|Died||1597 (aged about 66)|
|Occupation||joiner, builder, actor, impresario, theatre owner|
|Known for||Building The Theatre|
|Spouse(s)||Ellen Burbage (nee Brayne)|
James Burbage (1530/35 – 2 February 1597) was an English actor, theatre impresario, joiner, and theatre builder in the English Renaissance theatre. He built The Theatre, the first permanent dedicated theatre built in England since Roman times.
James Burbage was born about 1531, probably in Bromley in Kent. He was apprenticed in London to the trade of joiner, and must have persevered through his apprenticeship and taken up his freedom, as in 1559 he was referred to as a joiner twice in the St Stephen's register.
Burbage took up acting and was the leader of Leicester's Men by 1572. Burbage had various talents, e.g. an actor, builder, and theatre owner; he was heavily involved in groups concerning theater. He was said to be a theatre professional "who bridged the gap between late-medieval drama in England and the flowering of the great Elizabethan Theatre." Burbage was described as handsome in appearance, charming in manor, honest, tactful, and witty by Sir Robert Dudley, patron of Leicester's Men. Another professional acquaintance depicted James as more motivated by commerce than by art because of his dependency on financial success.
Burbage married Ellen Brayne, the daughter of Thomas Brayne, a London tailor and sister of his later business partner John Brayne, on 23 April 1559. They were settled in St. Leonard's parish in Shoreditch by 1576, with residence in Halliwell Street or Holywell Lane.
James Burbage was buried in Shoreditch on February 2, 1597. He died intestate. Having previously given his Blackfriars property to his son Richard and his personal property to his son Cuthbert, his widow presented an inventory valued at only £37.
James Burbage and The Theatre
In 1576, Burbage and his partner John Brayne decided to create a new, permanent stage for London acting groups. It was one of the first permanent theaters to be built in London since the time of the Romans.
Brayne was Burbage's brother-in-law and was considered a wealthy man. It was his investment (and the mortgage Burbage took out on the lease of the grounds) that allowed The Theatre to be built, with the two sharing the profits equally. Financial difficulties led Burbage and Brayne to stage plays in the building before construction was complete; the proceeds from these plays helping to finance the building's completion.
Despite partnering with John Brayne, the lease of The Theatre's site was signed by Burbage alone on April 13, 1576, to begin on March 25, 1576. Since Burbage owned the lease, he also received rent money for properties on the site. Under this lease, he paid roughly £14 a year. The exact builder of The Theatre is unknown, though a likely candidate is James Burbage's brother Robert, who was a carpenter.
Performance at The Theatre
Burbage was very confident that spectators would come to The Theatre, even if they had to go through open fields to get there. One contemporary of the time referred to people streaming out of the city to see the plays there. The Theatre was considered a grand classical name. It was made mostly of wood, with ironwork scattered throughout. There was a tiring house for the players, and galleries and luxury seats providing better viewing and privacy. These seats would typically cost an extra penny or two pence, as opposed to a penny for the average attendee.
The Theatre was tested by the appearance of another playhouse, the Curtain Theatre, placed only 200 yards closer to the city walls. It was built by Henry Lanman (or Laneham), who had a close business relationship with Burbage and his associates. The two theaters pooled their profits together between the proprietors, using the Curtain Theatre to ease people into the more complex performances at The Theatre. As time went on, the shows in these playhouses became better organized, more popular, resourceful, and sophisticated in production. More playhouses such as The Rose and The Swan were built.
On February 4, 1596, Burbage purchased the Blackfriars Theatre property for £600. The building had once been a Dominican monastery in the south-west corner of London, but Burbage had plans to renovate the building into the English-speaking world's first permanent, purpose-built indoor theatre. However, in November 1596, the residents of the district petitioned and managed to win a ban on play performances at the theatre.
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