Around 1567, a man named John Brayne built an Elizabethan playhouse called the Red Lion just outside the city of London to accommodate the growing number of traveling theater companies. The exact location has proved elusive to archaeologists – there were many streets and pubs dubbed the Red Lion (or Lyon) over the following centuries – but a team from University College London (UCL) believe it has found the original location at a excavation at Whitechapel.
The Red Lion is the earliest known attempt to create a playhouse in the Tudor era, a precursor to the famous Globe Theatre. We know from historical records—particularly a few lawsuits involving Brayne’s project—that it was a one-gallery theater. A fixed staircase was constructed, with shutters and a 9.1 meter turret for aerial stunts. It was technically a reception house for traveling companies, as opposed to an actual repertory theatre, and included the Red Lion Inn as part of the complex.
The Red Lion doesn’t seem to have lasted long, perhaps because it was on open farmland and was therefore only suitable for summer performances. Only one play seems to have been staged there, Samson’s Story† In 1576, Brayne teamed up with his brother-in-law, actor/manager James Burbage, to build The Theater at Shoreditch. (London banned plays in 1573 because of the plague—16th-century social distancing—which is why these early theaters were built outside the city’s jurisdiction, in the so-called ‘suburbs of sin’.)
This was a veritable repertory playhouse and housed theater companies, including the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Among the members of the latter: a young actor and playwright named William Shakespeare. His earliest plays probably premiered there, including: Richard III (which scholars believe was written around 1593).
Unfortunately, a dispute with the landlord in 1596 – Brayne seemed to argue a lot with his business partners and contractors – led to the dismantling of The Theatre; the wood was reused to build the Globe Theatre. In the meantime, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men moved their performances to the Curtain Theatre, built in 1577, just a year after The Theatre. Romeo and Juliet and Henry IV part I and Part II were staged in the Curtain, and Shakespeare performed there in a 1598 production of Ben Jonson’s Every man in his humor† The company moved to the Globe when it was completed in 1599.
Archaeologists from the Museum of London discovered the foundation of the remains of what they believe to be The Theater in 2008. Excavations by a team from the Museum of London Archeology between 2012 and 2016 revealed the remains of the Curtain. The theater was rectangular in structure, rather than circular, and there was evidence of a tunnel under the stage, as well as galleries on the first floor. Archaeologists also discovered a ceramic bird whistle and several ceramic piggy banks used to collect entrance fees, among other artifacts.
Early last year, UCL archaeologists were excavating a site on Stepney Way in Whitechapel and discovered the remains of a rectangular structure whose dimensions matched those of the Red Lion, as outlined in the well-known lawsuits. There were post holes around the wooden structure, corresponding to seating in the galleries.
They also found evidence of what were likely beer cellars, including tumblers, drinking glasses and crucibles. According to Michael Shapland, the team’s historic building specialist, “Tudor-era inns needed a cool and safe place to store their booze, as beer would have gone much faster than it does today.” The playhouse may have been converted into a dog feeding pit in the 17th century, the researchers suspect, as they also found the remains of dogs whose teeth had been filed on the site.
“It’s not what I expected when I showed up to do an excavation in Whitechapel, I have to be honest,” said lead archaeologist Stephen White, of UCL Archeology South-East. “This is one of the most extraordinary sites I’ve worked on. The strength of the combined evidence – archaeological remains of buildings in the correct location in the correct period, seem to match the features of the playhouse recorded in early documents .”