Recently added to the National Heritage List for England (or what little remains of it at least), the Hope Playhouse was the last Elizabethan era theatre to be built in Southwark and was designed to be a joint acting venue and bear baiting arena.
The theatre, which opened in about 1614, was built by impresario Philip Henslowe, who had built the Rose Playhouse in 1587 and the Fortune in 1600, and new partners a waterman Jacob Meade and carpenter Gilbert Katherens on a site slightly to the south of the Bear Garden (demolished in 1613) which had previously housed been dog kennels.
Designed deliberately to be similar to The Swan Playhouse in Paris Garden, the stage was apparently located on the south side of the structure with the main entrance located opposite on the riverside of the building. Upper galleries provided more salubrious seating for those who could afford it.
The first play to be staged there was Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, performed by Lady Elizabeth’s Company on 31st October, 1614 – in the play Jonson famously refers to the dual use of the playhouse by likening the smell to that of the animals at Smithfield Market.
The relationship of the theatre with acting, however, was to be short-lived. Bear-baiting and other past-times gradually took over the use of the playhouse despite the fact it had originally been envisaged that animal baiting would only be held on Sundays and Thursdays.
Tensions between the actors and other groups eventually led to Lady Elizabeth’s Company departing the playhouse in 1617, although another company, the Prince Charles’s Men, continued to use it for a few more years). Henslowe, meanwhile, had died in 1616 and his share of the property had passed to his son-in-law (and actor) Edward Alleyn (who was also the founder of the Prince Charles’s Men).
Very few plays were subsequently seen at the playhouse which, by 1620, had become known by the name Bear Garden – a reference to the former property which had stood to the north. Bear and bull-baiting as well as prize-fighting and fencing contests were apparently among the activities carried out there.
The Hope was ordered closed by Parliament in 1643 but survived until 1656 when, during the Civil War, it was closed and dismantled. Industrial buildings, including glass-blowing workshops, were later constructed over the top.
PICTURE: The street known as Bear Gardens in Southwark is near the site of the former Hope Playhouse.