I suspect that my generation of theatre historians will look back on this day as a game changing moment: the Curtain has been dug up in Shoreditch, and it’s nothing like what we expected. I’m too young to remember the announcement of the Rose dig, which also shattered a lot of received narratives. It probably felt similarly revelatory. But I think today’s reports might prove more fundamentally important still.
Here’s why. The most basic thing everyone has always known about early modern outdoor playhouses is that they are round. They’re not, of course: they’re polygonal. But whatever. They’re round enough. The “first” of them was round: the Theatre, built by James Burbage in 1576. The first in Southwark was round: the Rose, built by Philip Henslowe in 1587. The most impressive (if commercially doomed) of them was round: the Swan, built by Francis Langley in 1595. The most glorious of them all was round: the Globe, built by the Burbages and their friends in 1599. And the smelliest of them was round: the Hope, built by Philip Henslowe in 1613. Playhouses were round — except for the weirdo among them, the Fortune, bizarrely built on a square plot, by Henslowe and Edward Alleyn (who surely should have known better), in 1600.
And now the archaeologists of the Museum of London have gone and shattered that narrative, announcing that the foundations of the Curtain, exceptionally well-preserved, show that it wasn’t round at all, but a rectangular building measuring about 30 by 22 metres.
What that discovery reveals is not simply a fact about the Curtain. It allows for a completely different genealogy of early modern theatre spaces — one that not only links playhouses more directly to the Inns within the City of London that were also used for theatrical performances until the end of the 17th century, but that also can now recognize that rectangular or square playhouses weren’t outliers, but just as “normal” as round ones.
The Fortune’s never been as much of an oddment as its typical description makes it appear. Even though most standard accounts have always described it as “unlike most other public playhouses” (or some such phrasing) on account of its shape, that was never actually an especially accurate thing to say. But now that the Curtain, one of the oldest and the longest-surviving of early modern London’s theatres, also turns out to have been rectangular, the narrative has shifted in a way that may make all the other similarly-designed playhouses appear as just as normative as the round ones.
Here’s a list that may help:
|1592||The Rose expanded||Rounded rectangle|
|1599||The Boar’s Head||Rectangle|
|1599||The Globe||Round (but an old design)|
|1604||The Red Bull||Rectangle|
There were also the Red Lion (1567) and the playhouse in Newington Butts (1575? 1577?), but we know nothing of their shapes. However, the playing yards at the Inns in the City where plays were performed were certainly rectangular, not round: the Bell Savage, the Bull, and probably the Cross Keys (the Bell had an indoor hall — also not, as far as we know, round).
If the Theatre set the model for round playhouses in 1576, its influence can be traced through the first two South Bank theatres, the Rose and the Swan, to the Globe (which was an expanded version of the Theatre, built out of the same wood, and couldn’t very well have been reinvented as a rectangular building), and finally to the Hope. Rather remarkably, if that’s the genealogy, the “round playhouse” type suddenly starts to look like a south-of-the-river convention.
But with the appearance of a rectangular Curtain, we can now sketch out the influence of a competing paradigm, which produced just as many independent structures, and only one fewer than the round paradigm even if we count the Globe as an entirely separate building: the Curtain, in that view, spawned the Boar’s Head, the Fortune, and the Red Bull. It may even be said to have influenced the shape of the expanded Rose — a theatre that, after 1592, could hardly be described as “round,” was barely “egg-shaped” (as one scholar called it), and really looks more like a rectangle with rounded corners.
That second paradigm is at major disadvantage, though: unlike the first type, it can’t really lay much of a claim to Shakespeare, and lacks the magic fairy dust of his “wooden O” metaphor. On the other hand, it was arguably more deeply rooted in an English tradition that staged plays in rectangular inn yards and, in the 1610s, shifted some of its focus indoors — and into spaces that were predominantly rectangular.
That’s the macro-narrative this new discovery gives a major shot in the arm. But I think the received account of the Curtain itself will also have to be rewritten. Far from the Theatre’s smaller, meaner, less impressive neighbour, it would seem to have been one of the very largest playhouses ever to be built in London. Perhaps that size gave it a versatility that explains its longevity? Here’s another list, giving the size of the area between the inner walls of playhouses that have either been excavated or described in sufficient detail in historical documents:
|1576||The Theatre||163 m2|
|1577||The Curtain||323 m2|
|1587||The Rose||148 m2|
|1592||The Rose expanded||c.205 m2|
|1599||The Boar’s Head||281 m2|
|1599||The Globe||259 m2|
|1600||The Fortune||282 m2|
|1613/4||The Hope||201 m2|
In words: the Curtain was big. Very big. Almost twice as big as its neighbour. Bigger than the other rectangular playhouses. Much bigger than all of the round ones that have been dug up — unless the Globe had 18 sides and an inner diameter of 21.5 metres (the archaeologically less likely scenario). If the Globe was in fact that big, it was a bit larger than the Curtain, at 360m2. But still: it looks as if the Curtain may have been in something of a league of its own.
The single image that has been identified as a depiction of the Curtain, the undated (but probably Jacobean) “View of the Citty of London from the North towards the South,” does show a fairly imposing structure:
Although that building has been described as polygonal or “octagonal,” it may in fact be a poorly rendered rectangle — or a rectangle with a stair turret jutting out from it (I have no idea if the archeological evidence would support such a reading). Whatever its shape may be, the Curtain in this print dominates its neighbourhood; and if the dimensions indicated in today’s reports are accurate, that impression will have been confirmed. The Curtain as a very large theatre indeed. (Which leads me to believe that the AP report on the findings gets its facts wrong when it claims that the Curtain could have held only “1,000 people” — it would easily have been three times that!)
There are other aspects of the findings that raise intriguing questions: since it seems that the Curtain repurposed the walls of other buildings (foundation walls?), it is possible that it wasn’t built from scratch, like the Theatre, but was an early conversion project — perhaps like the Boar’s Head. I’m not sure I find this enlightening in quite the same way as Julian Bowsher, whom the AP quotes thus: “‘Out of the nine playhouses that we know in Tudor London, there are only two that have no reference to any construction,’ he said — including the Curtain. ‘It’s beginning to make sense now.'” Major conversion projects don’t necessarily leave fewer theatre-historical traces than brand new buildings: the Boar’s Head conversion has a paper trail, and even the very poorly documented Red Bull conversion comes with a moderate archival record.
But it does seem significant that most of the rectangular playhouses were perhaps fashioned out of an already existing structure — in that regard, the Fortune remains the odd one out. That said, if we can now think of the Fortune as deliberately following an established paradigm, and perhaps deliberately diverging from the South Bank “round playhouse” type, then it seems that it may not have mattered how a theatre was made, but what it became. There is certainly no evidence in travellers’ reports that visitors to London distinguished between theatres on the basis of their method of construction — or, it now appears, on the basis of their shape. Round or rectangular, newly built or converted, they were primarily noteworthy for having multiple galleries and being impressive spaces.
In fact, the Curtain may have been unusually impressive. Louis de Grenade, who wrote about his year in London in 1578, had this to say: “At one end of the meadow are two very fine theatres. One of which is magnificent in comparison with the other and has an imposing appearance on the outside.” Before today, we would probably all have jumped to the conclusion that this magnificent building must have been James Burgage’s Theatre, future home to Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men. After today, I’m not at all sure that there is any justification for such a wishful thought.
On a different note, I don’t believe for a second that a bird whistle found in a building used as a theatre into the 1620s may have featured in Romeo and Juliet. So don’t call me an uncritical reader of these announcements.
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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