In-depth

By the late 1580s both the Theatre and the Curtain had been operating successfully for well over ten years, the four inns and Newington Butts were still thriving (we know that two successful companies played there as late as 1594), and there were four main adult companies operating in parallel to the boy actors of St Paul’s and Blackfriars: the Queen’s, the Lord Admiral’s, Lord Strange’s, and Pembroke’s Men: four dominant companies with either the patronage of the Queen or of various leading aristocrats.

In 1587 a third large outdoor theatre was built. This was undertaken by businessman and entrepreneur Philip Henslowe. The Rose theatre he built was the first playhouse to appear on Bankside, a Southwark suburb of Surrey similar in many ways to the notorious Shoreditch area where the Theatre and Curtain were located. More is known about the Rose than any other London playhouse because of the extensive archaeological work carried out on its discovered remains in 1989.

By 1587 London playing was evidently attracting enough paying customers for a third playhouse of considerable size to be built and patronised, and the Rose was erected alongside the brothels and bear-baiting arenas of the Bankside, making it easily accessible on foot across London’s (only) bridge, or by hired wherry from the north river bank. It staged plays until 1604, having become so popular by 1592 that Henslowe enlarged the stage and yard to serve the increasing numbers of fee-paying spectators. Further evidence that the Rose did well can be found in the story of its leading actor, Edward Alleyn, who went on to set up Dulwich College out of his theatre profits.

For many centuries, only Rose Alley remained to show where this historic building had stood. However, in 1989, the extant remains of the theatre were discovered and partly excavated. After a lively campaign to 'Save the Rose', the area has been preserved for future investigation and an exhibition of the theatre's history is now open to the public there. Early modern plays of both Shakespeare and other playwrights are nowadays regularly performed here. When fund-raising permits, the remaining one third of the site on its eastern side to be uncovered will be excavated, and in due course it is planned for a fuller playing and audience space to be created.

Please visit the Rose Theatre Trust for more information.

For a computer reconstruction of the Rose see the Ortelia Project.