No one knows how William Shakespeare’s Globe really looked.
The polygonal theater was constructed across the River Thames from central London in 1599 by a company of actors called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was destroyed by fire in 1613 and rebuilt to open the following year. After the Puritan-led Parliament closed down all public theaters in England, the Globe was demolished in 1644. No drawings survive to show the precise size and shape of the original theater or its subsequent reconstruction.
Despite this lack of documentation, “replicas” and reinterpretations of the Globe have been built all over the world. An engaging small exhibition at the National Building Museum, part of the Shakespeare festival being staged all around town, uses these speculative re-creations to challenge the myths that have sprung up around the Bard’s building.
In tracing the development of Shakespearean theater from the 1600s to modern times, it asserts that “Globe-ness” — particularly the intimate bond between actors and audience — is not dependent on any historical model but can be achieved through even the most contemporary means. Five theater designs specially commissioned for this show make the point in movable structures that draw inspiration from the Elizabethan tradition of traveling troupes.
At the start, the exhibit makes it clear that the Globe wasn’t the only performance hall to exist in the London area during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Three other venues, the Rose, the Swan and a bear-baiting ring, were built nearby, in a red-light district of brothels, gambling casinos and taverns on the Thames’ south bank. A 1596 sketch of the Swan interior and a construction contract for another theater called the Fortune provide just scant information about how the Globe may have been designed.
Lack of evidence hasn’t stopped generations of thespians, scholars and architects from re-creating the Globe, particularly over the past century, and insisting upon the authenticity of their visions. The first full-scale “replica” was designed by Edwin Lutyens, architect of the British Embassy in Washington, and built in the Earls Court area of London in 1912. American reproductions followedduring the 1930s, including Paul Cret’s Elizabethan theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill.
One of the most appealing artifacts in the show is a big walnut building model from 1950 by John Cranford Adams, who established an annual Shakespeare festival at Hofstra University, where he was president. It shows, in 3-D, the Globe’s likely configuration of a thrust stage extending into an open-air courtyard where the audience stood.
Around the perimeter, covered seating for better-paying patrons is arranged into three tiers under a roof. A tower over the stage provides room for scenery, though few sets and props were used during Elizabethan times.
The half-timbered, octagonal structure suggested by Mr. Adams’ model, however, is pure conjecture. One of the greatest mysteries is the Globe’s shape. Engravings of London made in the 1600s show it as round, hexagonal or octagonal, but recent archaeological excavations of the original site suggest that it may have had as many as 24 sides. Even the reconstructed Globe built near this London location, completed in 1997 and considered the most credible replica to date, is not wholly accurate.
The exhibit goes on to showcase modern Shakespearean theaters, many of them round to capture the immersive atmosphere of Elizabethan staging. Among the more unusual is an open-air venue in northern Sweden built entirely of ice.
A section devoted to “state-of-the-art” theaters reveals the flexible design for Sidney Harman Hall, the new home of Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, which is being completed on Seventh Street Northwest. Due to open this fall, the auditorium was designed by Diamond + Schmitt Architects of Toronto so that it can be reconfigured for plays, concerts, opera and dance.
Mutability also is reflected in the five hypothetical designs that conclude the show. Most of the architects of these theaters assume the populist attitude of presenting Shakespeare to the masses in temporary structures that could be disassembled and moved to various locations.
The most conventional scheme, by a team headed by New York theater architect Hugh Hardy, pays homage to the late impresario Joe Papp, known for staging Shakespeare in Central Park. Its faceted glass structure and supergraphics look like throwbacks to the 1960s. True to the Papp plays-for-the-people spirit, Hardy and company show how their theater could be erected in busy Times Square, then reconstructed in other New York City locations.
More mobile and appealing is the “GlobeTrotter” created by a Los Angeles firm called — what else? — the Office of Mobile Design. This playful theater, also recalling 1960s designs, includes unfolded stage and wings, a solar-paneled roof and inflatable dressing rooms and seats. Once the play is finished, the kit of parts is packed into a trailer and hauled by truck all over the country.
Architect Michele Saee, who works in Beverly Hills, also based his theater on travel — in this case, actors’ movements on- and offstage. Sensors attached to the performers record their paths as scribbled lines, which are then translated into an architectural representation through the computer. Though it’s an intriguing premise, the resulting design resembles a crumpled up piece of paper.
Another adventurous proposal comes from a set designer, not an architect. John Coyne, who has designed scenery for Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, suggests that the actors in the plays staged in his demountable theater wouldn’t even have to be on the same stage. Through electronic technology, they could interact with each other from different locations while their performances were shown on big screens next to the live action.
Sketches, mock-ups and a meticulous brass model reveal that New York architect David Rockwell took the assignment to heart in creating a round theater that actually could be built. A sober structure of scaffolding and scrims, it surprisingly lacks the fun of Mr. Rockwell’s sets for the Broadway musicals “Hairspray” and “Dirty Rotten Soundrels.” The ground-level “mosh pit” around the stage is treated as a highly desirable vantage point — in contrast to the analogous viewing area in the Globe of Shakespeare’s day, which was the preserve of the rowdy “groundlings” who ate, drank and shouted their way through performances.
WHAT: “Reinventing the Globe: A Shakespearean Theater for the 21st Century”
WHERE: National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW
WHEN: Through Aug. 27; Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
ADMISSION: Free; $3 donation suggested
WEB SITE: www.nbm.org