On 21 July, we and MOLA, The Stage, and The Dolphin’s Back will explore the history and future possibilities for the Curtain playhouse with a public audience at Hackney House. Tickets are available on Eventbrite. The Curtain is one of the earliest playhouses of the Elizabethan period, open by 1577, discovered in 2011, and excavated by MOLA in 2016.
We are at a point where the Curtain offers us a lot of information about early modern theatre, if largely in archaeological terms. We can also use the playhouse to rethink our assumptions about early playing spaces—in essence, the very rationale for the Before Shakespeare project. While the Curtain has been neglected in favour of Shakespeare-rich spaces, such as the Globe or the Blackfriars, it was as central to early modern playgoers’ experiences as these fellow playhouses, and it tellingly outlasted all such comparative spaces.
Indeed, The Curtain has for some time had something of a bad rap: it’s not popularly synonymous with Shakespeare or Elizabethan drama (despite being home to Shakespeare’s company briefly from late 1597 in the period in between their move away from The Theatre and new residence at the Globe once it was built in 1599); it’s also not been the most discussed of playhouses by theatre historians, partly due to a perceived lack of certain information about the space, partly because of assumptions made about its status and appearance, and partly because of a leaning towards other early modern performance spaces. For instance, academics had long assumed the playhouse to be round, in the manner of the Theatre or Globe. MOLA’s excavations have shown that it is in fact rectangular. Holger Syme has written entertainingly about the consequences of this discovery for our understanding of theatre shapes.
The Curtain will soon join the Rose, on Bankside, in reprising its role as an active early modern playing space thanks to a visitors’ centre set to be built on the site (opening in 2021). The visitors’ centre and the developing afterlife of the Curtain offers a chance to consider popular assumptions of what a “Tudor playhouse” was, what it did, and what it might do now—and for whom. On the 21 July, we’ll be exploring these questions through performance and discussion, and there will also be the chance to see artefacts discovered at the playhouse.
To date, we have around three recent sustained accounts or narratives of the Curtain playhouse available: that in Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry, and William Ingram’s English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660, Ingram’s chapter in The Business of Playing (1992), and Tiffany Stern’s contribution, “‘The Curtain is Yours,’” to an edited collection on the Queen’s Men (Locating the Queen’s Men, 1583-1603). All of these need to be reconsidered in light of the discovery of the theatre’s rectangular shape and large size (and so invalidating assumptions that it is an “imitative” amphitheatre, something that Stern sees as part of its “derivative” quality). Indeed, much discussion of the Curtain has and continues to rely on speculation, in part because of the perceived absence of information. For instance, only one title page of a play, Hector of Germany (1615), cites the Curtain as the location where it was played (more on that below…). Yet playbooks across this period, especially in the earliest years from 1570s to the 1590s, very rarely reference playhouses, and the Theatre itself never appears on a playbook title page (see, as a reference point, DEEP). It is reams of legal quarrels that tell us much of what we know or can surmise about the Theatre; the Curtain playhouse seemingly has no such history, and so we are without the gift of lengthy lawsuits.
Yet it is not true to conclude from this absence that little survives: there are in fact numerous documents and references to the playhouse, which at this moment of reassessment of early commercial playing space must urge us towards a wider picture and a reassessment of “the Curtain’s uniqueness” (Stern 78). Indeed, as Wickham et al. observe in their section on playhouses, the Curtain and the Theatre are often seen (when joined together) as synonyms for “playhouses” generally (408). Yet this is sometimes subsumed into conclusions that the Theatre is the significant name while the Curtain is merely an add-on or cipher (or, as its proprietor Henry Lanman describes it himself, an “Esore”—a word whose meaning remains the subject of speculation but is sometimes read as meaning it is an “easer” to its neighbouring playhouse: a secondary building).
However, an early mention in 1579 of both playhouses explains that one might “goe . . to the Tavern, to the Ale house, to the Theater, to the Courtain as they term it” (T. F. Newes from the North L1r). The emphasis on the Curtain’s name (and not, as is more usual, the Theatre’s) raises questions about what Elizabethans might have called playhouses generally and who the “they” are that “term” it so… “Theatre,” Burbage and Brayne’s innovative commercial reappropriation of classical terminology, enters English vernacular vocabulary in this period and has gone on to represent a whole cultural industry. Perhaps “Curtain” had similar significance for early audiences. (See discussions of such terminology in our series on theatrical words.) Indeed, there is no reason from these pairings of the Shoreditch playhouses to doubt that the Curtain would have been in these early years as representative of playhouse-ness as the Theatre, whose name and hence structure is now usually taken to be far more symbolic.
By the following century, the Curtain is associated in the popular imagination with alley structures (which it itself partly resembles) and brothels (Richard West, The Court of Conscience, 1607: D3v)—cultural details and colours its playhouse peers never get the chance to pick up. Indeed, the Curtain is the longest serving, by far, of all the playhouses built in the burgeoning era of theatre construction in the 1570s. In this sense, the Curtain is the most successful of the earliest English playhouses (and it remained open for more than twice as long as The Theatre). At the very least, it must offer a narrative of success against its inadequacy or, as Stern posits, undesirability.
The remainder of this post offers a short and potted overview of the social life of The Curtain playhouse, introducing some of the material informing our event on the 21st.
The Curtain Playhouse:
The Curtain opened in Curtain Road, Shoreditch, during a period of theatrebuilding experiments across London in the 1560s and 1570s (see the Red Lion, the inns, and the Blackfriars, for instance, alongside The Theatre, St Paul’s, and Newington Butts). Some of these spaces, including The Theatre, may well have opened in response to the Curtain, whose exact date of birth is unknown, though we first hear of it on record in 1577. Here it is indicated on a mid-Tudor map, where it sits just south of the Theatre and just west of Norton Folgate/Shoreditch High Street.
In 1585, Henry Lanman, the proprietor, entered into some form of sharing scheme with the owners of the Theatre just up the road. He tells the Court of Chancery,
Burbage & Braynes having the profits of plays made at the Theater and this deponant [Lanman] having the Curtain near to the same, the said Burbage and Braynes, taking the Curtain as an Esore to their playhouse, did of their own motion move this deponant that he would agree that the profits of the said 2 playhouses might for 7 years’ space be in dividend between them. (TNA C24/221/12)
Speculation remains as to the exact nature of this agreement or to the management of both or either playhouses during these years, but it shows the interrelation of competition and collaboration that characterised the Elizabethan entertainment industry in this period.
The playhouse operated until it appears to stop hosting plays in the 1620s, while continuing to offer other forms of entertainment. In 1660, Mrs Mills is announced in a list of “Common Whores, Night-walkers, Pick-pockets, Wanderers, and Shop-Lifters and Whippers” to be lodging (or working) “by the Curtain Play-house” (The Wandring Whore Continued, 1660 ), showing that even by the Restoration it remains a landmark by the name of “playhouse,” whether operating as one or not. Correspondence concerning the area’s past sent to the nineteenth-century Shakespearean scholar J. O. Halliwell-Phillips suggests it (or the area) may well have been known as such as late as 1770.
In fact, the criminal ranks in which Mrs Mills appears might well have found success “by the Curtain playhouse” throughout its lifetime. In 1579, Jane Wolmer (alias Dover) was charged for some apparent misdemeanour, during which she “confesseth that she went to a playe to the curtayne wth one Chambers and his wife [. . .] and one Frier of Glostersheire and one of my L of Lecesters men went wth them…” (MS 33011/3 fo. 393r [Bridewell Court Book]; see also Duncan Salkeld’s “New Allusions to London Shewes and Playhouses 1575-1605”); a few pages later in the court book she is accused of promiscuous behaviour (fo. 388r): this murky account suggests a player from Leicester’s Men attending the Curtain and then possibly being involved in some questionable conduct. In 1601, the surroundings of the playhouse itself are the site of trouble for Margary Copeland, as one Benedick led her “into the field towards the Curtain in Holloway and there had the use of this [subject’s] body” (MS 33011/4 fo. 291r). (See Salkeld in: M. Marrapodi [ed.] Shakespeare and the Italian Renaissance , 315-16, and, for discussion of “Master Benedick,” Chapter 4 of D. Cartmell and P. Smith’s [eds], Much Ado About Nothing: A Critical Reader [Bloomsbury, 2018].)
By 1607, John West uses sexuality to describe and demarcate the environs of the playhouse when walking “Towards the Curtain”:
The garden alleyes paled on either side;
Ift be too narrow, walking there you slide,
Into a house among a bawdy crew,
Of damned whores; I theres your whole delight” (The Court of Conscience, D3v)
It is difficult to know if such a reputation is justified or whether it represents a wider and less specific slur on playhouses and playing institutions—what Stephen Gosson describes as “Venus’s palaces.” West’s environmental picture, though, seems to accord with the image of Shoreditch we might gather from archaeology and legal accounts of the late Elizabethan landscape that suggest it’s a mixture of farmland, marsh, and fields with an increasing suburban sprawl. It combines “garden alleys” with “narrow” pathways, suggesting that the Curtain sits at the intersection between city and country at a moment when London itself was rapidly expanding and visual and aural experiences of the urban world were likely changing and intensifying. In lawsuits against the Burbages, we learn that the building of the neighbouring playhouse The Theatre in 1576 also created a route west into the fields from out of the bounds of the old Holywell Priory. The 74-year-old Anne Thorne explains that “since the buildinge of the Theatre there is a way made into the fieldes” (TNA E134 44and45Eliz Mich18, 1601). We can imagine a route towards the Curtain that likewise took audiences through Moorgate and over pathways to approach the playhouse from the West, through the recreational fields marked up with activity from archery to washing in the Agas map (c.1560); these fields were also marked by at least two of the city’s dog kennels and by a rather sizeable pile-up of human waste, the so-called Shoreditch Mount (which is surely enough information to bring to mind something of the authentic nasal experience of Elizabethan north London…)
MOLA’s discovery that the playhouse is placed at the back of an existing house or building and in between neighbouring structures also links the playhouse with its wider location and with surrounding buildings, farms, and fields. As such, there are numerous lawsuits from the wider estate on which the playhouse is situated, including from the Middleton family—some with the involvement of the playwright Thomas Middleton. The exact land owned and argued over by his mother Ann Middleton and her son is not entirely clear, but it’s in very close proximity to the playhouse and therefore adds further dramatic insights to its social and domestic surroundings. Other notable figures, from actors to innkeepers, also lived in the area.
Amid those lawsuits, we learn that Thomas Harvey—Ann Middleton’s new husband and Thomas Middleton’s stepfather—is involved in a lawsuit with his wife and others over rent from properties around the Curtain. Ann had been collecting tenants’ rents, having kept the property away from her husband to keep it secure for her children’s inheritance (that is, to prevent her new husband from having any claim on it). After Harvey returned from a substantial absence, he was frustrated by having no claim on the property and attempted to collect previously paid rent all over again for his own profit (among other thorny legal issues!). His absence was occasioned by an international voyage that left him broke. Indeed, the same year that the Curtain playhouse became an “Esore,” in 1585, Harvey was “intended and appointed to be made into the West Indies” to discover more about the commodities of the country. He explains that the venture was inspired by “Report . . . given out by two strangers, inhabitants of the same foreign nation, as for to have bartered and used traffic with those Countrymen by exchange of merchandise or otherwise” (TNA C2/Eliz/S16/48). Harvey was put in charge of this voyage and spent huge sums, but it wound up with him stuck in the West Indies, miserable and shipless, for a year. When he returned, he was unable to pay his creditors.
Harvey’s voyage points to the wider international elements of Shoreditch life, to nascent ideas of colonialism, and also more optimistically to the possibilities of global trade. Had Harvey met these “strangers” somewhere near the playhouse? Not only was Shoreditch possibly home, even fleetingly, to merchants from the West Indies, but there are also other examples of relationships between the Curtain and a growing black and Asian demographic around the area. Moreover, in the 1580s the area was also home to an international school. Francis Marquino, previously a silkworker (like many European immigrants resident in the area around and north of Bishopsgate), was by 1582 described as a “scolemaster” born in Lombardy, living with Levina (or Lavinia) his wife; he “hath 24 scholars, strangers’ sons, born in England,” as well as an usher named Peter Hurblock (Kirk and Kirk, Returns of Aliens Dwelling in the City and Suburbs of London; 2: 370; read more on this and surrounding internationalism in this post). The area surrounding the Curtain was seemingly a fascinating mix of international activity and immigration, learning, legal controversy (like so many tenanted spaces in early modern England), crime, agriculture, and entertainment.
MOLA’s excavations have also turned up a curious fact: the playhouse stage is exactly the same length as a modern Olympic fencing piste. This is perhaps not so surprising given that fencing matches often took place in the playhouse. According to records of the Society of the Masters of Defence (BL Sloane 2530), several individuals fought “prizes” (in order to reach a certain level of qualification) at the venue from the 1570s to the 1590s, and while the records of the Society end there, there’s no reason to assume that fencing didn’t continue long into the following century (on fencing in playhouses, see this post on different forms of entertainment within a “play”). Romeo and Juliet, a play performed by the Chamberlain’s Men at the Curtain, puts exactly such questions of fighting on display, and scholars such as Ian Borden have explored its interest in different international fencing styles (from Spanish to newly fashionable Italian): “Come, sir, your passado” (RJ 3.1).
While the Curtain is said to appear only on the title page of one play, Hector of Germany (1615), it also creeps in via cod-Latin to the author attribution of another text: Robert Armin’s Quips upon Questions. Quips is a textual representation of one of Elizabethan audiences’ favourite attractions, essentially Tudor stand-up comedy: improvised verses and jests upon different subjects or questions. Armin calls himself on the title page “Clunnico de Curtanio Snuff” (Clown of the Curtain, Snuff).
Armin publishes this title in 1600, and it remains uncertain whether he had joined Shakespeare’s Chamberlain’s Men by that time or whether he was performing at the Curtain with another troupe. Perhaps he was even associated with the venue through his own performances there, in the way that individuals seemingly hired and advertised their use of venues for non-dramatic “play” such as fencing, or to stage independently-arranged “events.” (This seems to have been the case with Richard Vennar’s notorious hoax entertainment, England’s Joy , a widely advertised one-day performance that promised to show gentlewomen acting on stage but that ended with Vennar’s swift exit from the Swan playhouse six lines into the prologue—either because he could not deliver on this promise or, as he later claimed, because he was about to be arrested by bailiffs…). Either way, Armin’s playhouse soubriquet aligns him with a performance space and suggests that both Armin and the Curtain were marketable or recognisable names that were well paired together. Unlike any of its fellow spaces constructed in the 1570s, the playhouse enters the seventeenth century, and it does so while announcing to the print market that it was a space where verbally inventive clowning had a home (however temporary Armin’s residence proved…).
We look forward to teasing out some of these historical issues, and many more, on the 21 July, as well as looking ahead to thinking about what a more diverse—in the sense of performance modes, neighbourhood, and audiences—conception of early modern playing spaces might mean for national and international communities today. We hope you can join us as we explore together the sites and subjects of our shared heritage.