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The Curtain

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Abstract

In 1577, the Curtain, the second purpose-built London playhouse, arose in Shoreditch, just north of the City of London.1 The Curtain, a polygonal amphitheatre, became a major venue for theatrical and other entertainments until at least 1622. The building may have stood on the site until as late as 1698. Most major playing companies, including the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Queen’s Men, and Prince Charles’s Men, played there. It is the likely site for the premiere of Shakespeare’s plays Romeo and Juliet and Henry V.

The Neighbourhood and the Site

Bounded by Moorfields to the south, Bishopsgate Street to the east, and Finsbury Fields to the west, Shoreditch is located on the north side of the City of London. It remained a collection of manors, farms, fields, and religious houses into the 16th century. The Curtain was built on the south side of the current Hewett Street, near Bishopsgate Street (Bird). In the 1590s, William Shakespeare occupied a house nearby on Bishopsgate Street (Mander). The neighbourhood name references a polluted stream, sometimes called Sewersditch, which ran from St. Leonard’s Church to Holy Well Lane, now known as High Street. Shoreditch followed Roman roads near Kingsland Road, a continuation of Ermine Street , and Old Street, a continuation of Waitling or Watling Street (Campbell). The majority of Shoreditch occupants resided on or near Holy Well Lane.
Shoreditch also had a well known nunnery, Holywell Priory, from the 12th to 16th centuries (Bowsher, Holywell Priory 232). The Priory was the ninth richest in all of England (Bull). Following the Reformation, the Priory was dissolved in 1539 (Mander). Later, the neighbourhood featured manor houses for the wealthy, such as Stratton House and Stone House (Bull). Recent research on the history of first purpose-built playhouse, the Theatre, features useful new historical maps, as well as a schematic that shows the proximity of the Curtain to the Priory and other important structures in the area.
To the north, St. Leonard’s Church still stands at the corner of Bishopsgate Street and Old Street (Mander). No firm date exists for the building of the original medieval church, but in engravings it appears to date from the 15th century (Bird). It featured a tower with up to five bells (Bird). James Bird points to John Stow (Bird 74), who says that between the north corner of the field west of the High Street and the church sometime stood a Crosse, now a Smithes Forge, dividing three wayes. The 1598 edition of A Survey notes that the Curtain and the Theatre were built nearby: neare thereunto are builded two publique houses for the acting and shewe of Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories, for recreation. Whereof the one is called the Courtein, the other the Theatre: both standing on the Southwest side towards the field (Stow 349; qtd in Collier 263-64). This reference to the two playhouses was removed from the 1603 edition of A Survey.
By the 1590s, St. Leonard’s Church has become associated with actors. Both Cuthbert Burbage and Richard Burbage, actors and sons of theatre owner (and builder of the Theatre) James Burbage, who was also manager of the Curtain, were buried there (Bird). St. Leonard’s is thus sometimes known as the actor’s church of London (Mander). The original church became structurally unsound in the early 18th century and was demolished in 1736. It was rebuilt in the same location in 1740 (Thornbury).
After 1577, vice and criminality, including prostitution, began to overtake the neighbourhood. As early as 1579, moralists complained about the malign influence the theatres in Shoreditch had on the public, with a character, Reason, in Thomas Twyne’s pamphlet Physic against Fortune, a translation of Italian poet Petrarch’s De Remediis utriusque Fortunae, noting that both the Theatre and Curtain were well knowen to be enimies to good manners; for looke who goeth there evyl returneth worse (Twyne sig. F4; qtd in Chambers 202). John Northbrooke complained about the malign influence of playhouses on the title page of his 1578 Treatise that attacks vaine Playes (Northbrooke; qtd. in Berry 377).
In 1584, incidents at the Theatre and the Curtain caused significant civil unrest. Correspondence between Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord Chamberlain, William Cecil, Lord Burghley and William Fleetwood, recorder of London, detail a near-riot on 14 June 1584. Fleetwood comments that very nere the Theatre or Curten at the tyme of the Playes, an apprentice sleeping in one of the nearby fields was pestered by a gentleman, which resulted in a fistfight. The following day, other apprentices threatened to riot and an unnamed number were arrested. Fleetwood ordered the arrest of the Theatre’s owner, James Burbage. Burbage’s status as a member of the playing company sponsored by Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon meant that he could refuse arrest, and he noted that he was my Lo of hunsdons man. Burbage agreed to appear in court the next day (BL Lansdowne MS 41; qtd. in Berry 345).
One further reference to the dubious nature of the Curtain and its environs comes from a 1613 satirical text by George Wither that mentions derisively that a foolish young lover, Momus, can cull, / From plaies he heard at Curtaine or at the Bull, / And yet is fine coy Mistress Marry-Muffe, / The soonest taken with such broken stuffe. Momus goes to the Curtaine’ to pick up hints at fooling, and notes [...] downe not quotations from the plays but that action [...] that likes him best (Wither sig. D3v; qtd. in Chambers 404).

Theatre Architecture

Built by Henry Laneman (also known as Henry Lanman) in 1577, the Curtain arose a mere 200 yards from its neighbour, the Theatre, built the year before by James Burbage (Gurr 31; Bowsher, Shakespeare’s London Theatreland 55, 62). Very close geographically, they were perhaps even closer in design. No documentation exists for the specific design of the Curtain, but it may have copied its neighbour in at least some details if we accept Gurr’s narrative. A similar design may also have been used for the Rose, Swan, and Globe theatres (Gurr 132). Details about the excavation of the Theatre from the Museum of London Archeology provide important background, since the two playhouses were in such close proximity and had shared management (Bowsher, Shakespeare’s London Theatreland 63; see also LAARC CNU02).
The Curtain was a polygonal amphitheatre, built of timber and finished with lime and plaster (Adams 77-78). It was probably the Curtain that Shakespeare describes as this unworthy Scaffold [...] this Cock-pit [...] this Woodden O’ in the prologue to Henry V, which seems to have been first performed there (Stern 15; Shakespeare 14-16). Its dimensions remain in question, although excavations are underway (see below, Excavation and Site). As a comparison, the Rose’s foundations, unearthed in 1989, reveal a building about 22 metres in diameter (The Rose). The Theatre, excavated in 2011, was a 14-sided polygonal building with an almost identical diameter of about 22 metres (Bowsher, Shakespeare’s London Theatreland 58).
The Curtain, modeled after these theatres, as well as popular animal baiting rings such as the Bear Garden, was a purpose-built, public theatre designed for plays. In a baiting house, animals such as bulls and bears occupied the ground floor yard and the spectators used the galleries.2 Playhouses used the yard to pack in patrons instead. In addition to the yard, the Curtain had three galleries, each of which had wooden steps for seating. The galleries and stage were covered by the roof, while the yard was open to the elements. A protected view was an advantage that cost viewers more: one penny was charged to enter the yard, and then an additional penny was collected to enter the galleries. A final penny gained a seat close to the stage and a cushion (Gurr 17). A recent collaboration between media firm Cloak and Dagger Studios and Museum of London Archaeology produced a video animation, Shoreditch 1595, which shows the current approximation of the appearance of an Elizabethan playhouse.
One likely image of the Curtain has been identified. In The View of the Citty of London from the North towards the South, a prominent building fitting the description of the Curtain appears on the left half of the image. It is tall, has three upper levels, a loft at the top, staircases on the sides, and a flagpole. Depending on scholarly opinion of the date that The View was engraved, the building is either the Theatre or the Curtain (Berry, The View of London 196-97).
The View of the Cittye of London from the North towards the Sowth, reprinted in Berry, The First Public Playhouse.
The View of the Cittye of London from the North towards the Sowth, reprinted in Berry, The First Public Playhouse.
Unlike its predecessor the Theatre (whose timbers became the Globe), the Curtain had longevity. Records indicate the Curtain in use for performances by acting companies at least until 1625, nearly 50 years after its construction (Wickham 67). Ashley Thorndike speculates that the Curtain was most likely still standing at the closing of the theatres in 1642 (Thorndike 45). Some scholars assert it was still standing until destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666, while others claim that it was not pulled down until 1698 (Curtain, ShaLT).

Human Connections: Ownership and Theatre Companies

James Burbage built the Curtain, but actors also owned shares in the building. The Curtain appears in the will of Thomas Pope. Pope, a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, left his share of the Globe and the Curtain to his heirs in his will dated 22 July 1603 (EMLoT; see also Honigmann and Brock 70). John Underwood, a member of the King’s Men, likewise left his share of the Globe, the Blackfriars, and the Curtain to heirs in his will dated 4 October 1624 (EMLoT; see also Honigmann and Brock 143).
In 1597—1598, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which included Will Kempe as their clown, used the Curtain for their performances. The 1599 second quarto of Romeo and Juliet features the stage direction enter Will Kemp just prior to the character Peter’s lines in 4.5 (Q2, K3v, qtd in EMLoT). Collier concludes that Kemp must have played on the Curtain stage (Collier 89). Another of Shakespeare’s comic actors also may have performed there. Robert Armin once referred to himself as Clonnico de Curtanio Snuff or the Clown of the Curtain Snuff (Chambers 403).
After the Lord Chamberlain’s Men moved to the Globe in Southwark, some public records indicate that other companies played at the Curtain. In 1601, Oxford’s Men seem to have been the target of an order from the Privy Council, who asked the Middlesex county justices of the peace to halt the performance of an unnamed play at the Curtain. The play apparently represented the persons of some gentlemen of good desert and quality that are yet alive, although it did so in an obscure manner (Berry, The View of London 414). Beginning in 1603, the Queen Anne’s Men, also known as Worcester’s Men, performed various plays at the Curtain until 1609 when they relocated to the Red Bull. However, the Privy Council ordered in April 1604 that the King’s Men, the Queen’s Men, and the Prince Charles’s Men be allowed to perform at the Globe, Fortune, and Curtain (Berry, The View of London 414). Starting in 1622, the Prince Charles’s Men used the Curtain, the Red Bull, and the Cockpit until they disbanded in 1625 (Gurr 55-67; Bowsher, Shakespeare’s London Theatreland 64). Although the building was standing in 1642 and perhaps as late as 1660, or even 1698, no other companies have been discovered in connection with the Curtain.

Human Connections: Plays and Playwrights

Between 1585 and 1642, various well known playwrights had their plays performed at the Curtain. Most famously, scholars such as Tiffany Stern and Julian Bowsher conjecture that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet first debuted at the Curtain in a performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1598. This date arises in part from a passage by Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Marston, whose Tenth Satire has a habitual playgoer, Luscus, who is asked:
Luscus, what’s plaid today? I’faith now I knowe:
I see thy lips abroach, from whence doth flow
Naught but pure Juliet and Romeo
Say who acts best? Drusus or Roscio?
Now I have him, that ne’er of aught did speake
But when of plays or players he did treat;
And speakes in print, at least whate’er he says
Is warranted by Curtain plaudities.
(Marston sig. H4r; transcribed in Furness 409)
According to Tiffany Stern, the few narratives that relate to the Curtain always suggest that there was something unglamorous about the place, and that audiences mined plays like Romeo and Juliet for verbal tidbits that they can use in their later, post-play flirtations (Stern 79), clearly referring to the Marston passage above. The following year, Shakespeare’s final history play Henry V played there, which likely features the Curtain as this Wooden O (Shakespeare 14).
Other notable playwrights whose work appeared on the Curtain’s stage include Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, William Rowley, John Day, and George Wilkins. Few plays are certainly known to have been performed at the Curtain, with only a handful well known. The earliest documented play performed at the theatre was Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humor in 1598, with William Shakespeare in the cast (EMLoT; Bowsher, Shakespeare’s London Theatreland 64). The next few years in the Curtain’s history are a blank. No playbills survive, and there are no title-page ascriptions. The next known play surfaced in 1603Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Kill’d with Kindness. In 1607, The Travels of Three English Brothers was performed by the Queen Anne’s Men (EMLoT).

Known Plays Performed at the Curtain

Performance Date Title Author Date of First Publication3 Playing Company DEEP Number Wiggins Number4
1598-1599 Romeo and Juliet William Shakespeare 1597 Lord Chamberlain’s Men 234 987
1599 Henry V William Shakespeare 1600 Lord Chamberlain’s Men 252/288 1183
1598 Every Man in His Humour Ben Jonson 1601 Lord Chamberlain’s Men 313 1143
1603 A Woman Kill’d With Kindness Thomas Heywood 1607 Worcester’s Men5 502
1607 The Travels of the Three English Brothers William Rowley, John Day, George Wilkins 1607 Queen Anne’s Men 482
1615 The Hector of Germany, or The Palsgrave Wentworth Smith 1615 Unidentified6 623

Archaeology: Excavation and Site in Modern London

The precise location of the Curtain was unknown in modern London until the foundations were discovered in 2012 during improvement construction in the Borough of Hackney. Historians knew the general location, and so a commemorative plaque commissioned by Hackney London Borough Council was placed in 1993 high on an exterior brick wall at 18 Hewett Street. The plaque was placed at the Curtain’s purported location, but there was no physical supporting evidence. The plaque proved to be amazingly accurate: it was approximately 266 feet (82 metres) from the plaque to the entrance of the site of the actual theatre. The site sits at the intersection of Hewett Street and Curtain Road with the entrance of the Curtain appearing to be on the western side of the building, now situated against Curtain Road below the Victorian era pub, The Horse and Groom. Next to the Horse and Groom is a car repair shop with an investigation pit that had, unknowingly, exposed the foundations of the Curtain even before excavation began (Kennedy). Bowsher believes that the stage was situated on the eastern side of this parcel (Bowsher, Shakespeare’s London Theatreland 67).
Limited excavation began at the site in 2012, carried out by archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology. According to reports on the archaeological investigation, the remains of the Curtain’s foundation appear to have escaped serious interference and are remarkably well-preserved (Kennedy). The surviving base of the foundation is made of bricks and is currently buried about 3 metres below ground level. An outer yard was also discovered in the excavation. This yard was paved with sheep knuckle bones that could date from the theatre or slightly later housing (Kennedy). Unlike the Rose excavation in 1988, so far only a few artifacts have been found at the site. The only artifacts found so far that date to Shakespeare’s time have been shards of pottery from a pipe: other small finds, including fragments of china and wall tile, were rather later in date (Baillie).

Future Development on the Site

The property owners, Plough Yard Developments Ltd., have been cleared by the Hackney Council to redevelop the site for commercial and residential use. The redevelopment process to this area of Shoreditch will include a new 40 story residential tower and theatre, as well as two buildings providing approximately 25,000 square metres of office space and approximately 4,500 square metres of shops and restaurants on a 2.5 acre site (Perkins+Will). Plough Yard Developments Ltd. has commissioned the architectural firm Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will to design the multiuse site. According to Perkins + Will’s website,
the scheme’s centrepiece will [...] showcase [...] London’s second oldest Shakespearean playhouse, the 16th Century Curtain Theatre [...] The theatre and related finds will be excavated, preserved and exhibited[,] including a 164 seat indoor auditorium. An additional 200-seat performance space will be built outside and linked to a square lined with shops, bars, and restaurants.
(Perkins+Will)
The firm apparently is working closely with Museum of London Archaeology on comprehensive plans to unearth the site once construction and development begin. The museum is confident that about three quarters of the original playhouse may be revealed for public viewing by the time excavation is completed (Finding the Curtain). At this time, there is still not a concrete date for when the development of the site will be finished. (See artist’s renderings of the future site.)

Further Resources

The Curtain Theatre Shoreditch: A site produced by the community of modern Shoreditch, which has a vested interest in any future development of the Curtain site.
For information about the Curtain, a modern map marking the site where it once stood, and a walking tour that will take you to the site, visit the Shakespearean London Theatres (ShaLT) page on the Curtain.

Notes

  1. It was preceded by John Rastell’s stage in Finsbury, the 1567 Red Lion in Stepney, and the nearby Theatre, built in 1576. (JJ)
  2. See our topic page—Bearbaiting in Early Modern London— for more information. (JT)
  3. Publication dates taken from DEEP. (JT)
  4. The five published volumes of Wiggins’s British Drama cover 1533-1602. Forthcoming volumes will cover the rest of the period up to 1642. (JT)
  5. Low certainty.
  6. a Company of Young-men of the Citie

References

Last modification: 2017-03-30 17:34:18 -0400 (Thu, 30 Mar 2017) (tlandels)
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MLA citation:

“The Curtain.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Web. 14 December 2017. <http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/CURT2.htm>.

Chicago citation:

“The Curtain.” n.d. The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/CURT2.htm.

APA citation:

The Curtain. (n.d.). In J. Jenstad (Ed.), The Map of Early Modern London. Retrieved December 14, 2017, from http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/CURT2.htm

TEI citation:

<bibl> <title level="a">The Curtain</title>. (<date>n.d.</date>). In <editor><persName><forename>J.</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></persName></editor> (Ed.), <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>. Retrieved <date when="2017-12-14">December 14, 2017</date>, from <ref target="http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/CURT2.htm">http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/CURT2.htm</ref> </bibl>