As we anticipate the coming of Shakespeare’s Globe to the 43rd season of Spoleto Festival USA, we began reflecting on the similarities between Charleston and London. While our Southern city—though steeped in history—may not seemingly measure up to that of London, both locales do have a bit in common as port towns, old capitals, and places that have withstood great wars. But perhaps most excitingly (for our purposes, anyway), these two great cities helped the arts flourish in their respective nations. In fact, we found a few intriguing connections between the histories of our beloved Dock Street Theatre and the home of Shakespeare’s Globe.
Both buildings share foundations as the first playhouses built for theater. The Dock Street Theatre today stands on the site of the United States’ first theater, built in the 1730s and designated for theatrical productions. Over in England, The Globe was not the country’s first theater—however the wood used in its foundation did come from the England’s very first playhouse, the Theatre in Shoreditch, which was originally built in 1576. When the Theatre’s owner died, the lease expired and its timbers were taken across the River Thames to build the original Globe, circa 1599. See the modern Globe below.
Both original buildings shared a sad fate: fire. The Globe famously went up in flames during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613. The Dock Street was (most likely) destroyed by the Great Fire of 1740.
Both site rebuilds offered housing. Following the fire in 1613, the Globe was quickly rebuilt, and it remained the home for Shakespeare’s company until all theaters in England were closed by the Puritanical Ordinance, issued in 1642. Two years later it was demolished to make room for tenements. Similarly in Charleston, the Planters Hotel was erected on Dock Street Theatre’s site and it operated as a hotel until the Civil War.
Both sites were later restored as theaters. Dock Street fell into disrepair after the war, and though it was slated for demolition in the 1930s, the building was taken on as a project of the Work Progress Administration and triumphantly reopened November 26, 1937. Just as the original Globe had taken timbers from the very first playhouse in Shoreditch, the Dock Street Theatre, too, re-purposed woodwork and mantels from other historic Charleston mansions—and its wooden interior was crafted from locally grown and milled black cypress. Across the pond, the reconstruction of the Globe began nearly 400 years later, after American actor and director Sam Wanamaker visited London in 1949. He worked tirelessly for 23 years to fund and research a rebuild close to what the original might have looked like. The Globe, as it stands today, was completed in 1997.
Spoleto Festival USA’s inaugural season in 1977 took full advantage of Dock Street Theatre’s riches, presenting two plays and the first Chamber Music series in the intimate and historic setting. Since then, numerous world premieres, US premieres, exciting restagings, and unforgettable concerts have taken place on the stage at 135 Church Street, and Spoleto is thrilled to once again fill the theater with world-class performances in 2019, not least by Shakespeare’s Globe. Eight actors will offer three shows: Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Pericles. And on “Audience Choice” nights, the Dock Street Theatre may feel the spirit of the original Elizabethan Globe, when ticket-holders will be transported back in time to shout, clap, and cheer in support of one of the three plays they most want to see. In Shakespeare’s day, the head of the household would choose the evening’s entertainment, but the actors of Shakespeare’s Globe are leaving the decision-making to the most powerful: the audience.