Earthquakes at the Curtain playhouse

Yesterday’s exciting press release about MOLA’s excavations at the former location of London’s Curtain Theatre reminded me of Thomas Churchyard’s striking vignette about the playhouse in his pamphlet A warning for the wise, a feare to the fond, a bridle to the lewde, and a glasse to the good Written of the late earthquake chanced in London and other places, the. 6. of April 1580. for the glorie of God, and benefite of men that warely can walke, and wisely can iudge. Set forth in verse and prose (8 April 1580). In the prose preface ‘The reporte of the saide Earthquake, howe it beganne’, Churchyard writes:

On Wednesdaye in the Easter weeke, beyng the sixt day of April. 1580. betwene the houres of five and sixe in the evening, hapned generally through all the City of London, & the Suburbes of the same (as it were in a moment and uppon the sodaine) a wonderful motion and trembling of the earth, in somuch, as Churches, Pallaces, Houses, and other buildings did so quiver and shake, that such as were then present in the same were tossed too and fro as they stoode, and others, as they sate on seates, driven off from their places: (Aiiiiv).

After describing the general instability caused by this significant ‘trembling and moving of the earth’ which ‘did not onely passe under the houses on the firme ground, but also under the rivers and waters (Bir-Biv), Churchyard turns his attention to the two Shoreditch theatres positioned either side of Holywell Lane:

A number being at the Theatre and the Curtaine at Hollywell, beholding the playes, were so shaken, especially those that stoode in the hyghest roomthes and standings, that they were not a little dismayed, considering, that they coulde no waye shifte for themselves, unlesse they woulde, by leaping, hazarde their lives or limmes, as some did in deede, leaping fro[m] the lowest standings.

While Anthony Munday responds to the disturbance by observing how ‘at the playhouses the people came running forth, surprised with great astonishment (A view of sundry examples Reporting many straunge murthers, sundry persons perjured, signes and tokens of Gods anger towards us (1580), D4r), Churchyard evidently provides a much more vivid account. I am working on a book-length study of Churchyard’s prolific writing, and MOLA’s initial findings which ‘show that the playhouse appears to be a rectangular building, measuring approximately 22m x30m, rather than being polygonal’ reminds me that Churchyard’s eye-witness depiction of this Elizabethan off-stage drama helps reanimate the archaeological site for its twenty-first century spectators.

MOLA’s findings can be found here.

Dr Liz Oakley-Brown

Lancaster University



2 thoughts on “Earthquakes at the Curtain playhouse

  1. Pingback: Birthday Post: A Year of Before Shakespeare | Before Shakespeare

  2. Pingback: It Was the Summer of ’79, at the Curtain Playhouse | Before Shakespeare

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