Actor / Director  Sam  Wanamaker
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Obituary: Sam Wanamaker
by NICK SMURTHWAITE  The Independent, Monday 20 December 1993  [Text only - photo is from another source]

Samuel Wanamaker, actor, director and producer: born Chicago 14 June 1919; CBE 1993; married 1940 Charlotte Holland (three daughters); died London 18 December 1993.

If Sam Wanamaker wasn't as famous or acclaimed an actor as he might have been, he only had himself to blame. Or rather, his obsession. For over 20 years he poured the lion's share of his considerable energy into recreating Shakespeare's wooden 'O', the Globe Theatre, on London's south bank.

Born in Chicago in 1919, Wanamaker had a dogged entrepreneurial zeal that was often mistaken for American excess in the London theatrical establishment, especially since he was always aware of the commercial imperatives attendant upon his dream to rebuild the Globe. The need to make it a going concern was seen by many as thinly veiled Disneyism.

What his detractors often forgot was that Wanamaker was a genuine Shakespearean enthusiast, man and boy. Appropriately, his debut in Shakespeare was in a plywood and paper replica of the Globe at the Chicago World Fair in 1934, when he appeared as a teenager in condensed versions of the Bard's greatest hits.

Wanamaker was 23 when he first played Broadway in Cafe Crown in 1942. The following year he was called up and spent the next three years doing his US military duty. Returning to the theatre in 1946, he took on a succession of headstrong juvenile leads in long-forgotten plays. What he hankered after was classical theatre of the kind that flourished in England. To this end he created the Festival Repertory Theatre in New York in 1950.

Two years later, by now blacklisted by Senator McCarthy's Commie-bashers, he came to London to join Laurence Olivier's company at the St James's Theatre, playing alongside Michael Redgrave in Winter Journey, which he also directed. One of the first things he did on arriving in London was to seek out the site of Shakespeare's Globe. Instead of the elaborate memorial he'd always imagined, Wanamaker found a dirty plaque fixed to the wall of a Courage brewery bottling plant in a particularly drab Southwark back street.

From 1953 to 1960 he produced and acted in plays in London and the provinces, creating the New Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool, where his productions included A View From the Bridge, The Rose Tattoo, The Rainmaker and Bus Stop. Another American play, The Big Knife by Clifford Odets, was a personal success for Wanamaker as actor-director at the Duke of York's in 1954. Perhaps his outstanding performance of this period, certainly the one for which he is best remembered, was Iago to Paul Robeson's Othello in Tony Richardson's 1959 production at Stratford. [Photo of this production is at the bottom of this webpage.]

He first tackled opera in 1962, Tippett's King Priam, twice revived at Covent Garden. Wanamaker later admitted he relied on others better acquainted with operatic production to tell him what to do, including the composer himself, 'who kept laughing, patting me on the back and telling me not to worry'.

Later that year his radical reinvention of Verdi's La Forza del Destino caused a sensation at Covent Garden, and led to many other operatic offers, including, much later, the opening production at Sydney Opera House, Prokofiev's War and Peace. In 1977 he returned to Covent Garden to produce the premiere of Tippett's The Ice Break.

Wanamaker's track record shows a commendable lack of cultural elitism. He would happily go from producing Verdi to playing a cameo in a Goldie Hawn film (Private Benjamin, 1980), or directing an episode of Hawaii Five-0 (1978). He thrived on diversity and contrast, the more challenging the better. Though there were some memorable screen roles in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1964), The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1966), the 1978 television mini-series Holocaust and, most recently, Guilty by Suspicion (1991) with Robert De Niro, Wanamaker never took film seriously enough to claim the first- division status that was his due.

From the late 1960s his colleagues in almost every job he undertook were regaled, like it or not, with the latest chapter in the Globe saga, which sometimes seemed as if it would never reach its climax. From the moment he first presented the Architectural Association with a model of the Globe he had had made at Shepperton Studios in 1969, Wanamaker was a man with a mission - to create an international focus for the study and celebration of Shakespeare.

He found a staunch ally in Theo Crosby, who became chief architect of the scheme, sharing Wanamaker's determination to make it both commercially viable (since government subsidy always seemed unlikely) and true to the Spartan style of its 16th-century blueprint - hard wooden benches, no heating, no amplification, and no roof to cover the hole in the middle.

Over two decades of fund-raising and bureaucratic battles, Wanamaker's missionary zeal was stretched to the limit, mostly by the left-wingers of Southwark Council, who tried to sabotage what they saw as indulgent elitism by claiming the Globe site back for council housing. The matter was finally settled in court, where Wanamaker's contention that the Globe project would bring employment to many and regeneration to a notably depressed area of London finally won the day.

By the late 1980s the Globe had beaten off its chief adversaries, and become virtually unassailable thanks to the patronage of the Duke of Edinburgh, Ronald Reagan, Michael Caine, Dustin Hoffman and a host of other victims of Wanamaker's persuasive powers. No longer was he perceived as the cranky Yank building castles in the air; despite an unfavourable economic climate and constantly escalating costs, the Globe really would be rebuilt and Wanamaker's dream vindicated.

In more recent years, the quest for funds took him, appropriately, all over the globe, shored up by his commitment to posterity and the firm belief that there was, just around the next corner, that elusive crock of gold. The first bays of the Globe Theatre were unveiled this year. It is scheduled to open for business in April 1995.


After having been born and getting his start here in Chicago, Wanamaker returned only a few of times to the Windy City.  One such event was as co-conferencier with Tito Gobbi of the Gala 25th Anniversary Concert of Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1979.  [Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.]  Then in September of 1992, he came back to narrate selections from The Tempest with the well-known incidental music by Sibelius played by the Chicago Sinfonietta led by Paul Freeman.  The concert, which opened their season, also held music by MacDowell, Copland, Shostakovich, and Yuri Falik.

It was during this final visit that I had the extreme pleasure of speaking with him at his hotel. 

The topics were mostly about directing operas, and here is that conversation . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    I’d like to talk about just a few things, especially opera since you’re involved with that.  You’re director, producer and star.  How do you divide your career amongst those many taxing activities?

Sam Wanamaker:    [Laughs]  Well, it’s pretty difficult.  I haven’t directed opera now for more than a year because I’ve been so involved in the Globe project, reconstructing Shakespeare’s Globe on the original site in London.  So I haven’t done anything that’s taken a lot of my time, and opera does take quite a bit of time to prepare and rehearse and stage, and so on.  I’ve been focusing on the Globe and the odd television or movie that comes along and takes me a couple of weeks.  So, much as I enjoy doing opera, I just haven’t been able to do anything productions recently.

BD:    Since opera takes more time, is it more work or is it more depth?

SW:    It’s both.  I find that when I work on opera, I go to the source material, the text in the first place.

BD:    Do you go for the stories that the libretto was derived from?

SW:    Basically, yes.  I go back to the original material, whatever that may be, because the libretto is a kind of shorthand, and just to understand the underlying objectives of the story.  Basically one is looking for a way of interpreting that story though the opera medium, not for the sake of freshness, but to try and find a fresh way of expressing the material and serving the music.

BD:    The composer himself has taken some material and pared it down and made it a workable libretto, and then fashioned, like a suit of clothes, which is the music.  Are you then coming along and putting make-up on the person who is already clothed?

SW:    No, it’s a matter of making that story credible through the music.  I don’t feel that the performer is already clothed until he does have an opportunity to give some kind of life to the character beyond just the music.  Acting an opera enhances some element here which dramatizes, otherwise you do all the operas in concert, with everybody in black tie just belting it out and singing it, or singing it with verisism and gentility, if that is what’s demanded.  But an opera director has got another kind of obligation to achieve, otherwise what’s the point of the opera?  For example, I’ve worked with certain people who were not actors at all.

BD:    They were just singers?

SW:    Yes, and they never claimed to be actors, although as they happened to be in opera, they put on a costume and make certain gestures towards the idea of being a character.  No matter how much you do to try to make them credible human beings in that situation, you really don’t win if they don’t want you to win in the sense that they feel they’re not actors.  They say, “What the hell?  People are coming to listen to my voice!”

BD:    So they don’t try?

SW:    There is very little effort.  There are singers like that.  I remember one singer...  I was doing an opera at Covent Garden and he was supposed to turn up to a rehearsal about ten days before the opening.  Now ten days is not a lot of time to rehearse an opera, but since he was such a big deal as an opera singer [laughs], he would send a message a few days before the rehearsal saying that his voice wasn’t right.  Then he’d be there two days or three days, and then three days would go by and somebody else would ring up for him and he would say he’s not feeling well and he can’t come.  He turned up three days before the actual opening night.

BD:    So you could be little more than a traffic cop?

SW:    Right, that’s all.  So you say you understand his voice isn’t so good, but let me show you exactly the movement at least.  That’s about as much you could do.  You take him through rehearsals with an understudy.   Well, what would happen on opening night is that this particular person I’m speaking of totally ignored even the traffic cop movement that I gave him, and whenever he came to an aria of his, he was simply walked down to the front of the stage and belted it out!  It absolutely bore no relation to any kind of human experience.  [Laughs throughout this entire story]

BD:    So his was a vocal recital!

SW:    Yes, and at the end of the aria he got huge ovation!  So we figure, what the hell!   Why should I waste my time doing all this utter nonsense?  For example, in this one opera, there as a dual, and in order to make  sword play you have to rehearse that a little bit.  We rehearsed it, and he half-heartedly tried, but when it came to do this thing on the actual night, he just sort of stood there and waved his sword like kids do.  He stood there, and it was funny.  People laughed.  It was so ludicrous.

BD:    I assume then the dual was with the baritone.  How did the baritone take all of this? 

SW:    [Still laughing]  Because he was not as important as the other man, he wasn’t getting as much money.  So he had to take it, because he knew he had to work with this man again some other time.  He couldn’t have a row with him.  But the point I’m making is that at the end of the opera evening he got standing ovation.  So people were not really interested in whether he could act or couldn’t act.  They loved his voice.  He had a beautiful voice, and that’s all they came to hear.

BD:    But would they not collectively have been immensely more satisfied if, in addition to this wonderful voice, he had given them a credible or even superb acting performance?

SW:    Oh, absolutely.  There’s no question about that.  I think they would have appreciated if he could do it, but he felt he couldn’t do it, or he wasn’t good at it, and he didn’t care about it.  All he cared about was getting out there, like a concert with costume.  Let me give you an example...

BD:    [Interrupting]  First, let me ask you perhaps an impossible question.  Assuming you can’t get the wonderful singer with the wonderful acting ability, would you rather have a lesser singer who has wonderful acting ability, or a wonderful singer with less acting ability?

SW:    Well, as I come from the theater, I would of course prefer the person who could act and try to.  There are many opera singers who are wonderful actors who wouldn’t need to sing at all.  They could credibly work in the theater because they were so good and had such a natural talent.  But I was going to use an example of Pavarotti, because everybody recognizes him.

BD:    I thought we were talking about him before!

SW:    No, we were not!!!

BD:    [Mildly shocked]  Oh that was another tenor???

SW:    Oh yes, there are a lot of tenors in the world!  As far as Luciano was concerned, he made an effort.

BD:    That’s good.  I remember him here in Chicago, and especially in the early days he did make an effort at acting.

SW:    He is not a good actor, but the thing that makes him so marvelous, apart from his voice, is that he has a wonderful personality.  He’s a lovely, charming man personally, but he also has a credibility in his singing where you totally experience the character in terms of his voice and in terms of what he’s singing about.  He understands that emotionally, and that compensates for a lot.  I remember when I worked with him the only time, we did Aïda in San Francisco for the first time.

BD:    This was his first shot at the part?

SW:    That’s right.  We had two or three weeks of rehearsal, which is very unusual.

BD:    Did he show up for the whole time?

SW:    Oh yes, he did, and he showed up for rehearsal on time every day.  He was concerned to do it well.  At a certain point I said, “Please, Luciano, face the person you’re singing at so we can have a connection in this particular duet.”  And he said to me, “Look at me when I turn sideways, you see what the profile is.  I can’t!”  He was very conscious of his size and weight, and the image that he represents up there.  Of course costuming is a very important thing that he worries about, but he tries to diminish that heavy weight image of his.  But I never got a sense that he didn’t care or that he wasn’t trying.  He’s just not a natural actor in terms of movement.  He’s a natural actor in terms of singing.  That’s the thing that I like about him, that he makes an effort even though he’s not a natural actor.  But the fact that he’s making an effort is very important.  I believe that the type of person I was talking about in the first example
who shall be namelessis part of the old school, where to him opera is singing only.  Yes, you have to put on a costume and do a little make-up and so on, but he’s not interested in that.  He knows that his voice has found a claim throughout his career, and he didn’t have to do the other thing; nor was he good at it, so we just threw in the towel, really.  It’s a sort of  selfish sort of thing.

BD:    Selfish or lazy?

SW:    Well, selfish because there is no effort made, and it was not fair to the other actors, singers, who were attempting to perform in the opera-sense, where opera is a combination of acting and singing.  That’s what it’s all about.


BD:    Then let me ask the
Capriccio question.  Where is the balance between the acting and the singing?

SW:    As a director in opera, one always has to be aware of the machinery of singing when you stage an opera.  I know that some other producers make singers go through physical contortions which make it difficult for them.  They put them in awful positions which are difficult for singing, and that’s not fair.  I know a lot of modern operas which they don’t care about such things.  There is a school of thought in modern opera today where acting becomes more important than the singing, and these works require putting actors in the right positions.  You do see several modern operas where this is happening, where the emphasis is on the acting more than on the singing, and sometimes there are contortions that actors are put through
— such as singers lying on their backs or bending way over so can’t breathe properly, and doing physical leaps where they lose their breath and can’t sustain notes, and so on.  That happens in modern, contemporary opera today.

BD:    Does it also happen in old operas staged in updated versions?

SW:    Sometimes it does, depending on who’s producing and what organization is doing it, and whether the singers will allow it to happen.  But I as a producer feel I probably fall between the two stools.  I believe in refreshing the content of the material, to enhance the music, but always to give a freshness through what’s happening on the stage in terms of the story and the drama the emotion and so on.   But I also recognize that there is a physical condition that has to permit the singer to give the best vocal quality, where he can breathe properly and have enough weight behind the music.  The demands on the voice are very great.  It’s a very delicate instrument.

BD:    I suppose though occasionally you might want one of these contortions or something but you have another singer is singing so that ...

SW:    Oh, yes, you can do that.  But if the singer says to me that they can’t really produce the notes properly in that position, or they can’t run up the steps and the belt out a high C, that’s understandable.

BD:    So then you change your direction?

SW:    Absolutely, you have to.

BD:    Because there are directors who say they simply must do it.

SW:    I know, and I don’t agree with that.  I think the music must not be sacrificed, and that means vocal music mustn’t be sacrificed to some crazy demand that a director might make.  It’s not right.

BD:    So ‘prima la musica e poi le parole [first the music and then the words]!’

SW:    That’s right.

BD:    When you stage operas, I assume that mostly you’re involved with new productions so that you can collaborate with the designer and the whole team rather than coming in onto an existing production?

SW:    Exactly.  I did an opera in San Diego some time ago which had been staged before.  At first I said, “I really am not interested.”  There was ten days of actual rehearsal time, and none of these people had sung the major roles before, and they said they’ve got the sets.  I’m really not interested in just remounting something which, in effect, confines everything to what was done before.

BD:    You made this assumption without even looking at the stage pictures?

SW:    That’s right.  I think there’s another role for some other kind of person who’s a stager.  There’s always a resident producer or director.

BD:    What if you’d looked at the pictures and thought the production was fabulous?

SW:    Well then I suppose I would have felt differently about it, but in that particular case the set was rather boring and the costumes had been hired.  Some of them were made but they’d have to be fitted to the new singers.  Anyway, I was very reluctant to do anything about it and take on this job, when the management said they wanted to refurbish it, even change the set if needed.  They said they would do fresh things, etc., but when it came to actually doing it, a) there wasn’t time, b) there wasn’t money to do it and c) the reality was that they weren’t interested in changing it in any way.  So I found myself trapped, once I’d agreed to do it, to try and bring something original or new to it.  The only thing I had left was to try and make the singers perform in a credible human and emotional way. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Aside from the very obvious, what are the differences between directing opera and directing a stage play or a film or television?

SW:    As far as the straight theater is concerned, the concentration there is totally on the acting and the interpretation of the play without any limitations other than what the living author might impose.  If you’re staging it from scratch as the first production, the living author would be normally there with you, working together...

BD:    As a collaborator or a pest?

wanamaker SW:    Well, some might say both, of course!  [Both laugh]  But it depends on what that relationship is.  In my own experience I have worked with authors of original productions, and would have preliminary meetings with that person before we began.  I was happy to carry on with it, and I suppose the writer, too, had to be assured that the director he was getting wasn’t going to distort his play.  So it was a common objective to try and understand each other and the material before you actually commit to doing it with each other, and in most cases it works out very well.  In some cases there are disagreements, and they’re either resolved happily or they’re resolved unhappily, or they’re not resolved at all!

BD:    So there are several possibilities?

SW:    Oh yes, there always are.  If the director felt that the author was wrong in a certain area, he would try to persuade the author that it needed changing.   If he couldn’t persuade him to do that, there could be a point of no return in the collaboration.  It has often happened that the director leaves the production because, after all, the writer is the one that takes precedence in the end
unless you can persuade him — and that element of persuasion happens quite a lot in a new production where a director can persuade an author to make certain changes.  That’s what a new production is all about.  You maybe make those changes after you do previews.  You see what’s happening on the stage and you both can see that something isn’t working.  Then you both have to find a way to make it work!

BD:    Does the same hold true for a new opera?  I know you’ve stage a couple of the new works by Tippett.

SW:    Yes.  I worked with Michael Tippett twice on two new works, and he was immensely co-operative about the staging.  Interestingly enough he always deferred to the director because he had certain visions about the music and sound, but his vision of staging was very dim.  He never thought in terms of staging, which is very interesting with him.  So in almost in all cases deferred to the director in terms of staging.

BD:    Was he his own librettist?

SW:    Oh yes.  He always has been.  It’s very interesting that every opera that I can think of that he’s done has been the libretto written by him.  So you’ve got a double whammy there.  He has not only written the music but also the libretto.  Yet curiously enough, he is very generous about giving the director his own creative head, and that’s very exciting.  When I did King Priam, it was his second opera.  His first opera was Midsummer Marriage, and that when that was premiered at Covent Garden it was a disaster.  The critics just killed it.  I didn’t see the production, but I read some of the press and they were devastating.  King Priam was my first opera, and John Pritchard, whom I knew and who conducted it, used to come and see my productions up in Liverpool.  He was the conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at the time, and he used to come and see my plays that I staged in the Shakespeare theater there.  He was the one who suggested my staging of the King Priam

BD:    Pritchard was a great favorite here in Chicago.

SW:    A lovely man too.  But I demurred because I just felt that I’m not a musician.  I don’t read music for example.  I love opera, I love music but I don’t read, and so I said, “I really haven’t got the confidence that I could do this.”  He told me, “You come and talk to Michael Tippett, and you will see!”  Michael was absolutely wonderful about it, but the interesting thing was that none of the major producers of opera wanted to do his work.  So I was sort of at the end of a line, if you see what I mean!

BD:    Did they assume, no matter what, it was another scandal?

SW:    Well, yes!  They just didn’t like his music, and they thought King Priam was unstageable.  I found this out later, of course, but it didn’t take much to figure it out why they were coming to me, a guy who’s never done an opera before and can’t read music, just to take on this very important job.  Finally I was persuaded.  I really had to back into it because I was very nervous and frightened.  Pritchard said, “Michael will be there with you,” but as it happened, Michael wasn’t.  Michael didn’t come near the rehearsals until the very end when we started to work with the orchestra for the first time.  The fascinating thing is that I remember Michael took the first orchestral rehearsal.

BD:    He conducted it?

SW:    Yes.  He wasn’t going to do it, but he took it only because he wanted the experience of hearing it for the first time with the whole orchestra.  All this stuff was in his head!  The only thing I had to work with was a piano score and somebody playing the whole opera on the piano.  Not being a musician, it was very hard for me to hear all the orchestral voices.  I’d say, “Well what is this?” and of course the orchestral score told you what it was.

BD:    That’s a little oboe line or a trombone part!

SW:    Exactly.  In my own imagination I had to hear that instrument, and not having the experience a proper musician, it was much more difficult.  So for me it was a wonderful surprise too to hear it, and I remember Michael taking this first orchestral rehearsal and suddenly breaking down the orchestra.  The instrument would suddenly not be able to play something and he would burst out laughing.  It was way out of the range of that instrument, and so he laughed and they all laughed.  He said, “Well, I’ll have to fix that, won’t I!”  It was rather charming, and the success of that production was a great surprise to me and everybody for that matter because they were expecting the worst of Covent Garden and all the critics and all that.  Instead, it was a great success with the audience and with everybody concerned.  I think that was because I was dealing with a great classic story, and I had enough material from the Iliad to create something on a stage that was marvelously exciting.  And the music fitted it beautifully.  Suddenly the music became alive.  If you listen to the score of King Priam itself, it’s not so hot just to hear.  It’s something you’ve got to see, and this has been true when they did it in concert performance.  They’ve had one or two stagings of that opera since I did it over twenty years ago, and they both succeeded very well.  After the first production it was staged quite differently.

BD:    Is that a tribute to Tippett, that it can be staged several different ways and still hold up?

SW:    Yes, yes, exactly.  It’s a tribute to him, but it’s also a tribute to the fundamental core of the story and the material, which is wonderful stuff.

BD:    You also did a second Tippett opera, The Ice Break.  That’s a completely new story.

SW:    That’s right, a completely new idea that he’d written from somewhere in his imagination.  He’s very American-oriented, you know.   He loved American music and jazz and spirituals and black music.

BD:    So then you didn’t have quite so much historical material to call upon?

SW:    No, I didn’t, and that made it much more difficult.  It was a very difficult piece to stage.  We had a very interesting set to look at, but it turned out to be very difficult to work on.  That’s partly my fault in terms of the collaboration with the scenic artists.  We worked very closely together on this thing, and I think we just created a set that was marvelous for the piece, but made it very difficult for the actors.  This was a situation where actors had to do certain things physically that made it difficult for them to sing.  So I feel partly to blame for the fact that it wasn’t a success.

BD:    Would you like another shot at it?

SW:    I would like to correct my own mistakes.

BD:    Would you start with the same basic ideas and correct them, or would you scrap it and start again?

SW:    I would scrap it and start again.  The other way would be tinkering with it, and I think we just bit off a bit too much in terms of trying to make a statement through the set, and we went too far.  I needn’t take the whole blame for the failure of that piece, because if it were the result of the staging, then you would think that the music would have attracted other productions elsewhere, and it has not.  I vaguely recall the opera at Boston did a production of it.  I know they did King Priam...  [The Ice Break was first produced at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 7 July 1977, conducted by Colin Davis, the dedicatee of the opera, with (among others) Heather Harper, John Shirley-Quirk, and Josephine Barstow.  A German translation was given at the Kiel Opera House the year following its premiere. The Opera Company of Boston mounted the work in May 1979 under the direction of Sarah Caldwell, the first professional production of a Tippett opera in the USA.  It was revived at Covent Garden the same year, but was not thereafter seen until a concert production at the Henry Wood Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in 1990. A recording was made with the 1990 cast.]

BD:    There’s been a recording of the work...

SW:    This was done in the studio.  I haven’t heard it so I don’t know whether it’s stands up musically or not.  Have you heard it?

BD:    I have the record, but I must confess I’ve not had a chance to listen to it yet. 

SW:    I should get it too.  We should both listen to it now and judge it on just the musical score.  But I suspect it imposes a tremendous problem for anybody who is staging it.  It’s a very difficult piece.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You bring up a word that I want to pounce on just a little bit, and that is ‘judgment’.  When an audience comes to an opera that you or someone else has staged, how much should they be judging and how much should they just be enjoying or becoming enriched?

SW:    I like to go for myself whenever I go to something new, whether it’s an opera or a play or a ballet, or whatever.   I come with an open mind since normally you know who the people are who have put it together, but even if it’s people you don’t know, who have no track record that you know of.  Because I have been myself the recipient in the normal way of criticism for productions that I’ve staged or be involved with as an actor, whether it’s films or television, I’m much more open-minded.  I don’t find myself folding my arms and sitting there, grim-jawed and saying, “Show me!”  I am much more receptive and responsive to what’s coming across.  It takes me a long time before I will dismiss something and say this is rubbish, and even leave the auditorium because it’s painful.  It becomes painful if you find what’s happening up there is offensive to you in terms of artistic quality and it’s corrupt, or horribly conventional or false.  There’s no point in torturing yourself as an audience.  So I’m open-minded until there comes a point where you finally are open-minded enough and have allowed all the things you don’t like to go by, hoping that the thing will overcome some of the mistakes or misjudgments.  So I hope the audience comes that way.  That was your question.  I hope they come open-minded, but unfortunately in opera this depends on what your relationship is to hearing or seeing opera.

BD:    You might be coming for the first time?

SW:    It could very well be.  But I’m afraid that people go to see their favorites, and they don’t care about anything else.

BD:    So you draw a very distinct line between just being bored, and the production being corrupt and offending?

SW:    Yes.  There are various negative reactions.  Boredom is a negative reaction.  If you’re bored, why are you bored?  You’re bored because there’s nothing fresh and nothing stimulating, nothing exciting to look forward to, and so you’re bored.  That may not be bad, though.  It’s a conventional feeling, and I’m not against the conventional as such.  There might be something good in that conventional thing, even if you come just to relax and listen to the singing because it’s so lovely, and the music you’ve heard before and they’re doing that well.  So you turn off on the staging and you get something good out of it.  But if the singing is not good and if the acting is not good, and if the piece has been done many times before and you’ve seen it or heard it many times before, you might say, “What the hell?  Why hang around?  I’ll go and put on the CD when I get home!”  [Pauses]  I have to get back to Shakespeare for a moment here because I’ve been preoccupied in the latter part of my life with reconstructing Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which is now coming up out of the ground finally as part of an international Shakespeare set-up.  [See the box below for details of the original theater and the reconstruction.]

BD:    Did I read that you found the original walls, and you found the nutshells and knew that was really the Globe?

SW:    Yes, they’d found some of the foundations of the Globe, and they did find, as you say, some nutshells in all of this.  This was in ’89, about three years ago, which has given us that much more information about reconstructing it accurately.  But I’ve been so preoccupied with that, and my interest in Shakespeare has developed of course, along with my interest in rebuilding the Globe.  One goes to all the productions of Shakespeare one can.  That means looking for actors who could really do it well, and for producers/directors who could stage it well.  One has seen Hamlet twenty times, and still you go back again.  You know the play backwards but yet you go.  Like a great opera, you go often and over and over again to be re-excited and re-stimulated by the work.  But there are so many poor productions of Shakespeare, and it turns people off.  It’s like opera in a way, in the sense that people go to opera very often because they think it’s the right cultural thing to do, and they don’t really care about it very much.

BD:    A bit like castor oil!

SW:    That’s right!  It’s a kind of social thing they feel they must do in order to be seen to be properly intellectual or cultured.  It’s terrible for the people who go for those reasons.  They sit there, slarming a lot of junk, in effect like junk food, and not knowing the difference between good and bad because they haven’t had the chance to see really great, and they’re really turned off by it.  I’ve seen audiences turned off by Shakespeare, but will sit there rigidly, gritting their teeth, pretending they’re enjoying it.

BD:    Have you staged any of the Shakespeare operas?

SW:    I have not, and it’s one of the things I’m looking forward to doing.  It should be very exciting for me to do Otello or Macbeth or Hamlet.


BD:    If you stage Otello, will you have a little more sympathy for Iago, having played him on stage?

SW:    [Roars with laughter]  I think Iago’s a fantastic character, a wonderful character.  Whether one has sympathy for him, I don’t see any.  He’s not a very sympathetic character.  I think he’s funny!  I think he’s very shrewd and clever, and those kinds of people make you laugh a lot because they’re so bloody brilliant.

BD:    Did Verdi do him justice?

SW:    Oh, absolutely.  Absolutely, yes.  [At this point, his wife, Charlotte, came into the room to summon him to get ready for his evening
s event.]

BD:    Thank you so much for spending a little time with me today.

SW:    Well, not at all. 

[The following is from  (text only - photo is from another source)]

Elizabethan Theatres

The Globe Theatre

The original Globe was an Elizabethan theatre which opened in Autumn 1599 in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, in an area now known as Bankside. It was one of several major theatres that were located in the area, the others being the Swan, the Rose and The Hope. The Globe was the principal playhouse of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (who would become the King's Men in 1603). Most of Shakespeare's post-1599 plays were staged at the Globe, including Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and Hamlet.

The Globe was owned by many actors, who (except for one) were also shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Two of the six Globe shareholders, Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert Burbage, owned double shares of the whole, or 25% each; the other four men, Shakespeare, John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, and Thomas Pope, owned a single share, or 12.5%. (Originally William Kempe was intended to be the seventh partner, but he sold out his share to the four minority sharers, leaving them with more than the originally planned 10%). These initial proportions changed over time, as new sharers were added. Shakespeare's share diminished from 1/8 to 1/14, or roughly 7%, over the course of his career.

The Globe was built in 1599 using timber from an earlier theatre, The Theatre, that had been built by Richard Burbage's father, James Burbage, in Shoreditch in 1576. The Burbages originally had a 20-year lease of the site on which the Theatre was built. When the lease ran out, they dismantled The Theatre beam by beam and transported it over the Thames to reconstruct it as The Globe.

On June 29, 1613, the Globe Theatre went up in flames during a performance of Henry the Eighth. A theatrical cannon, set off during the performance, misfired, igniting the wooden beams and thatching. According to one of the few surviving documents of the event, no one was hurt except a man who put out his burning breeches with a bottle of ale.

Like all the other theatres in London, the Globe was closed down by the Puritans in 1642. It was destroyed in 1644 to make room for tenements. Its exact location remained unknown until remnants of its foundations were discovered in 1989 beneath the car park of Anchor Terrace on Park Street (the shape of the foundations are replicated in the surface of the car park). There may be further remains beneath Anchor Terrace, but the 18th century terrace is listed and therefore cannot be disturbed by archaeologists.

Layout of the Globe

The Globe's actual dimensions are unknown, but its shape and size can be approximated from scholarly inquiry over the last two centuries. The evidence suggests that it was a three-story, open-air amphitheatre between 97 and 102 feet (29.6 - 31.1M) in diameter that could house up to 3,000 spectators. The Globe is shown as round on Wenceslas Hollar's sketch of the building, later incorporated into his engraved "Long View" of London in 1647. However, in 1997-98, the uncovering of a small part of the Globe's foundation suggested that it was a polygon of 20 (or possibly 18) sides.

At the base of the stage, there was an area called the pit, (or, harking back to the old inn-yards, yard) where, for a penny, people (the "groundlings") would stand to watch the performance. Groundlings would eat hazelnuts during performances — during the excavation of the Globe nutshells were found preserved in the dirt — or oranges. Around the yard were three levels of stadium-style seats, which were more expensive than standing room

A rectangular stage platform, also known as an 'apron stage', thrust out into the middle of the open-air yard. The stage measured approximately 43 feet (13.1m) in width, 27 feet (8.2m) in depth and was raised about 5 feet (1.52m) off the ground. On this stage, there was a trap door for use by performers to enter from the "cellarage" area beneath the stage. There may have been other trap doors around the stage.

Large columns on either side of the stage supported a roof over the rear portion of the stage. The ceiling under this roof was called the "heavens," and may have been painted with clouds and the sky. A trap door in the heavens enabled performers to descend using some form of rope and harness.

The back wall of the stage had two or three doors on the main level, with a curtained inner stage in the center and a balcony above it. The doors entered into the "tiring house" (backstage area) where the actors dressed and awaited their entrances. The balcony housed the musicians and could also be used for scenes requiring an upper space, such as the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.

The modern Globe


At the instigation of American actor and director Sam Wanamaker, a new Globe theatre was built according to an Elizabethan plan. The design team comprised Theo Crosby of Pentagram as the architect, Buro Happold as structural and services engineers and Boyden & Co as quantity surveyors. It opened in 1997 under the name "Shakespeare's Globe Theatre" and now stages plays every summer (May to October). Mark Rylance was appointed as the first artistic director of the modern Globe in 1995. In 2006, Dominic Dromgoole took over.

The new theatre on Bankside is approximately 225 yards (205m) from the original site, centre to centre, and was the first thatched roof building permitted in London since the Great Fire of London in 1666.

As in the original Globe, the theatre is open to the sky and has a thrust stage that projects into a large circular yard surrounded by three tiers of steeply raked seating. 700 tickets to stand (and you must stand, no sitting allowed) in the yard are available for every performance at 5 pounds each. The only covered parts of the amphitheatre are the stage and the (more expensive) seated areas. Plays are put on during the summer, usually between May and the first week of October. In the winter the theatre is used for educational purposes. Tours are available all year round.

The reconstruction was carefully researched so that the new building would be as faithful a replica as possible. This was aided by the discovery as final plans were being made of the site of the original Globe itself. Modernisations include the addition of sprinklers on the roof to protect against fire, and the fact that the theatre is partly joined onto a modern lobby, visitors centre and additional backstage support areas. Due to modern Health and Safety regulations 1,300 people can be housed during a show, under half the estimated 3,000 of Shakespeare's time.



Globe-Theater, Schwäbisch Hall, Baden-Württemberg, Germany

A number of conjectural replicas or free interpretations of the Globe have been built around the world:


OSF Elizabethan Theatre, Ashland, Oregon, built in 1935, rebuilt 1947 and 1959
San Diego, Old Globe Theatre, built in 1935
Cedar City, Utah, Adams Shakespearean Theatre
Chicago, Illinois, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier, built 1999
Dallas, Texas, Old Globe Theatre, built 1936
Odessa, Texas, The Globe Theatre Of The Great Southwest
Williamsburg, Virginia, Globe Theatre, built 1975 in the Banbury Cross section of Busch Gardens Europe


Neuss am Rhein, Globe Neuss, built 1991
Rust, Baden, Germany (in German), Europa-Park (in German), built 2000
Schwäbisch Hall, Baden-Württemberg


Rome, built 2003

Czech Republic

Prague, built 1999, burned down in 2005


Tokyo, Isozakia Arata's Panasonic Globe Theatre in Tokyo, built 1988
Replica of similar Elizabethan theatre:
Waseda University Tsubouchi Shoyo Memorial Library Theatre (a replica of The Fortune Theatre), built early 1900s

Copyright © 2014 by

© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on September 18, 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year.  This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.