As a nightbird, I see some old films on TCM that I might not remember from younger days. This morning I got in on the end of Park Row, a tough look from 1952 at the battle for the truth that has been the story of the Media from its very beginnings. It follows a newspaper publisher who takes on a corrupt big city establishment, a story that, though fictional, is true of the larger issue, the role played by newspapermen and women in creating what history has termed the Fourth Estate of Government, the voice of the people. The Media and its fight for the truth has been the subject of a thousand films, a favorite since film itself joined the Media’s fight to present the truth to a public willing to pay attention. The People do not make the newspapers, but they read them, or they used to read them before television took over, and in a democracy they vote, or they used to vote, based on what they read in the newspapers. While the battle has shifted from the page to the screen, the Media’s fight to reveal the truth about corruption at the highest levels is still the same as it has been since the very beginning, bitter, violent, and dangerous.
But what and when was that beginning?
When did what we call the Media begin? If it’s possible to locate, on a timeline of historical events, the moment that we could claim as the birth of the modern Media, the moment when the means first arose by which the attention of an entire community could be commanded in a single shot, it would be that moment in the late spring of 1576 when the door first opened to the first and until then the only purpose-built public theater in England, possibly in all of northern Europe, the one built by James Burbage in a suburb of London, the one he named The Theatre.
Used by Shakespeare and other playwrights to influence, for the first time in history, not just the Court, not just the handful of citizens who could read, not just those with time to kill in taverns and in the aisles at St. Paul’s Cathedral listening for whispered gossip, but for anyone who could afford the price of a loaf of bread. From then on, from four to six pm in the afternoon every day of the week but Sunday, the Burbages were packing them in, for twenty years, sometimes as many as 2500 at a time, particularly if the show was something new, something popular, sometimes so popular that many were willing to pay to see it again. And although the “groundlings” were, as Hamlet opines, “capable of nothing but dumb shows and noise,” his author used this and subsequent stages to teach this uneducated audience the history of their nation, their kings and queens, their heroes and villains. He did this in a new form of English, rich in nuance and pleasing to the ear, which then––much as Radio English spread in the twentieth century––was spread to the far corners of the nation by actors on tour and visitors returning from the City.
By 1604, when the version of Hamlet was first published that would be closest to the one we know from 1623, the beloved Prince could state with confidence that plays were “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” In other words, his plays were what today we call the Media. Even while the left-brained university fools persist in misplacing them in time, once located where they belong, it soon becomes possible to show how each reflects the events and zeitgeist of a particular moment in Elizabethan history. Although plays like Hamlet, Love’s Labours Lost, and The Tempest were revised more than once over the career of the author, something that can confuse their origins, it’s generally not too difficult, working from the characters, the style, the syntax and the plot, to locate within a few years that moment when certain events first inspired the genius who created them.
And if, as we hope we have come as close to proving as is possible, given the absence of so much important evidence, he was also responsible for the building of the theaters that made it possible to awaken the public to these matters, we feel certain that we have also accurately traced the moment in time when the modern Media was born, the summer of 1576, following the arrival in England of the twenty-six-year old Earl of Oxford, back from his year of watching the Commedia dell’Arte in Venice, and examining their wooden stages.