“All the world’s a playhouse”: A brief history of the Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe, rebuilt for the 21st century. Image: Getty.

A flag with Hercules carrying the globe on his back flew above the crowds. The main entrance bore a crest with Totus mundus agit histrionem inscribed on it “All the world’s a playhouse”. The performance was about to begin, and seeing as London’s master of drama, William Shakespeare, penned the plot, it was destined to be a hit. No one cared the theatre had just opened. Elizabethans from all ranks – at least, except Puritans – loved the theatre and this new one was not going to be any different.

The year was 1599 and Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, had just become home to the capital’s newest stage: the Globe. Like other theatres at the time, it resembled the Coliseum in Rome, only on a much smaller scale. Its circular courtyard was surrounded by three tiers of seating and topped with an open thatched roof.

The south side of London was a popular place for theatres in Elizabethan England, because it was outside the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor. In the 20 years leading up to the Globe’s opening, and until its doors were officially shut in 1642, the government condemned plays and players, referring to actors as “sturdy beggars” and “masterless men”.

In 1597, the Lord Mayor appealed to the privy council in hopes of prohibiting plays once and for all (performances had been severely restricted in 1574). He argued that the theatre corrupted the youth, attracted “whoremongers” and “contrivers of treason”, drew men away from their daily jobs – and perhaps most seriously, was a breeding ground for plague outbreaks. For these reasons, it was best for theatres to operate beyond the government’s control.

This idea of setting up a stage outside city limits was not a new one. In fact, James Burbage — the father of renowned actor Richard Burbage and lawyer Cuthbert Burbage — built London’s first theatre in 1576 in Shoreditch, just outside the Lord Mayor’s reach.

The Theatre, as it was named, became a permanent place for his troupe to perform. He and his fellow actors no longer needed to travel to their audiences; playgoers could go see them now. It was an unprecedented concept: a designated place where actors could command an audience’s full attention, charge for entry (if even a penny), and store costumes and props.


The Theatre flourished for twenty years despite relentless attacks by the authorities and numerous financial setbacks. Meanwhile, London’s appetite for drama continued to grow. Shakespeare arrived around 1588 (the exact date is unknown), other playhouses like The Curtain and The Rose boomed.

When the Burbage brothers found out the landowner was going to tear down their father’s theatre, they knew they had to do something. So Richard and Cuthbert, with help from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare included) and many volunteers, took the playhouse apart and floated its wooden pieces across the Thames. The timber was going to be used to build the most spectacular theatre London had ever seen.

Bankside, the place to where they transported all those materials, was not the optimal place to begin construction. Located next to the river, it was a marshy area prone to flooding. But once Peter Street, the craftsman in charge, established a solid foundation and strong drainage system, the theatre was well on its way to completion.

After five months’ work, at the end of May 1599, the Globe was ready for its debut. Its 20-sided structure could hold up to 3,000 patrons. Two massive pillars shot up from the stage, providing support for a painted ceiling called “the heavens”. The area in front of the stage was reserved for “groundlings”, who paid a penny at the door, while three levels of galleries enclosed the courtyard. With Shakespeare steering the storyline and Richard Burbage delivering the drama, the scene was set. To quote a (21st century) guide to Shakespeare’s London: “[N]owhere is English to be expressed with more vigor and variety than on the stage.”

The Globe quickly became the “glory of Bankside” and even after it burned down during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613, it was rebuilt in the same spot and more magnificently than before. From Hamlet to Macbeth, Cleopatra to Cordelia, the theatre marked the beginning of England’s most acclaimed art form: the drama.

In 1642, Puritans shut down every theatre in London to make room for housing. Two years later, the Globe was demolished. Over three centuries passed until American actor, Sam Wanamaker, began the third reconstruction of the Globe. As true to its original design as historians and builders could make it, the theatre reopened in 1997. Its thatched roof still opens to the sky above and King Hamlet’s ghost still rises from below.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.