It Was the Summer of ’79, at the Curtain Playhouse

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It’s recently proved effective for critics and historians to conjure a thick cultural history by concentrating on one particular year (e.g. 1611; 1606…).  Even the arguably patchier nature of theatre history has lent itself to studies concentrated on a specific date: think, for instance, James Shapiro’s entertaining account of the Globe, 1599.

Writing a Year-in-a-Playhouse is slightly trickier in our earlier period, because details and documentary evidence are sparser still when it comes to the theatres of the 1560s and 1570s.  Even so, a degree of our conceptual thinking on this project has coalesced around particular years—1576, 1567—in part to debunk assumptions that they mark a “beginning” of a particular type of drama, playhouse, or playing tradition.

I’m intrigued by what we might be able to learn about the life of a 1570s playhouse by applying a (slightly random) annual focus, in order to draw together the disparate pieces of evidence that survive. Partly, this helps make questions of evidence and absence clearer; partly, it’s a fun imaginative exercise in conjuring the experience of early modern London through one recreational institution and consequently a chance to experiment with a form of theatrical microhistory.  For this piece, I’ll be spending a year in the young Curtain playhouse as it makes its way into the brave new decade of 1580s.

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Upon your arrival at the Curtain in 1579, you may want to learn a little bit about the area itself: it can be useful to know who owns what, who owes what, and who’s suing whom (perennial concerns in Elizabethan London)—especially in the event that you’re called as a witness yourself in one of the many land law cases pertaining to this small corner of the world.

First off, you’d know that the Curtain playhouse had been open for a matter of years by 1579; the first references appear in 1577, so it was likely built some time around or shortly before this date (theatre history narratives tend to pin this date as its “opening,” but, as we’ve emphasised over the past few years, evidence only points to it being in operation by this date).  Witnesses in later court cases refer to the general area as the place “where now the playes be made” (TNA C24/170).  But the “Curtain” refers to a wider parcel of land (broadly termed Curtain Close), which was owned by Maurice Long and his son William, who’d been delivered a lease on the property by Maurice’s mother Alice German.  In 1567, they had purchased the land outright (from the Mountjoy family), giving them “fee symple” (or more or less unconditional ownership) of the detailed area:

all that the house tenement or lodge commonly called the Curtain and at that parcell of ground and close called and inclosed with a brick wall on the west and North parts, called also the Curtain close sometime, appertaining to the priory of Holywell, now dissolved, sett, lying, and being in the parish of St Leonard in Shoreditch in the county of Middlesex; together with all the gardens, fishponds, wells, hereditaments, and brickwall. (TNA C54/742 m.34, 35).

They mortgaged the property in 1571/2, and in the years surrounding the playhouse’s establishment they leased out parcels of the property to various tenants, including carter Thomas Wilkins (c.1560s?-1577) and then from 1577 bricklayer William Middleton (the father of the playwright Thomas) (TNA C24/170).  The Longs eventually sold the whole property outright to Thomas Harbert in 1581 (TNA C54/1098, m. 8), but in the year of our visit it’s still owned by the Longs.  It remains unclear exactly who had the lease to the parcel of land on which the playhouse was built, though it’s possible (and is the subject of ongoing work) that the Wilkins-Middleton lease covered the whole area, in turn sublet to other subtenants.  One tenant was Henry Lanman, listed as a leaseholder there in 1581: Lanman is styled as proprietor of the Curtain playhouse itself a few years later in court cases pertaining to the neighbouring Theatre (TNA C24/228/10; C24/226/11), so it’s likely on his patch of land—leased or subleased—that we tread as we make our way to a day out at the Curtain playhouse.

In 1579, then, you would encounter the playhouse in its wider environs within Curtain Close, among property shared out between various tenants.  Perhaps on the way to a fencing match this afternoon, you find yourself interested in a bite to eat; Wilkins claims that when he purchased his lease from a man called Turfitt (of Colman Street), “there was a victualing house upon the same, and so this deponent continued tenant thereof” (TNA C24/170). This victualling house may have connections back to John Jerman, the original leaseholder (from c. 1550/60s), whose registered profession was “innholder.”  Wilkins’s awkward phrasing may indicate that he continued to run this establishment in the late 1570s (before he apparently sold his share in the property to Middleton), and so you may well be able to drop into this neighbouring spot for refreshments before or after your afternoon’s entertainment.

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Putting aside the complex ownership structure of this former priory land, at least your visit can be meticulously planned out.  1579 sees one of the most significant cartographic developments in Christopher Saxton’s atlas of England and Wales (with the copperplates remaining in use for over 150 years); his map of south-east England sets out Middlesex and includes Shoreditch as an outlier town, sitting just north east of the city of London (marked like other towns and villages by a church spire and adjoined building that looks teasingly like a playhouse structure!).

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Christopher Saxton’s map of the southeast (1579), section; from British Library website.

Earlier maps, such as the Copperplate map of the 1550s or the Agas map of the 1570s, show a little more clearly the easy route up from Moorgate or Bishopsgate towards Curtain Close.

Educated visitors might well have been aware of this hop north of the City to the newly distinct, defined suburb of Shoreditch—which had undergone a substantial transformation into a major suburban destination in the decades following the dissolution of priory land that previously defined the area—as they strolled through Moorfields with Saxton’s atlas in hand—fresh from a bookseller at St Paul’s.

Reviews Section

Perhaps the bookseller’s wares also prime visitors with other expectations: three antitheatrical tracts were hot off the presses in 1579, following closely John Northbrooke’s counsel two years earlier not to visit “those places . . . which are made up and builded for such Playes and Enterludes as the Theatre and Curtain . . . and such other like places besides” (I2r), in the earliest known print reference to the playhouse.

In ’79, you may have just purchased Thomas Twyne’s translation of a Petrarchan dialogue, in which Reason deems “the Curteine or Theater” to be “enemies to good manners: for look who goeth thyther evil, returneth worse” (F4r)—perhaps making a prospective audience member regret their direction of travel.  “Joy,” however, who is alarmingly opposed to Reason, is “delighted” with the “sundrie Showes” said to be performed at these playhouses (suggesting an attraction not only to performed drama but to a variety of entertainment forms housed in these Shoreditch establishments).  Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuses (1579) uses “Theatre” as a synonym for all playhouses (and he would no doubt be smugly pleased to be on the side of Reason in condemning them), and he includes a direct address to gentlewomen and citizens to forbear playing and resist the journey north through Moorfields.

Perhaps, though, this year marks your first visit down south.  Inevitably, you’re eager to see what fun can be had in London and to party like it’s 1579. Which it is.  The good news is that if you head out shopping for a guide, you can call in at “the long shop adjoining unto St Mildred’s Church in the Poultry” and pick up a copy of T. F.’s dialogue, Newes from the North.  This little quarto relates in entertaining fashion a newcomer’s experience of London’s leisure industries.  The speaker is informed by a Holborn resident of all the choices on offer: one might “goe . . . to the Tavern, to the Ale house, to the Theater, to the Courtain as they term it” (F4r).  It’s curious to note that T. F. sees “Curtain” as a synonym for playhouse equal to “Theatre” or playing place or Venus’s Palace.  The dialogue’s speaker comes away aghast at London’s “Theaters, Courtaines, Heauing houses, Kissing boothes, Bowling alleyes, and such places where the time is so shamefully mispent” (A4r)—an alignment of activities that places the Shoreditch venues in serious bad company.  In short, it’s not a good press year for The Curtain. But maybe these are exactly the recommendations you’ve been looking for…

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On your visit to the capital, you’ll have to pick your accommodation carefully.  Word has got round this summer about some lodging houses that flatter to deceive.  You might not easily come across a Tripadvisor or AirBnB review to help make your decision, but you could call in at Bridewell Hospital and Prison to get some up-to-date local information.  Bridewell sits in a former royal palace and serves as a house of correction—it takes in minor crimes, often sexual in nature, and metes out punishments such as labour and incarceration. As such, it’s a good place to figure out what sort of vices are going on across the city—and where.

When you head there this summer, you’ll hear from Jane Wolmer (also known as Jane Dover), who is brought in charged with adultery and prostitution.  She frankly admits to the court her various indiscretions, and movingly tells the court that things would have been different were her father-in-law a “good man.”

Like you, she had been at the playhouses in Shoreditch in June 1579, where she picked up some questionable company: “she confesseth that she went to a play at the Curtain with one Chambers and his wife of the old change where she lay, and one Frier of Gloucestershire and one of my Lord of Leicester’s men went with them…” (Bethlem Museum of the Mind, CLC/275/MS33011/003, fo. 393-). [See Appendix below for a full modernised transcription of Wolmer’s opening testimony, the text from these images from the Bridewell minutes:]

Much of what you’ll hear centres on her experiences lodging at the house of Mr and Mrs Chambers in The Royal Exchange.  She explains that “she…lyen at Chambers’ house with Michael Curde, and they said that they were married together but upon her being brought thither it was known to Chambers and his wife that they were not married together.”  Chambers admitted her anyway, and he admits to the court that he knew “they were lewde and naughty and not married” but claims that he put her up in his house at the request of her brother for some three weeks (where she now resides).  Moreover, Jane’s sister, Ellen Dover, also lodged with Chambers at an earlier date, “being with child . . . and she was delivered in his house and he knew that the child was gotten in whoredom And he was bounden at thospitall with another for the keeping of the child.”

If you stay long enough, you’ll discover there’s more to the situation than Chambers graciously hosting two sisters in desperate circumstances.  Other deponents explain that various visitors frequented Chambers’ house and, allegedly, conducted a series of affairs with Jane.  One servant explains that a man called “Yelverton lay at his masters house at Jane’s last being there and he and Jane and [the] master and mistress went out diverse times to dinner and sup together[…] Fryer and one of my Lord of Leicester’s Men and Yelverton and Acarson resorted often to Jane Dover to his master’s house daily and talked with her there in the kitchen and in the chamber; Acarson was there 2 or 3 times a day, commonly.”

There’s much more to this fascinating and unfortunate sketch of Elizabethan London life than these occasionally lurid, occasionally oblique details.  But it’s important to be careful about where you lodge, lest rumour and reputation land you in Bridewell yourself.  Perhaps the colourful description of the Chambers’ lodging place by Austin Oliver—erstwhile servant in the household—tells you all you need to know about this particular accommodation option in the summer of 1579; she explains:

She dwelt with Chambers in the old change a quarter of a year and went from him a week before Whitsontide last past, and in the time she dwelled there there were diverse couples of gentlemen and gentlewomen that resorted to Chambers’ house and were had up always into the chamber there and even the colour of their going up was by Chambers’ wife that they came to hire a chamber, but none was hired, but, as she supposeth, they used evil life there—for this examinant and the other servants might not go then up into the chamber but Chambers’ wife would go up and down jingling her keys.

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On a happier note, if you’re still in town almost exactly two months later, you’ll be able to return to the Curtain to watch Richard Fletcher in action.  He’s playing for his scholar’s prize in fencing, seeking to join the Society of the Masters of Defence at its initial, lowest rank.  He’ll be fighting with two weapons—the long sword and the sword and buckler—and you’ll see him take on six opponents and another free scholar, Thomas Noble.

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British Library MS Sloane 2530, fo. 43r.


Playtime

Alongside fencing, you’ll doubtless want to experience one of the Curtain’s other main  attractions: commercial dramatic performance.

It’s difficult to be certain what was playing at the Curtain in the summer of 1579.  Jane Wolmer testifies that she left the Curtain with a player from the Leicester’s Men; he may have been an audience member himself, but he may well have been part of the troupe performing that afternoon.  Earlier in the year, the Queen’s accountant Thomas Heneage recorded a payment of £6, 14 shillings, and 4 pence, with an additional 66 shillings and 8 pence as the Queen’s reward, for “presenting of a play before her Majesty on Twelf day last paste” (TNA AO1/382/17).  Having performed for the Queen earlier in the year, Leicester’s men would doubtless be presenting their offerings to paying audiences members like you in the public forum of the city (provided plague doesn’t make it impossible to perform in London, as it did for a while in spring this year [Privy Council Orders, 13 March 1578/9; TNA PC 2/12, 427]).

One of Leicester’s Men’s chief members following their patent in 1574 was James Burbage, the part-proprietor of the Curtain’s neighbouring playhouse, The Theatre, so we can be sure that his company was familiar with Shoreditch audiences—perhaps used to spying Jane Wolmer among the assembled crowds.  The Office of the Revels records show that the play Leicester’s Men presented before the Queen on Twelfth Night was a “history,” though it teasingly leaves a blank space where the title should be.  If you’re open to surprises, you can always pay your penny at the door, a second to sit down, or a third for “quiet standing” to see [*drumroll*] The history of ______. 

Other adult companies paid at court that year include the Chamberlain’s, Derby’s, and Warwick’s Men, who had in their repertory The History of Portio and Demorantes, Soldan and the Duke of _____, and The Four Sons of Fabyous respectively (TNA AO3/907). All 9 plays performed at court in the winter of 1578-9 are described as “histories of…”: it seems classical and Italianate tales of the past are very much the fashion in the final years of the 1570s; while the term can be a synonym for “story” rather than a marker of genre, in these listings it is linked largely to Greek and Roman mythical figures.  Leicester’s Men’s History featured “A Citie a Countrye house and vij paire of gloves,” and while things might be a little less lavish in Shoreditch you may well find the stage mirroring the location itself: suspended between rural and urban England.

Last Orders 🍺🔔

By the end of July, the Court of Common Council—essentially the council or government of the City of London—added a series of new articles to a lengthy draft Act from February aimed at finding greater relief for the poor; the final article claims that

the playing of enterludes and the resort to the same are very dangerous for the infection of the plague, whereby infinite burdens and losses to the City may increase . . . And to thintent that the said most godly order of the most honorable counsel be not by papists depraved to a superstitious construction therefore be it ordered that all such enterludes in public places and resort to the same shall be wholly prohibited as ungodly, and humble suit be made to the lords that like prohibition be in places near to the City (BL Add. MS 48019, fo. 149; LMA JORS 20 [COL/CC/01/01/020-21], fo. 606r).

In this uncharacteristically extreme approach to regulating playing, the City motion for the first time for an all-out ban on the pastime, under colour of Protestant piety.  The motion is something of an outlier in the grand scheme of the City’s relationship with the playing industry—typically much more nuanced and pragmatic than outright hostility or opposition—but it underlines 1579 as a curious year in the history of theatrical regulation.  Throughout the decade, the City Corporation had sought to find ways to capitalise upon commercial playing, in particular through a similar act in 1574 that required landlords of any venue hosting plays to pay a charity tax to London’s hospitals.  The previous year they had also attempted, seemingly to no avail, to install their own appointed regulator to approve both plays and playing venues across the capital and its suburbs—a move (almost entirely ignored in theatre history narratives) that precedes Edmund Tilney’s patent as the Master of the Revels by some ten years.  Standing as an audience member in the yard of the Curtain in 1579, you would be engaging in an activity in regulatory flux, one that has a complex and shifting relationship with London’s authorities.

The call to ban playing does little or nothing to suppress the activities described by T.F. in their account of London’s leisure industry.  Indeed, if you’ve already headed back up North, or abroad, or anywhere away from the city following the City’s rhetorical attempt to restrict playing in July ’79, you’ll manage to avoid the “illicite assemblacionis populi magne affraie insultus tumultus et quasi insurexiones et diuersus alia malefacta et enormia per quam plures maledispositas personas…” [‘unlawful assemblies of people, great affrays, insults, tumults, and quasi-insurrections and diverse other malefactions and enormities of many ill-disposed people’] outside The Theatre the following summer, in scenes that see its owners Burbage and Brayne hauled before the magistrates of Middlesex (LMA MJ/SR/0225/4).  Though perhaps your experience hanging around the Curtain the previous year means this comes as no surprise.

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STC 5259

You’ll also have avoided a frightening natural disaster.  Disapproving godly commentators blame the venue for an earthquake in London and Middlesex in the spring, pointing the finger at “such filthiness as is continually concluded upon and committed in your Theatre, Curtain, and accursed courtes of spectacle” (Abraham Fleming, A Bright Burning Beacon [1580], D3v [and see Liz Oakley-Brown’s post on earthquakes at the Curtain elsewhere on our site]).  Ironically enough, Thomas Churchyard’s account suggests the only fatality was an apprentice called Thomas Gray, who was “brayned” while attending… a sermon at Christ Church, Newgate.

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The year 1579 throws up some fascinating details that hopefully make this brief play-ful attempt to reconstruct a year of an early playhouse’s history worthwhile.  It takes us from cartographic innovation to sexual misdemeanours, and it gestures to wider attempts to police the playing industry in London throughout this formative decade.  Our summer sojourn in Shoreditch may point to the limitations of surviving evidence when trying to generate a chronological narrative of events at one single location, but it also emphasises what is so rich about the sources that do survive.

Callan Davies


Appendix

Jane Wolmer’s opening Testimony (12 June 1579)

Jane Wolmer alias Dover being again brought hither confesseth that at her last being here by her brother George’s doing, she was arrested into the Marshalsea, where she tarried 3 days. And she was taken from Pownsabye as she went about to deliver Pownsabey Curde’s goods, which she had disposed abroad, she confesseth that she went to a playe to the Curtain with one Chambers and his wife of th’old change, where she lay, and one Frier of Gloucestershire and one of my Lord of Leicester’s Men went with them. And Mr Yelverton of Norfolk brought her thither to Chambers about 3 weeks since; she should pay ij s[hillings] A week for her chamber and Mr Yelverton gave his word for it. And also promised to see her diet paid for if her father would not.

She sayeth that there was A young woman, one Wolf’s wife, lay at Chambers about a week while she lay there, and her husband lay not there then, and diverse resorted to her, for she lent money upon pawns.

She confesseth that the first that abused her bodie was one Thomas Pavet, late servant with Sir Thomas Barington of Essex. And then she fell acquainted with Michaell Curde, with whom she often abused her body, as is before confessed./

She sayeth that her brother and Traherne went with her to Kingsland to Traherne’s house, where she lay, but Akarson went not with her, nor came to her thither.

And Mr Yelverton came by Traherne’s house at Kingsland, and she called him to speak to Chambers that she might lie there, for Yelverton lay there first. And he promised to help her thither. And she went presently with him, and Chambers with much entreaty received her into his home. She lay in a little chamber above, next Chambers lodging, with th’other young women. And Yelverton lay beneath in another chamber.

She sayeth that her sister Ellen had a child in whoredom between one Kent in Essex and Harden her father-in-law, and she was thereof delivered in Chambers house about Christmas last (as he heard say), her father-in-law paid the charge at Chambers, she sayeth that she had before her last being here lying at Chambers house with Michael Curd, and they said that they were married together, but upon her being brought hither it was known to Chambers and his wife that they were not married together, yet now Chambers received her again.

She confesseth that if her father-in-law Harden had been A good man, she had never committed whoredom with Curde, for he persuaded her to lewdness with him and was the practiser of that and the cosening of Curde of his goods.

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