage," Wanamaker said. "Players looked directly at the audience and almost spoke to individuals, and the audience responded to them. It sends shivers up and down my back just thinking of how exciting it was for the actor back then. That just doesn't exist in performances of Shakespeare's work in theaters today," he said.

The Globe had "the same ambiance as a football crowd," said C. Walter Hodges, a committee member and an internationally recognized authority on Shakespearean theater. "Picture the actor in a circle surrounded by three galleries. The sensation must have been extraordinary, something unknown in the modern theater. Just the actors standing in the middle of an endless sea of faces."

But before the theater is built, the committee must make certain that the design is as authentic as possible. "The possibility for error is uncomfortably high," Hildy said. He compared it to the discovery in Wyoming of a large dinosaur skeleton that was shipped east and reassembled by experts. Because of a mixup, the wrong bone fragments were used to reconstruct the head of the brontosaurus displayed in the American Museum of Natural History.

"It is sobering to realize that we could easily make an equivalent blunder with our reconstruction of the Globe," he said. "Until now it's been just a theoretical debate. But we're actually building the Globe now and a decision has to be made. It may turn out that the smartest choice will be a compromise between both sides."

To be or not to be, that is the question.

And for Hildy and others on the committee, it is all a question of proportion.


Editor's Note: The debate on the proportions of the theater ended in October. Hildy and Orrell made their presentations and by one vote the committee decided to construct a 20-sided, 100-foot theater.

Muriel Pritchett, a writer for the UGA public information office, covers the performing and fine arts. She holds two master's degrees, one in journalism and one in theater from UGA.

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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