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At The Curtain Theatre

June 14, 2016
by the gentle author

Archaeologists excavating The Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch

When the Chorus addresses the audience from the stage at the opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V, he refers to ‘this wooden O’ – a phrase that is commonly understood as an image of an Elizabethan theatre such as The Globe, which was octahedral. Imagine the surprise of the archaeologists currently excavating the foundations of The Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, where Henry V is believed to have been first performed, who have discovered that it was rectangular.

Yet an ‘O’ is usually rectangular. Whether drawn with a pen or as a typeform, it has two longer sides connected by two shorter sides, just as The Curtain Theatre did – arranged with a stage at one end and galleries on three sides, after the model of inn-yards which served as the first theatres.

Heather Knight, Museum of London Archaeology site director at the excavations in Curtain Rd was filled with excitement when I met her last week. On the basis of her discovery, she had come to a wider realisation about the theatres of Tudor London. While those on the South Bank, such as The Globe and The Rose, which also served for bear-baiting, appear to have all been round in form, The Curtain Theatre seems to follow the trend for theatres north of the Thames, such as The Fortune and The Boar’s Head which were also used for fencing displays, to be rectangular. A similar distinction may be appreciated today at the National Theatre in the difference between The Olivier and Lyttleton Theatres.

In fact Henry V and Romeo & Juliet, which both first saw the light of day at The Curtain, contain significant amounts of swordplay. An element that reflected the audience’s expectations in a venue with a wide stage that was also used for fencing displays and where dramatic scenes were sometimes interposed into such displays to create context for the sword-fighting episodes.

The earliest evidence for the existence of The Curtain Theatre – named after the curtain wall of the Holywell Priory that once stood here – is in a sermon condemning it in 1577 yet by 1578, L.Grenade writes in his Singularities of London -

‘As one leaves the city through the gate of Moorgate, one comes into a fine and pleasant meadow … At one end of this meadow are two very fine theatres, one of which is magnificent in comparison with the other and has an imposing appearance on the outside. This theatre can hold from 4,000 to 5,000 people and it is said that a great Lord had it erected. Now, both of these were erected and dedicated for the performance of some plays and other spectacles, containing actions created to give pleasure rather than the ones which have actually taken place.’

Grenade’s account testifies to both The Theatre and The Curtain as being ‘very fine theatres’ while celebrating the larger Theatre over The Curtain, and confirming the use of these buildings for the performance of entertaining fictional dramas.

These tangible discoveries are remarkable, yet the most powerful import of this excavation is the experience of visiting the site and recognising that you are there in the place where it all actually happened. Incontrovertibly – you realise – William Shakespeare was once here. You walk through the commercial hoarding in Curtain Rd to find yourself on a raised walkway suspended over the ground level of the dig, several metres below, where archaeologists in hard hats scrape at the soil. Once you realise that the location of this entrance approximates to the entrance to The Curtain Theatre itself, you cannot ignore a heart-stopping sense of time travel – of being suspended over the Tudor audience, like a spirit on a wire as a one of the gods appearing at an opportune moment in the drama.

The walkway delivers you to a point above the stage and a glance to either side gives you the locations of the galleries which define the width of the performing area. In front of you is the back wall of the stage – a former garden wall, co-opted into the theatre building and pierced to create dramatic entrances. You turn around and you can see the depth of the audience and imagine the gaze of the actor across the sea of expectant faces. This is where Shakespeare saw Henry V and Romeo & Juliet performed, and the discovery by the archaeologists of a fragment of a ceramic bird whistle at the rear of the stage has acquired a unique poignancy in this location.

JULIET

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

ROMEO

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
.

For a few weeks, you can visit the site where the actors heard that birdcall more than four hundred years ago when these words were first spoken. You can see the foundations laid out upon the ground with walls extending in all directions, granting an extraordinary vision of a Shakespearian theatre in ‘a fine and pleasant meadow.’ By 1625, The Curtain had been redeveloped into tenements and a brick hearth of this era, still blackened by fire, recalls the domestic life that superseded it.

Next month, the archaeologists will be called upon to designate the boundaries of this Ancient Monument, defining what will be preserved and what will be destroyed. Within a few years, you will be able to visit the monument enshrined beneath a shopping mall at the foot of tower of luxury flats, but – before that future arrives – I urge you to see it as they have found it.

Excavating the stage at The Curtain Theatre

The yard of The Curtain Theatre

A seventeenth century brick hearth from the tenements that superseded The Curtain Theatre

Spraying water onto the foundations of the entrance to The Curtain Theatre

It is still possible to visit the site of The Curtain Theatre before excavations are completed in a few weeks time. Details can be found at Museum of London Archaeology.

You may also like to read about

At Shakespeare’s First Theatre

In Search Of Shakespeare’s London

The Door to Shakespeare’s London

Shakespearian Actors in Shoreditch

Shakespeare in Spitalfields

Shakespeare’s Younger Brother, Edmond

9 Responses leave one →
  1. June 14, 2016

    Aren’t we all “suspended like spirits on a wire” as we float through life?

  2. June 14, 2016

    How exciting to actually be able to see the remains of Shakespeare’s theatre. I’m sorry I can’t visit now, it won’t be the same under a mall – the curtain will have fallen. Valerie

  3. June 14, 2016

    I liked Janet M’s rendition we are, suspended like spirits on a wire. We are all on a big roller coaster ride. Also I can imagine the Theatre and the larger Curtain theatre holding some 4,000 people (many in the open) in a dreamy meadow with Nightingales singing. I suppose the construction was similar to the present day Globe theatre, perhaps a touch more primitive. Globe is lovely to look at by Thames in a top site. John

  4. Ken Howard permalink
    June 14, 2016

    Great piece and very interesting.
    What a pity that on immediately going to their website I found all the viewings are sold out and no more are planned!

  5. Leana Pooley permalink
    June 14, 2016

    Thanks for your thrilling description of the remains of the Curtain Theatre which will live on into infinity unlike the archeological site which presumably will be destroyed by the deep foundations needed for the tower block. Sadly the tours seem to be sold out. How lucky I was this morning to have seen your photographs and to have read what it was like for a fellow playwright and theatre director to look down and across this rare and precious Shakespearian place.

  6. June 14, 2016

    Excellent article. Such a shame they can’t scrap the mall and build a reconstruction of the theatre instead!

  7. Malcolm permalink
    June 14, 2016

    Shakespeare’s ghost inhabits many corners of this great city. At Blackfriars, in Playhouse Yard, he probably performed with the King’s Men. A short walk away, in Ireland Yard, he lived. Across the river at Bankside stood the Globe – and now the magical new Globe stands imperious on the banks of the Thames, truly a theatre of dreams. Nearby was the Rose, older than the Globe, the foundations are preserved beneath 56 Park Street and open to the public. Working at Blackfriars I walk around these locations most days and I often think of these words:

    “These our actors were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air”

  8. June 14, 2016

    A shopping mall and luxury flats … what would Shakespeare make of that!

  9. Nigel Hey permalink
    June 16, 2016

    I don’t understand why modern buildings should not be built OVER a restored Curtain theatre, as an archaeological visitor centre or, ideally, rebuilt and preserved in a time capsule of concrete and steel suitable for theatrical performances.

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