Adeola Ogunbadewa is a research intern at the School of English at the University of Kent, where she is going into her final year reading for a BA in Spanish and Religious Studies. She has been working on a project to develop a timeline of play events and performances at the Curtain playhouse.
The Curtain, in use from 1577 until 1625, has probably the longest of lifespan of all early modern playhouses, yet it had for some time been ‘the most ignored of the early modern London amphitheatres’ (Stern 2009, 77-78). The few extant documents have, necessarily, become the foundation of how we imagine the playhouse to have been. In this post, I think about the Curtain’s dubious reputation and its connection with performance events at the venue.
Over the last few weeks, I have been carrying out research to find out which plays were performed at the Curtain, in order to create a timeline. In this context, the word play has a broad definition. It refers to clowning, bowling, jigging and fencing, as well as dramatic plays. From the beginning of this project, one thing that has constantly come up is the Curtain’s bad rep, which has at times left me puzzled. This is mainly because I’ve struggled to marry the idea that this Elizabethan playhouse, which was in operation for the longest period of time, was undesirable to performance companies and in some way “seedy.” In turn, this has prompted me to ask, what has repertory got to do with investigating a bad reputation?
These angles also raise key questions: can a playhouse even be said to have a reputation and, if so, how it can shift over time? Tackling these issues is complex. Taking the Curtain as an example, one can see that at different times distinct types of plays, ranging from theatre productions to fencing, were hosted at the venue. Moreover, different theatre companies performed at Curtain. Thus, we must ask what does it even mean to have a coherent “reputation” as a playhouse when it is continually occupied by multiple kinds of play and players?
The broad definition of play is visible in English Professional Theatre, 1530 1660. The book lays out a clear chronology of events that happened at the Curtain using primary sources as evidence. For example, it mentions that from 1579 until 1583 and then again in 1625 fencing occurred at the site. However, from 1583 a range of different theatre companies occupied the Curtain at different times. So who went there and why? Broadly speaking, we might say that the majority of people who went to the Curtain were those who enjoyed plays and a social environment.
In addition to who went and why, scholarship has struggled to pinpoint plays performed there and so to generate a sense of “identity” for the playhouse. Tiffany Stern emphasises its bad reputation, citing Middleton’s Father Hubburds Tale, in which he wrote ‘Little thought I, madam, that the camp had been supplied with harlots too as well as the Curtain.’ (2009, 83). The Curtain was only mentioned on the title-page of one play, The Hector of Germany. This, however, is not unusual, as few playhouses are mentioned on title pages. Furthermore, it has proved difficult to pin down “permanent” companies resident there for extended periods (in the way explored by Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean for the Lord Strange’s Men ).
Was the Curtain really such a dodgy site?
Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that outdoor playhouses, as a whole, were generally associated with theft and prostitution. Thus, the supposed air of sleaziness linked to the Curtain was not exclusive to it. In the case of the Curtain, many of the primary sources that play a role in giving it a reputation are antitheatrical complaints, Privy Council shutdowns and court case documents (Wickham, Berry & Ingram 2010, 409 & 413), It is important to point out that documents that paint the Curtain in a negative light, such as court proceedings, probably survived due to their “official” and regulatory nature, so, we have to take them with a pinch of salt—archival silences might occlude “positives”. Additionally, one should keep in mind that a lack of positive archival documents does not necessarily equate to Curtain being a focal point of immorality.
Moreover, it is estimated that between 1567 and 1642 roughly 3000 plays were written and performed. Of these plays, around 800 survived in print, and only 543 in their entirety (McInnis & Steggle 2014, 1 & 18). Taking that point into account, it is not implausible to conclude that the Curtain was potentially present on the title-page of other plays. The Curtain could have been “coded” in their print survival in other ways, thanks to connections with the company or performer who was there. These could suggest recognisable Curtain identifiers that are now lost or of which we may now be unaware.
Reputation or repertory: which should we believe? Like with most things, the bigger picture is nuanced. This can be seen through the above-mentioned point that the Curtain seems to be synonymous with sordid behaviour. But one could read this reputation into any playhouse of that epoch. Additionally, I find it interesting that the mention of the Curtain being the longest serving playhouses of its era is usually followed by a subtle reminder that it did not have a ‘long-term occupancy from a single theatre company’ (Kesson 2017, 31). Thus, it lacked a permanent company. Yet at that time many companies toured or changed venue frequently. In addition, the companies such as the Queen’s men (Queen Anne) were based, at least partly, at the Curtain during the 1580s, so how can we define “permanence” in respect to companies or residencies? To me, its longevity seems to be a sign of success, but inevitably other factors play a role in what one defines as being successful.
Due to the fact that new information is constantly being uncovered, such as the Curtain having actually been rectangular opposed to being a “round” amphitheatre, we need to keep in mind that what is known about playhouses is subject to change. Additionally, my time researching the Curtain has taught me that a lack of evidence does not necessarily indicate that something did not happen. For example, evidence exists showing that the Curtain hosted fencing at the beginning and at the end of its lifetime. Does that mean fencing did not happen at any other times when it was in operation or do we simply just not have those records? These points, alongside others, have led me to believe that we must constantly re-examine how we read and present evidence. With an emphasis on reputation, one should keep in mind that the documents that paint the Curtain in a bad light survived due to their nature, such as being court cases or complaints. Thus, like with other one-sided matters, they should be taken with a pinch of salt. Will future discoveries cause us to rethink the Curtain’s reputation? Only time will tell.
Harper, Lana Marie (2018) The development of early English playhouses, 1560-1670. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.
Kesson, A. (2017). Playhouses, Plays, and Theatre History: Rethinking the 1580s. Shakespeare Studies [Online], 45, pp. 19-40.
Manley, L. and Maclean, S (2014). Lord Strange’s Men and Their Plays. Yale University Press.
McInnis, D. and Steggle, M. eds. (2014). Lost Plays in Shakespeare’s England. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stern, T. (2009). The Curtain is Yours. In Ostovich, H., Syme, H. and Griffin, A. eds. Locating the Queen’s Men, 1583-1603: Material Practices and Conditions of Playing. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Gate, pp. 77-96.
Wickham, G., Berry, H. and Ingram, W. eds. (2010). English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.