The Curtain Rises: Post Match Report

On Saturday 21st, we enjoyed seeing the puffed-up knight Huanebango being struck down by a disembodied voice, entering a sixteenth-century smoking area, meeting the cosmopolitan neighbours of 1580s Shoreditch, and learning how to use a sword and buckler…

We were lucky to have the brilliant venue Hackney House, which sits just opposite the very site of the Curtain playhouse, and to collaborate with MOLA, The Stage, and The Dolphin’s Back (for background to Saturday’s event, see our guide to the Curtain HERE).  We used the space to think about the diverse forms of performance on offer at the playhouse during its heyday in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as thinking about its early reception, audiences, and social life.  Pro tip: there’s a great view from the toilet windows down onto the playhouse excavation site…


We started the day by being introduced to several Robert Armins—all claiming to be the famous clown who joined Shakespeare’s company in around 1600.  Armin[s] introduced his book, Quips upon Questions (1600), in which he announces himself as the “Clown of the Curtain” (or Clunnico de Curtanio Snuff).


“I’m Robert Armin”; “No, I’m Robert Armin”… (Rhys Bevan and Dan Abelson)

We at Before Shakespeare then spoke about the contexts of playhouses in the sixteenth century: what do we mean by that word, where does the idea of a (as opposed to The) theatre come from, and what was it that so annoyed some early commentators about spaces like the Curtain?


After this, we were introduced to the full cast of The Dolphin’s Back for this event (Dan Abelson, Suzanne Ahmet, Rhys Bevan, Adam Cunis and Tommy Swale—and of course director James Wallace himself), during a performance of Anthony Munday’s John a Kent and John a Cumber (c.1590).  John a Kent is a play associated with the Lord Strange’s Men, and it survives only in manuscript (Huntington Library, California, HM500).  The play seems to tap into similar ideas of rivalry, arch-enemy taunting, and stage satire as the Martin Marprelate controversy from which it seemingly draws inspiration (a pamphlet war between “Puritan” writers who wanted a more Presbyterian polity and the English state and church; the quarrel spread to stage skits in playhouses including the Curtain).  We saw a section in which John a Kent is due to be lambasted by his rival John a Cumber in a play using magic and necromancy as special effects (but John plans to upend this by using some real actors in on the game!).  It was a great chance to see the mechanics and practicalities underlying sixteenth-century performance—not least in a play whose handwritten script includes added annotations for stage directions such as “music chimes”…


John a Kent and John a Cumber (James Wallace; Suzanne Ahmet; Tommy Swale; Adam Cunis)

Heather Knight followed by introducing us to the archaeology behind the Curtain and the significance of its discovery—not least the fact that the playhouse is rectangular, not round.  Knight put this into context by thinking about the shape of playhouses north of the river in contrast to those in the south, as well as pointing to the shape, structure, and continental parallels to the Curtain (as in the Corral de Comedia de Almagro [c.1627]).


Heather Knight was also able to talk us through, during our “Artefact Bar” interval break, some of the many fascinating objects that we had available to handle that had been found during the excavation of the Curtain: a “love-jug” (or a jug with two handles); shards from bellarmine jugs; several early seventeenth-century pipes; a later-seventeenth-century colander (!); oyster shells; Delftware (earlier imported and later imitation); moneybox shards (and a replica) for the collection of cash [during plays or, as Heather Knight suggested in her talk, for other purposes during entertainments too?]; the remnants of large wine jugs; and decorative pottery…


Artefact Bar

Before the break, we were treated to two more entertainments from The Dolphin’s Back. Alongside plays, this event was interested in performing the evidence and materials we have for thinking about the playhouse as a social venue.  The Curtain has often been thought of as “invisible,” as Andy noted in our introduction, because it does not leave the trail of legal evidence bequeathed to us through its neighbouring Theatre.  But the accumulation of different forms of evidence—poems, court cases, arrests, prose references, divorce proceedings (yes, really!)—means that we were able on Saturday to piece together a reasonably “visible” picture of its history… As such, we presented a verbatim court play, drawn from proceedings in the Middlesex Consistory Court of c.1611-12.  The case concerned Joanne Waters and John Newton.  As Joanne Waters’ servant (and numerous other respondents in the case) told us,

MAID. Newton is a player at one of the common playhouses, and so commonly accounted of—and I in Whitson holidays last past was present at the Curtain in Hallywell and saw Newton publicly upon the stage there play a part in a play…

Joanne Waters and John Newton were married at a pub in view of witnesses and had put their hands to a marriage contract.  Joanne Waters alleges that she was “deceived,” and Newton insists she was not, and so the case rumbles on across several months in the Consistory Court hearing fascinating details from different deponents about their relationship and the public signs of their affection:

IRELAND. I verily believeth that Waters then very much affected to him Newton in the way of marriage, for that she with her lips sucked the said Newton’s neck in manner of kindness, whereby she made 3 red spots arise. Newton asked her what she meant by it, she answering said that she had marked him for her own. And a kindness and conference then and there passed between them; she the said Waters requested Newton to go home with her, saying he should be very welcome… (LMA DL/C/219 and 220)

The testimony was chopped up into the style of a play, as though responding to each others’ points, interjecting, and adding detail upon detail to fill in the picture of these individuals in pubs from Smithfield to Shoreditch, making love, scheming, encouraging, and gossiping (a true seventeenth-century soap opera but about the real lives of—and so with real consequences for—people from the past).  Among the many witnesses was “a black man . . . whose name . . . is Duke,” a fascinating detail mentioned by only one of the respondents: here is a haberdasher (resident in St Sepulchre) in the early seventeenth century and curiously only one of the deponents saw need to comment on his appearance (and what exactly “black” means in this remark remains open to question…).

At the end of this sketch, we heard from John Newton and Joanne Waters themselves:


NEWTON.  I am one of the Duke of York’s sworn servants and a player, and I further answer and believe that Joanne Waters at the time of the subscribing her name or mark to the contract alledged in this suit, in the behalf of me, was in very god sense, reason, and temper, as I believe.  And I verily believe that she did well know to understand the contents of the said note and what she then did—by reason that diverse weeks or days after that she, the same Joanne, did sundry times confess both to me and to my friends and to her own friends and others that she had so subscribed her name or marks to the foresaid note and that she purposed to be married to John, this respondent…


WATERS. John Newton and some others within by a device got me to the tavern and after they had been drinking wine in the said tavern three hours or more, one in the company showed forth a little note or writing to me, and I, not knowing what the contents of the same were, did as I believe at the request of some then present set my hand to the same note. And otherwise I do not believe this answer to be true in any part. For I knew not the content therein until 2 or 3 days after, that I found the note at home and caused my boy to read it to us, I perceiving they had deceived me…



John Newton and Joanne Waters Ged Wed?

We were then lucky to have a condensed strand of what is for me one of the best (and funniest?) (and weirdest!) sixteenth-century plays: George Peele’s The Old Wives Tale—in a hilarious rendition of a braggart knight trying to save a beautiful princess from an evil conjuror…


FROLIC. Soft, who have we here?

OLD WOMAN. Oh this is a choleric gentleman, all you that love your lives, keep out of the smell of his two hand sword: now goes he to the conjuror.

FROLIC. Methinks the Conjuror should put the fool into a Juggling box.

HUANEBANGO. Fee, fa, fum, here is the Englishman,
Conquer him that can, came for his lady bright,
To prove himself a knight
And win her love in fight.

BOOBY. Who hawe maister Bango, are you here? heare you, you had best sit down here, and beg an alms with me.

HUANEBANGO. Hence, base cullion, here is he that commandeth ingresse and egresse with his weapon, and will enter at his voluntary whosoever saith no.

A voice and flame of fire: HUANEBANGO falleth down.


“Vallentyne Longe playde his provostes prize at the Courten in Holiwell the fiveth daye of August at thre weapons[,] the longe sworde, the backe sword and the sworde and buckeler…”

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 11.50.20

BL Sloane MS 2530, fo. 12r [Valentine Long’s Provost’s Prize, 5 August 1582]

After the break, we learned a little about what Valentine Long and his audiences would have been up to in 1582… A wonderful demonstration and anatomy of fencing from Craig Hamblyn and Kiel O’Shea explained the move in the later sixteenth-century from the sword and buckler towards the rapier (a lighter, longer sword) thanks to continental influence, and the related rise of a smaller dagger to accompany it (hence a fight at the two-hand sword).  Their demonstration followed on from a fencing-saturated section of Romeo and Juliet, where Mercutio mentions the passado and the alla stockado and the punto reverso:


Sword and Buckler (Craig Hamblyn and Kiel O’Shea)

After a fascinating Q&A that explored the class implications of fencing, gender and female fighting, and the relationship of playing space and particular player to fencing styles, we also went back in time to visit Richard Tarlton, the great Elizabethan comic clown, in the Cross Keys down the road (where we saw an episode with Banks’s famous horse…) and, here, in the Curtain:


NARRATOR. It chanced that one Fancy and Nancy, a musition in London, used often with their boys to visit Tarlton, when he dwelled in Gracious street, at the sign of the Saba, a Tavern, he being one of their best friends or benefactors, by reason of old acquaintance.  They came one summer’s morning to play him the Hunts’ up, with such music as they had. Tarlton, to requite them, would open his chamber door, and for their pains would give them muscadine, which a cony-catcher noting, and seeing Tarlton come forth in his shirt and night-gown to drink with these Musicians, the while this nimble fellow stepped in, and took Tarlton’s apparel, which every day he wore, thinking that if he were espied, to turn it to a jest.  But it passed for current and he goes his ways.  Not long after, Tarlton returned to his Chamber and looked for his clothes, but they were safe enough from him. The next day this was noised abroad, and one in the mockage threw him this Theam, he playing then at the Curtain:

Tarlton, I will tell thee a jest,
Which after turned to earnest:
One there was as I heard say,
Who in his shirt heard Music play,
while all his clothes were stolen away.

Tarlton smiling at this, answered on the sudden thus:

That’s certain, Sir, it is no lie,
That same one in truth was I:
When that the thief shall pine and lack,
Then shall I have clothes to my back:
And I together with my fellows,
May see him ride to Tyburn Gallows.

(Adapted from Tarlton’s Jests [1600])

We wrapped up our exploration of the area of the Curtain by speaking to audience members themselves—past and present.  Upon entering, every guest had pulled a name out of a hat, with an anecdote or short detail on the reverse of the page…




It was intriguing to see the discussion in the room follow on from this cosmopolitan cast of characters—from Christopher Marlowe’s friend Tom Watson (arrested for manslaughter) to the Frenchman John Depounte working in the prison (the Poultry) who came to England “with the galleys of France”—and to think about the range of people on the doorstep of the Curtain and those identifiably within it.  Thinking about the audience at our event and imagining ourselves back over 400 years on the same spot pointed us to the diversity of class, age, race, nationality, and gender of those bound up in the activities surrounding the Shoreditch playhouses.  In turn, we closed by thinking about Thomas Harvey—sometime stepfather to the playwright Thomas Middleton—who had a global journey of his own to the West Indies on a failed trade attempt, which left him stranded there for a year in 1585 (the same year that the Curtain was made an “easer” to the Theatre—whatever that means… and we had some interesting discussions in the Q&A of what it might mean, including Duncan Salkeld’s suggestion as raised in his new book, Shakespeare and London [OUP, 2018]…).

Wrapping up with a relaxed Q&A across the room, we were encouraged to think about the future possibilities for the Curtain: for what it might offer actors, audiences, academics, and local and international communities…


There is much more to be said and discovered about the Curtain, and it was a pleasure and a privilege to bring together archaeology, performance, archive, national and international audiences and local community to begin to consider how exciting early modern theatre history is at this present moment—how it can shake our assumptions about the past and inform our ideas and hopes for the future… We look forward to more Before Shakespeare events to follow on the many questions raised and to continue the conversations begun here and at our past events over the last two years.  Our huge thanks, finally, must go again to James Wallace, The Dolphin’s Back, and the wonderful actors and fencers who helped bring to life the documents, practices, and people of the Curtain’s past!

Callan Davies

Running Order


3 thoughts on “The Curtain Rises: Post Match Report

  1. Pingback: Christmas, Newyeares tyde: A summary of works done and attendance given, 2018 | Before Shakespeare

  2. Pingback: Tudor Drama in Modern Performance | Before Shakespeare

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