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Historical background

“For most of its history, Gdańsk has been a multinational city, a perfect model of a place where various nationalities of Europę lived and worked together with only one major goal in mind: to create a peaceful and affluent society, a society that would pay as much attention to the ąuality of life as to amassing riches. This is when culture begins to play an important role. Members of this society wanted to live in handsome houses, to eat good food, enjoy imported wines and fincl time for entertainment, for good books, musie, dance and theatre. It was the richest and biggest city in that part of the world, with a population of seventy thousand at the tum of the sbrteenth and the seventeenth centuries. To those arriving in Gdańsk from the sea, the city seemed like Manhattan to immigrants in the early twentieth century. The houses had their facades richly omamented and painted, their interiors were decorated by works of art imported from all over the world, including a number of paintings by Rembrandt. Hans Memling's magnificent Last Judgement has been the pride of Gdańsk for five hundred years now.

The skteenth and seventeenth centuries mark the peak in the city's cultural history, when Gdańsk had become the largest harbour and town in Eastern Central Europę.

In this cultural context we witness the appearance of English actors who from around 1600 for morę than 50 years came to Gdańsk almost every summer, bringing plays which were the highest achievements of dramatic poetry, superb productions, displaying mastery of acting and enriched with beautiful musie and dances. Following their first visits, a public theatre was built. The building was erected in around 1610, and for over 200 years served as the city's only public theatre.

Whence London theatre and whence English players in distant Gdańsk? - one may well ask. During Shakespeare's time dramatic poetry and theatre flourished in London and there was unprecedented development of the acting profession. The number of actors in London is said to have reached rwo hundred in the 1580's, which meant that one in a thousand Londoners was an actor. Conseąuently, London became too smali for them, so they formed strolling companies, which first toured the country, but later sought their fortunes on the Continent. Almost instantaneously they madę their reputation there as the best in their profession, and for morę than half a century "English comedians" and musicians dominated the theatre north of the Alps in both Protestant and Catholic countries. William Shakespeare, being one of their profession, called his fellow-actors usually known as "players" or "comedians" the "abstract and brief chronicie of the time''.

At the time Gdańsk, a "Royal City" on the Baltic, Poland's window to the world, was a wealthy and populous city, an important trade centrę, with a class of leamed and open-minded burghers and large English and Scottish communities. Gdańsk welcomed the companies first with a measure of suspicion, but later with growing and unconcealed enthusiasm and appreciation. In spite of the fact that in this relatively Puritan city the official dispensation for public revelry was confined to two or three weeks in August, the time of the traditional St. Dominics Fair, the English were often granted leave to play for much longer than the prescribed period. And Shakespeare's plays were performed there during his own lifetime.

It may have been merę coincidence, although on the other hand it should be linked with the English actors' activity in Gdańsk, but in around 1610 a public theatre was built in Gdańsk, strikingly similar to one of the London playhouses (strictly speaking to the Fortune (1600), which was built on the ground plan of a square); this theatre, called the Fencing School, was a multifunctional building in which, apart from fencing exercices and theatrical performances, other types of shows were presented, like animal-baiting or juggling. A mid-seven-teenth century engraving has been preseired, by a Dutch artist Peter Willer, showing the Fencing School, backed with the medieval walls and towers that have survived into our times. The Fencing School in Gdańsk functioned as the city's only permarient theatre for approxi-mately two hundred years. Being a wooden structure it underwent numerous repairs, renovations and reconstructions. In the early nine-teenth century the building was dismantled when a new municipal theatre was built on the site of today's Wybrzeże theatre. It may be added that the architectural details and dimensions of the Fortune theatre are known from the builder's contract, which has luckily been preserved. As a detailed analysis has shown, the contract almost per-fectly matches the Gdańsk engraving. Moreover, two contemporary accounts tell us that the capacity of both theatres was if not the same then similar: both sources mention 3000 spectators; this also implies that the theatres were similar in size and probably in architectural detail. The Fencing School in Gdańsk hosted on its stage many com-panies from different European countries. When the English players disappeared from the scenę, they were succeeded by actors from Ger­many, Russia, Poland, the Netherlands and also from Italy (in 1646 an Italian opera was staged in Gdańsk: this was in fact the first public performance of an opera north of the Alps!). In many ways the Gdańsk theatre is also a monument of the changing styles and trends in Euro­pean theatre history.

Fragment of the publishing  „Fundacja Theatrum Gednanense. Gdański Teatr Elżbietański: projekt odbudowy”,  ISBN 83-903079-0-1




Between 1600 and 1612 the building of the Fencing School was erected in Gdańsk, designed both for fencing exercises and theatre performances (the Court of the Brothership of St. George previously played these roles). It was located on the south-western periphery of the Main City, near the City Court with the donjons Narożna and Browarna (today Podwale Przedmiejskie Street). We know its external appearance only from a drawing by Peter Willer from the second half of the 17th century. The wooden building, erected on the projection of a square or a rectangle, consisted of four wings encircling an inner yard and covered with a lean-to roof. The wings housed three storeys of galleries for spectators. According to a source from 1646, the theatre could house over 3,000 spectators on the galleries and in the yard (on the ground floor). Thus the Gdańsk Fencing School was very similar to the theatres of Elizabethan England, especially to the Fortune, one of several quadrilateral London theatres. Between 1612–1654, mainly wandering English or English-German (known as ‘Englische Comoedianten’) companies of actors performed there. In a letter from 1619 addressed to the City Council, actors ask for permission to play performances in ‘publico theatro’. Thus the Fencing School can actually be regarded as the first building of public theatre in Poland.[1]

Companies coming to Gdańsk performed mainly English dramas, translated into German or rewritten in German. At least two of them, John Green’s company (1612, 1615, 1616, 1619), as well as John Wayde and William Roe’s company (1647) may have had William Shakespeare’s plays in their repertoire, adapted or freely translated in prose. However, only a few of these performances are documented. Green possibly performed the play ‘von dem Juden’ (‘about a Jew’), which was probably an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice (or The Jew of Malta by Marlowe), the drama Julio und Hyppolita, allegedly an adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as well as Titus Andronicus, freely translated. Thirty years later, Wayde and Roe may have shown the inhabitants of Gdańsk Romeo and Juliet and (or) Julius Caesar.[2]

Jarosław Komorowski

[1] Jerzy Limon, Gentlemen of a Company. English Players in Central and Eastern Europe, 1590–1660, Cambridge 1985; Jerzy Limon, Gdański teatr “elżbietański”, Gdańsk 1989.

[2] Jarosław Komorowski, ‘Czy angielscy komedianci grali w Polsce Shakespeare’a?’, Pamiętnik Teatralny 2003,  No. 3–4.



  1. Fundacja Theatrum Gednanense. Gdański Teatr Elżbietański: projekt odbudowy, folder, ISBN 83-903079-0-1.
  2. Komorowski J., Czy angielscy komedianci grali w Polsce Shakespeare’a?, „Pamiętnik Teatralny” 2003 No. 3–4.
  3. Limon J., Gdański teatr „elżbietański”, Gdańsk 1989.
  4. Limon J., Gentlemen of a Company. English Players in Central and Eastern Europe, 1590–1660, Cambridge 1985.
  5. Michalak J. M., Nowe spojrzenie na teatr „elżbietański” w Gdańsku i jego budowniczego, „Gdanski Rocznik Kulturalny” 2000 No. 19.
  6. Michalak J. M., Teatr elżbietański czy tylko jego poprzedniczka, www.gdansk.naszemiasto.pl, 8.06.2009.



Autor: Jarosław Komorowski

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