The Bard's Theater Found

Last month's discovery of the London site may complicate a plan to rebuild

`HAVE you heard the news?'' someone called out to Sam Wanamaker recently as he stepped inside the Globe Museum in the Southwark area here, a stone's throw from where tradition says Shakespeare's famous Globe Theatre stood some four centuries ago. ``What news?'' Wanamaker inquired casually.

``They've found the Globe!'' came the ecstatic reply.

Wanamaker recalls his immediate reaction as a heady mixture of excitement and ``a wonderful sigh of relief.'' For over a third of his life, the 70-year-old American actor, now a resident of London, has been leading a sometimes painfully lonely crusade to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the banks of the River Thames. Until now, no one had ever been able to pinpoint the Globe's location. ``But at long last archaeologists have found it,'' says Wanamaker. ``And it's so important for all of us to have this kind of assurance that the Globe was really here.''

The significance of the discovery cannot be overstated. Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, chief archaeologist of English Heritage, an organization dedicated to preserving historical buildings and artifacts, says he is ``absolutely delirious'' at the news.

``The discovery validates that this is where the most important theater in the world, which witnessed the most important period of drama in the world, really was located,'' exudes Wanamaker. ``Now we know unequivocally that it wasn't just a lot of scholars saying, `We think the Globe was here.'''

Not that the real value of the place was always recognized. In 1949 in a sorely neglected part of London, Wanamaker stumbled upon an obscure plaque on a brewery wall marking the spot where the Bard's playhouse was believed to have stood. He was stunned that such an important historical site was all but forgotten and became fired up by the notion of rebuilding the Globe.

After battling local British bureaucracy head on for a number of years without much success, the actor established the International Shakespeare Globe Trust, a charitable organization based in the Globe Museum, which he founded at the same time, and assiduously enlisted the support of many dignitaries. It wasn't until last year that the first spade of dirt was upturned by the eminent British actress, Dame Judi Dench, to begin the foundations of the new Globe.

``The timing in finding the Globe has been absolutely miraculous,'' says Wanamaker, chuckling. ``Had we not had the many, many struggles and problems and barriers to get to where we are today, we might have had our replica built before this discovery, and then found some of the elements of it to be wrong.''

Indeed, while the groundwork is already in progress for the International Shakespeare Globe Center - a multipurpose building complex to complement the theater replica - the preparations for erecting the Globe itself were not scheduled to begin for several months yet. Now, says Wanamaker, construction will be postponed, pending excavation of the real thing, ``so that we can get it absolutely right.''

But excavation is easier said than done.

For starters, the nearby Southwark Bridge stands on what may well be as much as 30 percent of the original theater. No one is suggesting that the bridge should be demolished in order to find out. What lies below the bridge, say the experts, was undoubtedly destroyed during the course of its construction.

But as archaeologist John Dillon, the project's manager, explained to me, this may not be disastrous. If the Globe was 80 feet in diameter instead of 120 feet (scholars have never been certain which size is correct) then the actual stage itself would be outside the bridge area.

Some 60 percent of the Globe, which may include all of the stage, is situated directly under a government-protected building known as Anchor Terrace, whose fa,cade dates back to Georgian times. While the interior was gutted long ago to make way for modern offices, the outside is considered of architectural interest, particularly by Britain's Georgian Society and English Heritage, both of which want to protect such buildings from destruction.

The Museum of London, which is in charge of the excavation, is supportive of their concerns. ``Obviously the Globe must be more important than the Georgian fa,cade,'' observes Harvey Sheldon, one of the museum's leading archaeologists, who heads the project. ``But, nevertheless, there is an important principle at stake.'' Indeed, knocking down one historical structure in order to get at another is considered by many British scholars to be vandalism of the worst sort. Should the Globe be dug up at all?

For the archaeologists involved, this question is a particularly tough one. There are many other very important historical sites around Britian that are under threat of destruction due to impending commercial development; the Globe site is not. If the Globe is excavated now, the knowledge to be gleaned from those other sites could well be lost. ``The difficulty is that there's a severe shortage of trained archaeologists in this country,'' concludes archaeologist Dillon.

There are plans to display the site on the ground floor of the building that will be built here by Hanson, P.L.C., an international management firm that owns the land. From the start, the company has cooperated closely with the archaeologists from the Museum of London.

But it is not yet known if the fragile artifacts will survive. The primary difficulty lies in the fact that the entire riverside area is exceptionally marshy. When the land dries out through exposure, the artifacts are expected to shrink. Pessimists predict that what's left of the Globe could very well crumble to a pile of dust.

``There should be a period of debate before we rush into anything,'' comments Sheldon. ``That's the next stage. We need to work out whether it's best to investigate the site, to get whatever academic and popular knowledge we can from it..., or whether it's best that the Globe should be safely buried and left undisturbed.''

Such views are guaranteed to cause alarm in many quarters. Meanwhile, a small portion of the building's curve - almost certainly part of the outer edge of Shakespeare's famous ``Wooden `O''' - plus some brickwork that may indicate an outside stairwell - are all that have been uncovered. What to many is a precious patch of mud awaits a hotly contested fate.

Much depends on progress at the site of the nearby Rose Theatre, an Elizabethan contemporary of the Globe discovered last summer. Tubes have been inserted under its protective sand-and-concrete carapace to assist in monitoring the chemical environment for any detrimental changes. ``Nobody, as far as we know, has had any experience in preserving and displaying water-logged sites,'' explains Kate Foley, English Heritage's head of the conservation section at its Ancient Monuments Laboratory. ``And we've sought expertise worldwide. So we just don't have any idea what's going to happen. But, for the time being, the Rose seems to be doing very well.''

None of those interviewed would take a firm stand on what should be the future of the latest, and most thrilling archaeological discovery in the history of English-speaking theater.

Except Wanamaker. He has no doubts. ``What would the world say,'' he demands, ``if the Globe, now that it has at last been found, is not excavated?''

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