Ian McKellen Writings

April 1989| A Shade of Pink at the Rose

First published in Gay Times

Actor Ian McKellen writes about an exciting archaeological dig which has unearthed the long-lost Rose Theatre — the Elizabethan base of playwright Christopher Marlowe.

At the moment, quite the most exciting theatrical novelty in London is not the emergence of James Bond as a song and dance man, nor even Tootsie's transformation into Shylock, but the reappearance of Rose, one of the oldest dames in the business. The Rose Theatre flourished 400 years ago, on the south bank of the Thames, just by Southwark Bridge. After 20 exciting years, fashions changed: she slipped into disrepair, and eventually collapsed in the soggy mud of suburban Southwark. The foundations have ever since been coffined by a succession of buildings, the latest of which, in the careless 1950s, drove massive concrete pillars through her skeleton.

But this February, Rose's remains were opened up, at the junction of Rose Alley and Maiden Lane SE1. The corner site, two blocks away from the river and overlooked by pedestrians on Southwark Bridge, was being cleared to make way for yet another inner-city office block, six storeys high. The developers, Imry Property Holdings, at once did the decent and the fashionable thing, in these days of conservation — they paid for two months of exploration by the patient archaeologists from the Museum of London. And in early March, to everyone's delight, they agreed to a 10-week extension of the dig.

Rose has been delicately unwrapped by a lumbering earth-mover, whose butch driver boasts that he can "slice the mud to the thickness of a cigarette-paper.” Trowels have gently scraped the clay from the chalk and brick foundations, revealing the definite lines of the 18-sided outer wall of the theatre. Within, is the floor of Tudor mortar, packed with animal bones, hazelnuts and the lathe and plaster of collapsed walls. Not much, you might think: but for those with eyes to see, enough to have scholars racing across the Atlantic to examine, photograph and, touchingly, to caress the relics.

Theatre people share such veneration.

Tipped off by Roger Rees, scores of us have run to the muddy site of our dreams. Rose was one of that cluster of open-roofed playhouses, custom-built to stage the works of William Shakespeare and his rivals. They traded for some 60 unmatchable years, until Cromwell banned theatre-going in 1642. There have never been theatres like them, anywhere else in the world. The most revered, these days, is the Globe, where Shakespeare's mature plays were first performed. A reproduction of the Globe is currently being built by the American actor Sam Wanamaker, only a shout away from the real Rose.

The irony of that enterprise, patronised by Prince Philip and mainly financed from USA, is that no one honestly knows what any of the Elizabethan playhouses looked like in detail. The only contemporary illustration of a stage and auditorium, was sketched from a description in a letter. Otherwise, scholars have depended on unreliable etchings of London and on the diaries and accounts of the impresario Philip Henslowe. Henslowe built the Rose Theatre in 1583. This current opportunity to compare his written records with actual bricks and mortar, explains the excitement of archaeologists and theatre historians. As the whole site is gradually cleared, academics have on increasingly complete picture of what the theatre looked like and how it worked. On a scale of rarity value, the priceless old Rose makes ancient Greek and Roman amphitheatres seem two-a-penny.

With the manager Henslowe, two other men are synonymous with Rose. His son in-law and star was Edward Alleyn, the richest actor in a period of basically commercial theatre, partly 'sponsored' (as we have to say these days) by rich patrons. He spent his fortune on founding Dulwich College, where his portrait hangs. Alleyn's greatest roles were written by Henslowe's young and greatest playwright, Christopher Marlowe.

Marlowe and Shakespeare were both born in 1564. In their early twenties, they were both writing very popular plays, some of them first performed at the Rose. But whereas Shakespeare's private life is mainly a matter of surmise, Marlowe survives as a much more recognisable personality.

After attending King's College in his hometown of Canterbury, he won a scholarship to Cambridge and met his lifelong friend, the poet Tom Watson. At Pembroke College, where he wrote his first sensation for the stage, Tamburlaine the Great, there is a plaque to his memory. This should, by rights, have been painted pink, because by the time Marlowe had set up house with Watson in London, he was prepared to boast that he was homosexual.

'Gay' seems too sunny a word for Marlowe. His hell-raising, in public and private, once landed him in prison and finally in the grave. He was employed by Elizabeth I's secret service, spying on Catholics. He was, illegally, an atheist. Outside his small but intense output of plays and poetry, his most celebrated words were: "All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools." (This in an age when "the detestable and abominable vice" was punishable by death, with confiscation of land and goods.) Never mind the boys, en travestie in his plays: imagine the thrill in the early 1590s, of smoking the exotic drug, imported from a new world, as distant to Marlowe, Watson and Shakespeare, as Mars seems to us. On the floor of the Rose Theatre, they have found a dozen, broken, Tudor pipes with tiny, clay bowls for the precious tobacco.

Marlowe's ploys are still attractive to flamboyant actors and directors — not all of them gay. The Royal Shakespeare Company's current repertoire has his Jew of Malta and Dr Faustus. Less frequently seen, is his most complete, and surely his most personal play The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward II, King of England . . . and also the life and death of Piers Gaveston . . . mighty favourite of King Edward II. Piers is Edward's lover. Queen Isabella understandably takes offence; and so do the noble barons, who feel their power over the throne to be in jeopardy. But their main objection to Gaveston is that he is a baseborn foreigner, rather than that he is gay. And in words, likely to curl the lip of Section 28, a senior statesman pleads: — would that Thatcher had such advisers —

Thou seest by nature he is mild and calm, And seeing his mind so dotes on Gaveston,
Let him without controlment have his will.
The mightiest kings have had their minions:
Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;
And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped:
And not kings only, but the wisest men:
The Roman Tully loved Octavius;
Great Socrates wild Alcibiades.

Once the teenage King Edward's love is thwarted by the murder of the lovely, vain and passionate Piers, (off the road near Warwick), he turns tyranically savage. Dethroned, and in solitary confinement in Berkeley Castle, he is buggered to death by a red-hot poker. When I played Edward in 1969, I was told that the family moves out of Berkeley on the anniversary, so as not to hear the ghostly screams from the wine-cellar.

Onstage too, the parody of male-love in the death-scene is properly upsetting. An early twentieth-century production actually hid the offending act, behind a curtain. In 1969, men in our audiences crossed their legs in sympathy for the tortured king, while the women all leaned forward. Other Edwards in the 1960s, including Richard Kaye in Leicester and Derek Jacobi for the newly-formed National Youth Theatre, helped bring the play out of the closet. It would be good to see a modern, young, passionate actor make his name in the best part Marlowe ever wrote.

When Marlowe met his own violent death in a Deptford pub — fatally stabbed in the eye — his glittering reputation was overtaken by the law-abiding Shakespeare. Did Bill like Kit Marlowe so much, that he recreated him, as the roistering, iconoclastic Mercutio who so resents Romeo's love affairs with women?

But for the next few weeks, we can touch the very bricks and mortar which once heard Marlowe's mighty lines, and echoed with the treble voices of boy-actors and with Edward II's dying cry. Eventually on Imry Merchant's new office-block, there should be a pink plaque to the lovely Rose and to the gay playwright whom I hope she loved most.

Visit the official site for the Rose Theatre Trust

THE ROSE THEATRE - AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL DISCOVERY by Julian Bowsher. Foreword by Sir Ian McKellen. A straightforward but excellent account of the discoveries made during the excavation, written by the Site Director. Clearly written, beautifully illustrated and jargon-free.

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