The Contract for the Fortune Playhouse (1600)
(R. A. Foakes)
Muniment 22 (mun-1/022/01r)
Contract dated 8 January 1599/1600 between Peter Street, builder, and, as partners, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn, for the erection of the Fortune Playhouse in Whitecross Street near Golden Lane in the parish of St Giles without Cripplegate.
In 1599, Henslowe, owner of the Rose Playhouse on Bankside, and Alleyn, leading actor of the Admiral’s Men, were working with the Rose playhouse that was aging badly and facing competition from the new Globe (built in 1599 close to the Rose). The two men decided to erect a new playhouse for their company north of the city, just outside its limits in the county of Middlesex. The contract for the building survives, the only one for a public, outdoor playhouse in London during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and a unique document of great importance for our understanding of the public or open-air playhouses of the early modern period. Peter Street, who had been responsible for building the Globe in 1599, now agreed to erect the Fortune playhouse by July 25 at a price of £440. The contract provides enough information and exact measurements to give us a very good idea of what the Fortune looked like. At the same time it has puzzling features, not least because in relation to various aspects of the new playhouse it does not specify what is to be done, but simply says do it in ‘the manner and fashion of the saide howse Called the Globe’. Moreover, unlike its predecessors, the Fortune was to be square, not based on the polygonal model we commonly associate with the Elizabethan stage.
The Fortune contract states that the playhouse was to be 80 feet square on the outside, and 55 feet square on the inside, unlike the multi-sided Globe. The foundations were to be of piles, i.e. stakes or pilings, driven into the ground, and of brick, lime and sand and to extend at least one foot above the ground. The playhouse was to be made of ‘good stronge and substancyall timber’, with three stories of galleries, the lowest 12 feet in height, the middle one 11 feet, and the upper one 9 feet. The galleries were to be 12½ feet deep, and the upper ones each were to have a ‘Juttey forwards’ of 10 inches. The galleries were to be fitted with seats, and there were to be ‘fower convenient divisions’ for gentlemens’ rooms, and divisions for ‘Two pennie roomes’, but the contract does not indicate where these ‘rooms’ were to be located. Only these rooms and the stage were to be ‘rendered’ or ‘sealed’ with plaster, and Peter Street was not to be charged for any painting. Certain features were to be different from those at the Globe. The ‘scantlings’, or small pieces of wood used as studs or supports within the frame, were to be ‘in every poynte’ larger in dimensions than those used at the Globe. Also, the main posts of the inner frame and the stage were to be carved as pilasters with figure of satyrs, part men, part beast, possibly alluding to both satire or comedy and to tragedy (in Greek, the song of the goat).
Other details are of interest, especially perhaps the instruction that the stage was to be ‘paled in’ with boards and ‘fenced with strong iron pykes’, presumably to keep the groundlings in their place. The stage was also to be provided with a ‘shadowe or cover’, which, like the staircases and the frame, was to be covered with tiles (not thatch, as at the Globe).The contract is least informative about the stage area. It calls for a stage and tiring-house to be set up within the frame (i.e. the outer walls), the stage to be 43 feet long (or wide as we might now see it), and to extend to ‘the middle of the yarde’. It is not clear what this means. A stage 43 feet wide would leave a gap of only 6 feet between each side of the stage and the inner wall of the frame, since the contract specifies that the inner frame was to be 55 feet ‘square everye waye’. The contract originally was accompanied by a ‘Plott’ or plan showing how the stage should be ‘placed & sett’, and also how the staircases of the frame should be made, but this plan has been lost. Since a plan was needed, it is likely that the stage was not a simple rectangle, but had a more elaborate shape, perhaps being tapered, like that at the Rose. Also it may have been 43 feet wide only where it abutted on to the frame. In any case, the stage at the Fortune was much larger than that at the Rose, while the space provided for groundlings was much smaller. The Fortune offered better accommodation and more protection from the weather for actors and audiences.
Between January and June 1600 Henslowe listed on the back of the document various payments and receipts in connection with the work being done by Peter Street. Other expenses, the latest dated August 2, are listed in Henslowe’s Diary: (MSS-7/097r MSS-7/097v MSS-7/098r MSS-7/098v and MSS-7/099r). It seems that Henslowe took care of the practical arrangements from day to day, including dining with Peter Street or laying out money for drink for the workmen. The first task was to remove dung in a cart (MSS-7/098v). Alleyn apparently took care of negotiations that were needed when local inhabitants objected to the building of a playhouse in Whitecross Street. He used his connection with the Lord Admiral, the Earl of Nottingham, patron of his company the Admiral’s Men, to enlist his support in January and again in April, after the Privy Council on March 9 ordered that no playhouse should be built there. Among the expenses Henslowe noted on the back of the contract is one for Alleyn when he rode to Windsor on May 15, presumably still negotiating at court.
It is not known whether Peter Street completed the playhouse by the promised date of July 25. The last payment to Henslowe by the Admiral’s Men at the Rose was on July 13, 1600 (Henslowe's Diary, MSS-7/062v), so they probably moved to the Fortune in the late summer. Henslowe paid Alleyn for the ‘firste weckes playe’ according to a Diary note between entries dated November 11 and December 14 (MSS-7/070v), and this has been taken as evidence of the opening of the Fortune, but it more likely relates to the previous entry concerning a ‘composition’ , a mutual agreement or contract, between Alleyn and the company marking his return to acting full time with them.
The Fortune seems to have become a thriving enterprise until December 1621, when, as John Chamberlain reported in a letter, ‘the fairest playhouse in this town’ was destroyed by fire. A second Fortune playhouse was built soon after on the same site.