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Roger Clegg and Eric Tatham, Reconstructing the Rose: 3D computer modelling Philip Henslowe’s playhouse
by Thomas Herron

Reconstructing the Rose: 3D computer modelling Philip Henslowe’s playhouse (2018)

By Roger Clegg (author) and Eric Tatham (digital modelling)

https://reconstructingtherose.tome.press

 

Virtual Reality (VR) is starting to feel epic. When we bite into its apple we grow wings and are transported to places old and new. Gaming scenarios feel astonishingly real these days, as any commercial for PlayStation demonstrates.[1] Digital modelling with its computer-caduceus mouse juxtaposes and overlaps images to let us grasp the past, present and future at once, in a way that is visionary and like epic reading: present ruins are imaginatively reshaped according to past knowledge and projected futuristically to inspire us.

Conceptually, the Elizabethans with their encompassing roses and globes predicted VR, and Dr. Roger Clegg, Dr. Eric Tatham, and the team who consulted for and designed the open-access website Reconstructing the Rose have come one step closer towards letting us fly fantastically through a place most of us want to visit but not to smell: Bankside Thames in the neighbourhood of the Rose Theatre, where Shakespeare and Marlowe (and Spenser surely) trod.

The website (2018) was written by Clegg and built by Mixed Reality Ltd. (the trading name of Tatham, an independent VR designer) with the inspiration, support, expertise and archival reach of the Rose Theatre Trust, De Montfort University, and the Museum of London Archaeology. The Rose was excavated to much fanfare in 1989 and its findings continue to be researched and debated (cf. ‘Foreword’ to the website by Harvey Sheldon, Chair of the Rose Theatre Trust). The website is scholarly and features a 3-D model of the theatre built using the program Unreal Engine, ‘primarily employed by gaming developers’ (‘Introduction’). Consulted material includes archaeological reports, work by illustrators (such as C. Walter Hodges), and other scholarship, including work of literary scholars and theatre historians Andrew Gurr, Gabriel Egan, and Siobhan Keenan. The website is meant to be attractive and digestible to the general public and to complement a larger effort by the Rose Theatre Trust to turn the actual site of the Rose into a permanent exhibit space for the public, so as ‘to help tell the fascinating story of Henslowe’s playhouse’ (‘Introduction’).

The website is a tour-de-force of incredibly detailed reconstructions, concise narration, and careful, comparative scholarship.

 

Video and Model

When you visit Reconstructing the Rose go first to the Appendix (indicated in the helpful sidebar Table of Contents) where you’ll find a link to an introductory 28-minute video presentation of highlights from the website. The video is spellbinding and plays like a cross between a BBC documentary, museum-exhibit-station and airplane-arrival prompt. We first fly down over modern London to the exact place where the rescued remains of the Rose, including original foundations, sit in a basement under a corporate office block. Suddenly we are floating over the Thames, c. 1590, looking south on a sunny day. I look to see if I’m sitting next to Will in the water taxi from Shakespeare in Love, which also has a recreation of the Rose in it (according to the Reconstructing the Rose website, Hollywood’s recreated Rose lacks a step-down entrance into the yard and is not decorated ornately enough). We then fly between riverside houses down various kempt lanes to stroll along Maiden Lane past the green pastures of the deer park of the Bishop of Winchester. Painstakingly researched (and conveniently linked) maps and archival documents, including data from the records of the Surrey and Kent commission of sewers, inform what streets ran where and describe walnut trees and willows that grew in the vicinity. The website allows for mid-range close-ups and ground-level panoramic 360 views of this streetscape, like those found on Google Earth. The Rose stood not far from the Globe which is, alas, not modelled here, although its world is.[2]

The website is keen to stress quotidian activities around the theatre based on excavated evidence, and the scenes are partly animated in the video. Smoke flies from ‘John Cholmley’s victualling house’ whose floor plan was discovered next to the theatre during excavations. A food cart selling fruit, nuts and drinks in Frenchen Bartmann jugs stands nearby. A flirtatious horse glances up at you when you approach the theatre door.  We cross over a ‘sewer’ (drainage ditch) on a simple wooden bridge and enter the premises to gaze in awe at a three-storied, fully painted and carved theatre in the round [Fig. 1 and 2].

 

Figure 1: view of plant life, half-timbered exterior and front entrance of the Phase I theatre, with caption included, from the Reconstructing the Rose website.  

 

 

Figure 2: view of Phase I stage from the yard, facing NE.

 

The video then proceeds through demonstrations of various parts of two different models featured in sequence: the theatre in its first phase (1587-1591/2), when it was a circular building for hire, and the second phase (1591/2-1606) when it expanded into an ovoid shape, added an outbuilding (a ‘penthouse shed’), more elaborate ‘gentlemen’s rooms’ flanking the stage in the gallery areas, and a grander stage (including a lean-to roof or ‘heavens’) [Fig. 3a and 3b]. Clegg surmises (based on the unpublished doctoral work of Yuanbo Mao) that owner and producer Henslowe remodelled the theatre in order to better accommodate established companies like Lord Strange’s Men. The theatre was torn down in 1606.

           

Figure 3a: view from the yard of the Phase II stage. Note lean-to roof with ‘heavens’ and flag.

 

Figure 3b: view of the Phase II stage from the adjacent ‘Lords’ or ‘Gentleman’s Room’ with spiked barrier.

 

The recreation is spellbinding and not a little deceptive. Everything is sunny and green around midsummer, not snowy and muddy and miserable. There are no people, no trash and no filth: perhaps Shakespeare is off writing Venus and Adonis because the theatre has been shut down by the plague. We are in merry old England minus the syphilis. I would give a quoit to see a dead beggar in situ here, but her absence makes it easier to concentrate on the buildings, which are gorgeously rendered.

 

Website

The website itself is attractively designed and easily navigated. Chapters are divided into sections of digestible length, illustrated primarily with stills and minimally interactive shots of the model (mainly interior shots but also overheads and exteriors with 360-degree views). The website therefore has the feel of an e-book, with carefully plodding but not overly lengthy analyses with good cross-references between interconnected, scroll-down chapters. The textual material is full of citations and, in some cases, direct links to sources in digital archives (beware link rot…). Chapters are divided between two main sections focused on the two building phases of the theatre (see above), with analysis of the incidental building, Cholmley’s victualling house, and a substantial Works Cited section (including links to other recreated theatre sites) near the end.

Many images of the modelled buildings sit alongside original map and manuscript details from which the modelling proceeded (e.g., an excerpt from Henslowe’s diary, a builder’s list, or a contemporary sketch like the Swan playhouse, c. 1596, by De Witt) as well as plentiful archaeological images of the building foundations and found objects. For example, a photo of an original excavated baluster sits next to a computer-modelled balustrade [Fig. 4].

Figure 4: juxtaposed illustrations of baluster and balustrade, with original captions.

 

Another section shows a close-up of a person thatching roofs alongside archaeological evidence of the same. We also see images of the real foundations of the theatre, although more schematic connections and diagrams could be included to clarify what has been recreated where, exactly.

Of special interest to the literary scholar are extensive quotations from play-texts familiar and obscure, including references to stage directions and architecture. Some details will appeal only to theatre historians [“Thus they would have stood at an average of 0.01m and 0.13m (5”) below the gallery floor against the stage, but an average of 0.47m (1’6”) and 0.35m (1’2”) above the gallery floor level at the southern end of the yard”], but these are balanced out by more general commentary.

The website spends significant time intelligently speculating on and discussing the visual programs it imagines could have been painted on the frons scenae and elsewhere as part of its overall scheme, i.e., a tripartite conception of the theatre ascending cosmically from below the earth (in the cellar of the stage) to the ‘heavens’ above (cf. section 4.13.1-2 ‘Upper Balcony’ and ‘Heavens’ of the Phase I construction). In the digital model, the stage is correspondingly painted green in imitation of grass, as suits the earth found at the lower, terrestrial level of our universe. This cosmic design is elaborated further in the Phase II reconstruction, wherein a lean-to roof with the ‘heavens’ painted on its underside is added to cover the stage (cf. section 5.11.1, ‘Frons Scenae heavens”’) [Fig. 3a]. The recreation of the heavens, a regular feature in Elizabethan theatres, draws inspiration from ceilings at Hampton Court Palace and Rycote Chapel, Oxfordshire.[3]

In another example of careful speculation, Clegg discusses possible decoration of the ‘Lords Room’ mentioned by Henslowe in his diary. This room like other ‘Gentlemen’s rooms’ was meant for leisure, with fine wooden paneling and cushioned benches and a slightly limited view of the stage [Fig. 3b]. Clegg discusses at length scholarly and practical reasons for placing these rooms immediately flanking the stage on the first, not second, balcony level, and he chooses a visual program based partly on the staircase (built 1605) at Knole House in Sevenoaks, Kent (illustrated nicely on the website), as well as Dutch illustrations of the Four Ages of Man among other sources (cf. section 5.7.3, ‘Gentlemen’s rooms/“Lord’s room”’.) These sections are richly informed scholarly speculations that bring the building, which was itself meant to be theatrically ‘read’ by the audience, alive.

The scholarly value of the site is therefore excellent for both theatre historians and for non-historians (like me) and for anyone with or without an imagination. Discussion of performance theory and politics is kept to a minimum while certain practical points are finely debated, such as, ‘did the stage have a trapdoor?’ [Clegg says maybe; although he doesn’t add one to the Phase I model, he adds one to Phase II, which had a larger stage (cf. sections 4.9.2 and 5.8.1)] and ‘did the theatre have two or three stories of balcony seating?’ (Clegg gives it three) and ‘did the theatre have a plaster-coated exterior or not?’ (Clegg says, maybe). The same considerations would probably have gone through Henslowe’s mind at the time of planning. In a nice touch, Henslowe’s business office is placed on the third floor behind the stage; clay fragments from a stove were found on site, so quite possibly Henslowe’s office was heated as he pored over bills and play-scripts there (cf. 4.13.3, ‘Henslowe’s office’).

Throughout, the emphasis is on learning through exploration and speculative modelling based on careful analysis of building materials and dimensions and primary-source analysis. The 3-D modelling in particular allows for new ideas to be fleshed out in ‘real’ virtual space, as it were:

 

The creation of a 3D computer model of the Rose, in particular, enhances ability to test the relationships between the archaeology and the architecture; explore the impact of sightlines on the audience’s experience of using the building as a theatre; consider how the mechanics of Rose stagecraft may have worked in practice; understand lighting conditions inside the theatre; and evaluate how the social, performative, and operational dynamics of the space may have functioned. (“Introduction”)

 

The operational dynamics of this theatre functioned well enough for this author to want to stay until the players showed up to rehearse.

Hopefully it will only be a matter of time before the reconstructed Rose is animated further and paired with audio recordings. How about a recorded guided tour by a professional actor? Could the model also be VR-enabled with action provided on and around its stage (the model is in 3D but actual VR components are currently limited to a few panoramic scans of the model and some static stereoscopic views)? How about self-guided tours on Oculus Rift-type devices? As it stands, we can’t get close enough to the ‘sun and moon’ cloth in the heavens to really see and appreciate that detail, for example. A suggested teaching program would also be nice to have. One also worries about the model’s longevity: it is unclear what if any data management plan is in place for this invaluable resource.  Will it stand longer than the theatre itself once did?

Clearly there is great future potential in what is already a splendid view into the world of Tudor-Jacobean theatre. Reconstructing the Rose is a free resource for teachers, scholars, and the general public alike. When you visit, you may not breathe Spenser’s air nor hear the bustle of the world around him, but you will be astonished to ‘be’ there.

 

Thomas Herron
East Carolina University



[1] Want to travel through evolution? Check out Ancestors: the Humankind Odyssey (2019): https://store.playstation.com/en-us/product/UP4581-CUSA13252_00-ANCESTORSVOLUME1, accessed 12/9/2019. For recreations of early modern worldscapes focused on key architectural monuments and currently under development in VR, see (for example) the Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral Project (https://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu), Centering Spenser: a Digital Resource for Kilcolman Castle (http://core.ecu.edu/umc/Munster/index.html) and Charles V/R (https://greenhousestudios.uconn.edu/charlesvr).

[2] ‘The current reconstructed Globe playhouse has [in reality] been built someway from the actual remains of Shakespeare’s theatre, which was originally located just across the street from the Rose. Use of VR or AR could allow the visitor to the site of the Rose to understand better the close proximity of, and competitive relationship between, the two theatres after 1599 [when the Globe was built], which ultimately contributed to the demise of Henslowe’s theatre by 1606. The possibilities of adding value [to Reconstructing the Rose] through VR and AR are many’.” Clegg, ‘Introduction’, Reconstructing the Rose.

[3] To nitpick a minor error, the header image on the website labeled ‘Level 3 gallery, Phase I’, placed as part of the ‘Heavens’ of the Phase I theatre, is actually a shot of the Phase II gallery heavens.

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50.2.11

Cite as:

Thomas Herron, "Roger Clegg and Eric Tatham, Reconstructing the Rose: 3D computer modelling Philip Henslowe’s playhouse ," Spenser Review 50.2.11 (Spring-Summer 2020). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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