Within the Wooden O

The aim is to restore Shakespeare to his own voice. What we are doing is recreating Shakespeare's original instrument.
John Orrell

As the world celebrates 400 years of William Shakespeare, a look at John Orrell, the UAlberta professor who reconstructed the Bard's Globe Theatre.


It's not every day that an academic from a university in Western Canada gets an obituary in the New York Times. Then again, not every academic is John Orrell, the man whose work led to the reconstruction of the most famous theatre in the world. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and year-long celebrations of the playwright’s work are taking place around the world. This past weekend, in addition to Prince Charles performing soliloquies at Stratford-Upon-Avon alongside some of Britain’s finest actors, U.S. President Barack Obama visited a replica of the Bard's Globe theatre in London, England. During his tour, the president would likely have heard a tale about how the theatre owed its new life to a scholar from Alberta.

A professor of English at the University of Alberta for more than 35 years, John Orrell became the prime architectural consultant to the International Shakespeare Globe Centre in 1979. The project, led by American actor Sam Wanamaker, had as its primary goal the reconstruction of William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre less than 200 metres away from its original site. The original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was where many of his most famous plays—Henry V, Hamlet, King Lear—were first performed, before it was destroyed by fire during a production of Henry VIII in 1613. The theatre was rebuilt in 1614, before being demolished by the Puritans of Oliver Cromwell in 1644.

Though there was scant historical evidence to go on, Orrell believed he knew the size, shape, seating and orientation of the original Globe. In the early 1980s, he climbed the tower of Southwark Cathedral in London, with a copy of Long View of London from Bankside, Wenceslaus Hollar’s famous drawing of London from 1647. Orrell, who likely would have become an architect had he not been an English professor, also had in hand a modern Ordnance Survey map showing the 17th-century buildings that still stood. He laid the survey map over the drawing and, much to his amazement, they lined up so accurately he concluded Hollar could only have produced the drawing with the help of a topographical glass or some very similar device. The topographical glass, which consists of a fixed eyepiece and a glass frame, was often used by artists of the 17th century to achieve exact perspective in drawings, particularly panoramic views.

That meant the drawing's dimensions of the Globe Theatre were correct. And although Hollar’s drawing showed a restored Globe after the original structure burned down in 1613, it was the best evidence for the dimensions of the theatre.

The result was a study that became literally groundbreaking. Orrell's The Quest for Shakespeare’s Globe, published in 1983, provided the blueprint for a new, historically accurate playhouse. The original foundation was eventually uncovered in 1989, and in 1997 the Globe reopened after almost 350 years. Orrell acted as principal consultant every step of the way.

For Orrell, called the "single major authority on Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre design" by colleague and renowned Jane Austen scholar Juliet McMaster, the reconstruction of the Globe was not simply an academic exercise. "The aim is to restore Shakespeare to his own voice,” Orrell said. “What we are doing is recreating Shakespeare's original instrument. The building will provide most of the physical conditions that Shakespeare took for granted when he wrote his plays.”

Orrell passed away in 2003, at age 68. His obituary in The Guardian noted that his work on the Globe was “arguably the most significant theatre history project of the 20th century.”

Note: This story is an update of previous stories in Folio and History Trails.