Henry VIII burnt down my theatre

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The Independent Online

Good news on the accident-prevention front! It is believed that the long-running public inquiry into the tragic burning down of the Globe Theatre in 1613 will end this week and that the report should be made available before the end of the year.

The inquiry chairman, Lord Wentage, the only chairman of the Tragic Globe Theatre Fire Inquiry who has not actually died in office, says that the inquiry has taken so long - nearly 400 years - because it wanted to get to the bottom of the reason for theatre fires and make sure they never happened again. To do that, they had to go into the whole question of theatre design, the motivation behind theatregoing, and indeed even whether theatregoing should be allowed to take place at all.

"The actual cause of the burning down of the Globe Theatre in 1613 was never really an issue," says Lord Wentage. "It is beyond dispute that the thatch caught fire after a cannon used for a sound effect in Shakespeare's play Henry VIII emitted some burning wadding, which set fire to the roof.

"Now, that gave rise to some immediate safety recommendations. One was that Henry VIII should not be performed again, and I am glad to say that the play is never seen these days, which shows great responsibility on the part of impresarios. Another was that cannons should not be used in theatres, and I am glad that cannons are no longer a theatre hazard. We further recommended that open-air theatres such as the Globe should be used only in wintertime, so that any fire would be much more likely to be extinguished by rain or snow.

"One crucial immediate recommendation was that all actors involved in any production should not only know their fire drill but should carry fire-extinguishers at all times. It seemed unthinkable to us that this had never been enforced. It was put to us by theatre directors that actors would look pretty stupid carrying fire-extinguishers throughout a play, but we felt that safety considerations were paramount and plays should be adapted to make it not look stupid. After all, it should not be too difficult to write parts for actors in such a way that they would be able to carry that kind of equipment without looking out of place.

"Other recommendations included banning all smoking, all shooting, all candles and all fireworks from stage directions. Some of us felt quite strongly that electrical lighting was such a great hazard that all plays should be performed in the dark, but eventually that was felt to be taking safety too far, if one can do such a thing.

"But the main hazard with theatre fires was something much more fundamental than all that. We felt it was criminally dangerous that so many people should be crowded together in one space to watch a play, and that if possible they should be obliged by law to watch a play individually, or in very small groups, well away from the fire-hazard area. Perhaps the play would be performed in the theatre, and the audience placed in units elsewhere, with the performance transmitted by mechanical means from the theatre to the place where the audience was safely installed. Then, if a fire broke out, only the actors would be burnt to death, which, given the high unemployment rate of Equity, might be no bad thing.

"Now, when the inquiry first came to that solution several hundred years ago, there was no way of carrying it out. Only in the 20th century did it become possible via television to have a performance in one place and an audience in another. So in a sense it has been worthwhile waiting several centuries before delivering our report and putting forward a solution that was technically feasible. We now think that television is the answer to the problems that beset the Globe. Of course, people can be burnt to death while watching TV at home, but that's their own damned fault. Does that answer all your questions?"

No. You haven't said who is to be blamed for the Globe fire in 1613. Will anyone be charged with manslaughter? Will there be arrests? Public disgrace?


Why on earth not? We demand to know why not!

"Nobody will be accused of causing deaths, because there were no deaths in the fire."