Sam Wanamaker – A Shakespearean Hero

Blue_Plaque_for_Sam_Wanamaker,_Shakespeare's_Globe, London Shakespeare circles there is a name almost as famous as that of William Shakespeare. It is that of Sam Wanamaker, an American actor whose vision almost matched Shakespeare’s.

A new acting space has just opened in the Shakespeare Globe complex and has been named ‘The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.’ Near to the Globe on the south bank of the River Thames there is a plaque that reads: In Thanksgiving for Sam Wanamaker, Actor, Director, Producer, 1919–1993, whose vision rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on Bankside in this parish.

When Sam Wanamaker first visited London in 1949 he did what most first-time visitors did – he wandered around, overwhelmed by London’s beauty and history. One of the things he did was look for traces of Shakespeare’s Globe and he was astonished to find nothing more than a blackened plaque on a wall of an abandoned brewery. He failed to understand how Londoners, who should have been so proud of their famous writer, could be so neglectful.

While filming in the UK in 1952 he learned that he had become one of the many Hollywood victims of the McCarthy witch hunt and decided not to return to America. He had joined the Communist Party as a very young man and although he had long before abandoned that involvement it was enough for him to be blacklisted. So there was no career possible in America but he made a successful and distinguished career in the UK in film and theatre.

He became obsessed with his big idea – the resurrection of the lost Globe Theatre. In 1970 he launched the Shakespeare Globe Trust, and later obtained a piece of land near to the original site. He had considerable difficulty obtaining permission to build the theatre due to a hostile local council that blocked his efforts for years. He was also ridiculed by the theatre and film establishment but, undaunted, he carried on, using his own earnings from acting and directing to finance the project.

Sam Wanamaker is no longer an object of ridicule. Now, with the naming of ‘The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse,’ his name will live for as long as those responsible for the maintenance of Shakespeare’s famous theatre continue to maintain it. Perhaps his name will last as long as Shakespeare’s.

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