In 1600, with the new Globe threatening the livelihood of the smaller Rose, Philip Henslowe and his leading actor Edward Alleyn (also now his son-in-law and business partner) decided to leave Southwark and build a new outdoor playhouse north of the river close to Whitecross Street, a mediaeval market street near today’s Barbican arts centre. Although square while the Globe was polygonal, it was otherwise modelled on the Globe and built by the same man, Peter Street.
The Fortune opened at what became Playhouse Yard (today’s Fortune Street), between Golden Lane and Whitecross Street. As with the Globe, the Fortune prospered through to the 1642 closures. In essence, then, the 1594 duopoly plan remained intact, in which two companies would operate north and south of the river. The Chamberlain’s Men, the Burbages and Shakespeare now dominated on Surrey’s Bankside suburbs, the Rose closing down within a few years, while the Admiral’s Men, Henslowe, Alleyn and the Marlowe plays provided their company with dominance in the northern suburbs of Middlesex. The Fortune continued the tradition of the Admiral’s company by playing the Marlowe and Kyd classics from the 1580s and early 90s, though as we move further into the seventeenth century the Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe became the leading company in London.
The King’s Men now owned, ran and performed in both the Globe and Blackfriars playhouses. The other outdoor theatres – particularly the Fortune and the Red Bull and the older Curtain, all to the north of the City of London – appear now to have gained a strong reputation for putting on plays that appealed to the lower-end of the market. Theatre historians have characterised the Fortune and the Red Bull as ‘citizen playhouses’ catering for the lower orders of the London community who wished to view scenes of sensational action played at inexpensive outdoor amphitheatres. After about 1600, it does seem clear that such audiences preferred the old plays. As we have seen, the Fortune continued to put on the classics by Kyd and Marlowe. Although these plays were anything but knockabout sensationalism, it is fair to describe them as more violent and exaggerated in tone than were the plays of Shakespeare and Fletcher being written for the King’s Men by the time the company started to use the Blackfriars in 1609-10. Indeed, it is easy to visualise a large group of working men and women enjoying The Spanish Tragedy or Tamburlaine at the Fortune in the early 1600s, just as the previous generation had done in the late 1580s at the Rose on Bankside.
Uniquely, the building contract for the Fortune survives:
'This indenture made the eight day of January . . . between Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn of the parish of St Saviour's in Southwark, in the county of Surrey, gentlemen, on the part and Peter Street, citizen and carpenter of London, on the other part.
Witnesseth, that whereas the said Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn . . . have bargained, compounded and agreed with the said Peter Street for the erecting, building and setting up of a new house and stage for a playhouse in and upon a certain plot or parcel of ground appointed out for that purpose, situate and being near Golden Lane in the parish of St Giles without Cripplegate of London, to be by him, the said Peter Street, or some other sufficient workmen of his providing and appointment, and at his proper costs and charges (for the consideration hereafter in these presents expressed), made, erected, builded and set up in manner and form following:
That is to say, the frame of the said house to be set square and to contain 80 feet of lawful assize every way square without and 55 feet of like assize square every way within, with a good sewer and strong foundation of piles, brick, lime and sand, both without and within to be wrought 1 foot of assize at the least above the ground. And the said frame to contain three storeys in height: the first or lower storey to contain 12 feet of lawful assize in height, the second storey 11 feet of lawful assize in height, and the third or upper storey to contain 9 feet of lawful assize in height. All which storeys shall contain 12 1/2 feet of lawful assize in breadth throughout, besides a jutty forwards in either of the said two upper storeys of 10 inches of lawful assize, with four convenient divisions for gentlemen's rooms and other sufficient and convenient divisions for twopenny rooms, with necessary seats to be placed and set as well in those rooms as throughout all the rest of the galleries of the said house, and with suchlike stairs, conveyances, and divisions without and within as are made and contrived in and to the late erected playhouse on the Bank in the said parish of St Saviour's called the Globe.
With a stage and tiring-house to be made, erected and set up with the said frame, with a shadow or cover over the said stage. Which stage shall be placed and set, as also the staircases of the said frame, in such sort as is prefigured in a plot thereof drawn. And which stage shall contain in length 43 feet of lawful assize and in breadth to extend to the middle of the yard of the said house. The same stage to be paled in below with good strong and sufficient new oaken boards, and likewise the lower storey of the said frame withinside, and the same lower storey to be also laid over and fenced with strong iron pikes. And the said stage to be in all other proportions contrived and fashioned like unto the stage of the said playhouse called the Globe.
With convenient windows and lights glazed to the said tiring-house. And the said frame, stage and staircases to be covered with tile and to have a sufficient gutter of lead to carry and convey the water from the covering of the said stage to fall backwards. And also all the said frame and the staircases thereof to be sufficiently enclosed without with lath, lime and hair, and the gentlemen's rooms and twopenny rooms to be ceiled with lath, lime and hair, and all the floors of the said galleries, storeys and stage to be boarded with good and sufficient new deal boards of the whole thickness where need shall be.
And the said house and other things before mentioned to be made and done to be in all other contrivitions, conveyances, fashions, thing, and things effected, finished and done according to the manner and fashion of the said house called the Globe, saving only that all the principal and main posts of the said frame and stage forward shall be square and wrought plasterwise with carved proportions called satyrs to be placed and set on the top of every of the same posts. And saving also that the said Peter Street shall not be charged with any manner of painting in or about the said frame, house or stage or any part thereof, nor rendering the walls within, nor ceiling any more or other rooms than the gentlemen's rooms, twopenny rooms, and stage before remembered.
Now thereupon the said Peter Street doth covenant, promise and grant for himself, his executors and administrators to and with the said Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn and either of them and the executors and administrators of them and either of them by these presents in manner and form following: that is to say that he, the said Peter Street, his executors, or assigns shall and will at his or their own proper costs and charges well, workmanlike, and substantially make, erect, set up and fully finish, in and by all things according to the true meaning of these presents, with good, strong and substantial new timber and other necessary stuff, all the said frame and other works whatsoever in and upon the said plot or parcel of ground (being not by any authority restrained and having ingress, egress and regress to do the same) before the five and twentieth day of July next coming after the date hereof. And shall also at his or their like costs and charges provide and find all manner of workmen, timber, joists, rafters, boards, doors, bolts, hinges, brick, tile, lath, lime, hair, sand, nails, lead, iron, glass, workmanship and other things whatsoever which shall be needful, convenient and necessary for the said frame and works and every part thereof.
And shall also make all the said frame in every point for scantlings larger and bigger in assize than the scantlings of the timber of the said new erected house called the Globe.
And also . . . he, the said Peter Street, shall forthwith, as well by himself as by such other and so many workmen as shall be convenient and necessary, enter into and upon the said buildings and works, and shall in reasonable manner proceed therein without any wilful detraction until the same shall be fully effected and finished.
In consideration of all which buildings and of all stuff and workmanship thereto belonging, the said Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn and either of them, for themselves their and either of their executors and administrators, do jointly and severally convenant and grant to and with the said Peter Street, his executors and administrators by these presents that they, the said Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn, or one of them, or the executors, administrators or assigns of them, or one of them, shall and will well and truly pay or cause to be paid unto the said Peter Street, his executors or assigns at the place aforesaid appointed for the erecting of the said frame the full sum of £440 of lawful money of England in manner and form following: that is to say at such time and whenas the timber work of the said frame shall be raised and set up by the said Peter Street, his executors or assigns, or within seven days then next following, £220, and at such time and whenas the said frame and works shall be fully effected and finished as is aforesaid, or within seven days then next following, the other £220, without fraud or coven.
Provided always, and it is agreed between the said parties, that whatsoever sum or sums of money the said Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn, or either of them, or the executors or assigns of them or either of them, shall lend or deliver unto the said Peter Street, his executors, or assigns, or any other by his appointment or consent, for or concerning the said works or any part thereof, or any stuff thereto belonging, before the raising and setting up of the said frame, shall be reputed, accepted, taken and accounted in part of the first payment aforesaid of the said sum of £440. And all such sum and sums of money as they, or any of them, shall, as aforesaid, lend or deliver between the raising of the said frame and finishing thereof, and of all the rest of the said works, shall be reputed, accepted, taken and accounted in part of the last payment aforesaid of the same sum of £440, any thing abovesaid to the contrary notwithstanding.'
As quoted in English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660, edited by Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry and William Ingram (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 534-36.
John Milton was in his younger days a keen theatregoer, and visited the Fortune ‘. . . at the age of twelve, in 1621. In 1623 he was again in London attending the amphitheatre playhouses. His first Elegy to Charles Diodati mentions sinuosi theatri, the splendour of the curved theatre.’ (Quotation from Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, Second edition (1996), p. 206).
In 1620 John Melton had this to say in his Astrologaster:
‘Men go to the Fortune in Golding Lane, to see the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus. There indeed a man may behold shag-haired devils run roaring over the stage with squibs in their mouths, while drummers make thunder in the tiring house, and the twelvepenny hirelings make artificial lightning in their heavens.’
In 1632 Alexander Gill produced verses on Ben Jonson’s play, The Magnetic Lady, with the Fortune mentioned as follows:
'Is this the child of your bed-ridden wit,
And none but the Blackfriars foster it?
If to the Fortune you had sent your lady,
‘Mongst prentices and apple-wives, it may be
Your rosy fool might some sport have got.
But when as silks and plush, and all the wits
Are called to see, and censure as befits,
And if your folly take not, they, perchance,
Must hear themselves styled "gentle ignorance".'