LONDON — When Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy launched his infamous “Red Scare” in the 1940s, a lot of American’s were swept up in a wave of anti-communist paranoia posing as patriotism. It was one of the darkest times in recent U.S. history and resulted in blacklisting many in the arts, as well as hundreds of ordinary Americans.
The American actor and director Sam Wanamaker was one of the creatives who chose to leave the country in fear of the blacklist due to his communist sympathies. However, America’s loss was to be a huge gain for England. His daughter, Zoe, grew up to be one of Britain’s most accomplished actors. More importantly, Sam directly responsible for re-creating one of England’s most important historical and cultural landmarks — Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Born Samuel Wattenmacker on June 19, 1919 in Chicago, Ill. He trained at the Goodman Theater in Chicago before heading to Broadway in 1942, where he starred with Ingrid Bergman in “Joan of Lorraine” in 1947, before directing “Two Gentlemen of Athens” the following year. While performing in the cast of “Counterattack” in Washington, D.C., Wanamaker became interested in Communism.
Wanamaker served in the U.S. Army between 1943 and 1946, during World War II, but when he made a speech welcoming two of the Hollywood 10, Wanamaker discovered his military service was not enough to keep him from the threat of being blacklisted. He was performing in England and decided to stay there.
In a 1985 interview with the St. Louis Dispatch, Wanamaker said, “In 1950 I went to England to do a play, and around that time the whole McCarthy witch-hunting era had taken hold in Hollywood — so I just stayed in Britain. I knew that because I had worked with actors who had problems in Hollywood, I might have difficulties.”
Over the next few years Wanamaker established himself, according to The Guardian newspaper, as “London’s favorite American actor and director.” He directed the English premier of Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” in 1956, and in 1957 was appointed director of Liverpool’s New Shakespeare Theatre, which had been somewhat neglected.
By 1970, Wanamaker had become frustrated by the fact that while there were several Globe Theatre’s in America, the site of Shakespeare’s original was marked only by a blackened plaque on a nearby brewery.
In 1599, William Shakespeare, who was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men since 1594, invested 12.5 percent cost of building the new Globe Theatre, making him the principal shareholder. By 1608, the company was so successful that they also operated the indoor Blackfriars Theatre which was used in the winter months, while the Globe, which was open to the elements was used in warmer seasons.
Shakespeare’s involvement with the theatre ended in 1613 when a cannon fired during a production of “All is True” (now known as “Henry VIII”) set the thatched roof ablaze. The Bard sold his share when the theatre was rebuilt. The original Globe was dismantled in 1644, two years after the Puritans closed all the theaters.
Wanamaker decided to rectify the oversight and dedicated the next 40 years of his life to establishing an exact replica and museum on the spot. He sought donations from philanthropists and established the Shakespeare Globe Trust which raised $10 million. Despite objections by the London authorities, who wanted to use the land for high-rise residences, Shakespeare’s Globe opened in 1997 with a production of “Henry V,” and a Jacobean-style indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, opened in 2014.
Wanamaker did not live to see the fruits of his labors realized, as he died of prostate cancer in 1993. But 100 years after his birth, Wanamaker lives on in the marvelous productions that are mounted each year that transport audiences to Elizabethan England.
Shakespeare’s Globe is a masterpiece of historical restoration, and a viewing experience quite unlike any other. And Wanamaker’s ghost is as much a part of the atmosphere as the Bard himself.