It was in his genes. Richard must have learned at his father’s knee how to become a successful entrepreneur. Burbage earned enough money from his shares, from his acting, from his artwork to leave a considerable inheritance to his wife and two children.
It takes a bit of confidence to call your new playhouse simply the ‘Theatre’. The Burbage family did just that. Richard’s father set up almost certainly the first purpose-built theatre in London since the Romans and established a glowing reputation with his company of actors in Shoreditch. Writer and presenter Andrew Dickson says ‘By his teens Richard was acting there; by his early twenties, playing Shakespeare’s snarling villain Richard 111, he was already a sensation.’
We can applaud his portfolio of careers: actor, artist and entrepreneur in a family business. With James, his father and his brother Cuthbert, he set up an innovative system of theatre management, becoming shareholders. He was charismatic, swerved trouble and found solutions when things went wrong. In good times, they made lots of money and in bad, like when the plague struck and theatres closed, they still seemed to keep their heads above water. Of course, there were times of bleak fortune: for example, just when the future looked promising with the exciting prospect for Shakespeare of writing for an indoor playhouse at Blackfriars, the local residents objected to the Privy Council about the sorts of people this might attract and the planning application was overturned. (Sounds familiar?) And in the middle of all this, in 1597 James Burbage died, a massive personal blow and loss to the company.
A colourful story exists which shows Richard Burbage’s leadership and lateral thinking when Giles Allen, the ground landlord, refused to renew the lease of the Theatre site. In a flamboyantly daring move, at the end of 1598 when others were preoccupied with Christmas, at cover of night, the Burbage brothers, Shakespeare and friends, with workmen led by the chief carpenter Peter Street, tenderly took down their wooden theatre plank by plank, ferried it across the river to the south bank and reconstructed it to the chagrin of Giles Allen. It was a new Playhouse, the finest yet. It was to be called the Globe.
In St Saviour’s Parish in 1599 Shakespeare and the Burbages had overseen the rebirth of the Theatre’s poor bare planks as the most lavish, best-equipped playhouse in town, with a capacity of 2,500 to 3000. ’
Listen to Andrew’s excellent BBC R3 documentary, Exit Burbage, to find interviews with Simon Russell Beale, Kathryn Hunter and enjoy his heroic rescue of a great Shakespearean actor who seemed to have been airbrushed from history.
Link to The Globe Theatre