The Curtain Playhouse
- Heritage Category:
- Scheduled Monument
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Location Description:
- Statutory Address:
- Site bounded by Hearn Street, Curtain Road and Hewett Street, Shoreditch, London, EC2A 3NZ
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- Statutory Address:
- Site bounded by Hearn Street, Curtain Road and Hewett Street, Shoreditch, London, EC2A 3NZ
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Location Description:
- Greater London Authority
- Hackney (London Borough)
- Non Civil Parish
- National Grid Reference:
The site comprises buried deposits and structural remains relating to The Curtain Playhouse, of about 1577-1625, revealed during archaeological investigations.
Reasons for Designation
The remains of the Curtain, constructed around 1577, and associated C17-C18 structures, are scheduled for the following principal reasons:
* a monument of national historic importance for its association with important figures in the nation's literary history including William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. The remains of the C17-C18 structures incorporated into the earlier playhouse structure demonstrate the social development of the site and contribute to the historic interest of the monument;
* it is believed that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, both notable late-C16 literary pieces, were first performed at the Curtain, flagging the importance of the monument in the development of English literature and the arts.
* buried archaeological deposits pertaining to elements related to the construction of the stage, the north and south galleries, internal and external yard surfaces, a corridor and gully along with later C17-C18 structures built over and incorporating the playhouse remains, are preserved in situ. The rest of the monument is projected to survive beneath the existing buildings and structures on the site.
* historic documentation supports and augments the archaeological findings, giving details on land ownership and leasing of the playhouse along with information on performances.
* one of only a handful of sole-purpose Elizabethan playhouses clearly identified as archaeological monuments in London, and one of the earliest surviving examples of a non-polygonal theatre.
* the recorded and projected buried archaeology of the Curtain are fragile and vulnerable to redevelopment.
* the potential to discover further structural remains of the Curtain and artefacts is high, further informing on the Curtain’s structural composition, our understanding of playhouse buildings in general and the lives of the people who attended them for their leisure.
* the Elizabethan playhouses are a distinct monument type of the period, found only in London.
* the Curtain is associated typologically with those playhouse remains already scheduled, including The Theatre, located nearby in Shoreditch and The Rose, The Globe and The Hope on Bankside.
The great playhouses of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages are monument types known only in London. These iconic building types are physical representations of new innovations and thinking in science and literature, entertainment and leisure, trade and global exploration and socio-economic and cultural shifts of that age. The association of the buildings with notable figures such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson affirm their cultural importance. Before the construction of permanent venues, plays, playing and players would have operated in halls, inns, courts and private dwellings. The drive towards the construction of permanent theatres may well have been instigated by the 1572 ‘Act of the punishment of vagabonds,’ which required each travelling company of players to be licenced by one or two judicial dignitaries or great nobles, in order to escape punishment. Royal patronage, indeed, was a major aim of the companies. The 1572 Act served the companies well: it authorised the better players to pursue their profession, and in establishing a patronage system there was then the financial backing to construct permanent venues, where profits were more readily accessible. London was clearly the place for such business ventures, as not only were most of the patrons and players based in and around the City, but the biggest audiences were there as well. Locating the playhouses outside of the City of London placed them outside of its jurisdiction as the theatres and arenas were thought to encourage licentious behaviour. Beyond the square mile, there was an increased availability of affordable land with a greater development potential. Thus, all of the playhouses were located outside of the City: in Whitechapel (Boar’s Head and Red Lion) and Newington Butts; in Clerkenwell (Red Bull); Cripplegate (the Fortune; no remains of which have been identified to date); Shoreditch (the Theatre and Curtain) and Southwark (the Globe, Rose, Swan and Hope).
The earliest of the outdoor playhouses, the Red Lion in Whitechapel (1567) and at Newington Butts near Elephant and Castle (1576) were developed from or within the confines of existing buildings, were rectangular or square, and were possibly intended to be temporary, not permanent, structures. No archaeological evidence survives from the playhouse at Newington Butts, but recent work at the Red Lion site has uncovered a series of features which may be associated with the building. The first of the polygonal playhouses to be built was The Theatre (Scheduled Monument 1433271), in 1576-77, the design inspired by classical Roman theatres. The excavated examples of the polygonal London playhouses share certain characteristics. They were built of wood on brick foundations, with thatch or tile roofing material. The inner walls consist of a solid masonry construction, intended to take the bulk of the building’s load, with the outer walls set upon intermittent, masonry pads. The main entrances are accessible to main roads, with the stage directly opposite. Once within the playhouses, a sloping yard faced the stage. From the yard, access could be gained to the galleries, for a fee, through opposing internal entrances, or ingressi. Little evidence, as yet, has been produced of the backstage areas.
The Curtain Playhouse was in existence by 1577 and may have been built a little before or slightly after the construction of its close neighbour, The Theatre. Its name derives from being located immediately south of the curtain wall of the outer precinct of the monastic complex of St John the Baptist Holywell, founded in the C12. Circumstantial evidence of the priory’s dissolution has been observed in the form of fragments of high status masonry and ceramic building material, potentially ecclesiastical in nature, found in ground consolidation deposits associated with the construction of the playhouse. The land upon which the Curtain was built remained as open and marshy until around the mid C16. The Agas map of London, which dates from around the 1560s shows a series of small garden plots separated from the larger pasture along the Curtain Road. The site has been associated with the Curtain estate, or Close, recorded in 1567, 1572 and 1581 as a ‘house, tenemente or lodge commonlie called the Curtayne’ with a parcel of land. It appears that this house was eventually adapted to form the playhouse, which was open for business by December 1577 when it is referred to by John Northbrooke, along with The Theatre, as a ‘school for wickedness’. An Elizabethan threepence dated to 1572, recovered from a bedding layer, would suggest that construction of the building took place in the early-mid 1570s. It was for many years assumed to be a polygonal venue but the archaeology has shown it to be rectangular or square in plan. This is almost certainly due to it being adapted from an existing structure. The Curtain’s quadrilateral form is not unique among London’s Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses. The Fortune, the Red Bull, the Boar’s Head are documented as being quadrilateral structures, as opposed to the known polygonal shape of the Theatre, Rose, Globe, Hope and Swan. It was known to be hosting fencing matches between 1570 and 1590, raising the possibility that it was originally built for this purpose. Abraham Booth’s panorama, ‘The View of the Cittye of London from the North towards the South’, dated to the late 1590s, appears to provide the only contemporary representation of both the Curtain and Theatre playhouses. It shows a polygonal structure which is believed to be The Theatre, displaying a flag indicative of a playhouse, in the foreground and to the right hand side of this, in the distance, a second building flying a flag can also be seen. Although the form of the building is not clear from the scale of the panorama, its position relative to the Theatre playhouse suggest that the building represents the Curtain.
Henry Lenman, a Yeoman of Her Majesties Guard and minor courtier, is believed to be the individual responsible for the construction of the playhouse. Lenman, who is recorded as a tenant in Curtain Close in 1581, was, by his own testimony, in receipt of ‘the profittes of the playes done at the house called the Curten’. In the same year, records indicate that Lenman entered into an arrangement with the owners of The Theatre, James Burbage and John Brayne, in which the profits of the two venues were to be shared between them for the period of seven years. The use of the term ‘esore’ (or easer), used by Lenman to describe the Curtain, suggests that the agreement was a protracted way for Burbage to eventually purchase the Curtain from him. The wills of two actors, who performed as part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, indicate that by 1592 shares in the building were being sold off, a circumstance that continued until as late as 1620. In 1600 the Privy Council attempted to close The Curtain, restricting playing to only two venues, the Globe and the Fortune, but it remained open and in 1601 a draft licence for the Queen Anne’s Men named the Curtain and the Boar’s Head as their usual houses. Documentary evidence from 1611 describes the condition of the playhouse around this time as ‘that large messuage or tenement, built of timber and thatched, now in decay, called the Curtaine’. A further source from 1628 contains a reference to ‘filth cast into open shoare near the Curtain Playhouse’.
During its life as a theatre, The Curtain hosted a number of playing companies, including Lord Arundell’s Men, Prince Charles’ Men and the aforementioned Queen Anne’s Men and Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The latter of these became resident at the Curtain by September 1598, following the demolition of the Theatre, and remained there until mid-1599 when they relocated to the new Globe, south of the river. William Shakespeare was one of the company members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and it is believed that the first performance of Romeo and Juliet took place at the Curtain in 1598. John Marston’s satirical Scourge of Villainy (also 1598) hints at Romeo and Juliet receiving ‘curtain plaudities’. In the same year, Shakespeare is listed as an actor in Ben Jonson’s play, Every Man in His Humour, which also likely enjoyed its premier here. The Queen Ann’s Men appear to have been based at the Curtain in 1607, performing The Travels of Three English Brothers by William Rowley, John Day and George Wilkins. Rowley is also recorded as having ‘played a woman’s part at the Curtaine Play-house’, although the date of this is unknown. A minor work of Wentworth Smith’s, entitled Hector of Germany, was published in 1615 with the information ‘As it hathe beene publickly acted at the Red Bull and at the Curtayne by a companie of young-men of this Cittie’, who were likely an amateur company. And finally the Prince Charles’ Company occupied the Curtain intermittently from around 1620 until 1625, performing the play or ballard ‘The Man in the Moon Drinks Claret as it was lately sung at the Curtain, Holy-well.’ The Curtain (along with The Fortune and The Red Bull) appears to have gained a strong reputation for putting on plays that appealed to the lower-end of the market and theatre historians have characterised these buildings as ‘citizen playhouses’ catering for the lower status audience, who paid to see scenes of sensational violent action.
Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that The Curtain no longer functioned as a playhouse from around 1625 and it would have almost certainly been closed by 1642 when the Privy Council shut down all remaining theatres in the city. Records relating to the collection of rents in 1660 suggest that the building had been converted to tenements by this time. The source records the collection of monies from tenants in properties including a ‘garden and houses called the Curtain playhouse in Holywell Land in Shoreditch’, which also aligns with the archaeological record which shows the building’s modification and incorporation with a range of buildings running north-south to the rear of the Curtain Road frontage.
The buried archaeological remains of The Curtain were exposed in 2011-16 during a number of archaeological investigations and are preserved in situ. The excavation work on land bounded by Curtain Road/Hewett Street/Great Eastern Street/Fairchild Place/Plough Yard/Hearn Street, was carried out as a response to a planning application (2012/3871), for the erection of 4 buildings for mixed residential and commercial use and an area of new landscaped open space. The development proposals included the retention and display of the archaeological remains within the development area, also to be utilised as a new performance space.
The site includes buried deposits and structural remains related to The Curtain Playhouse, of about 1577-1625, revealed during archaeological investigations. The archaeological remains were discovered during archaeological investigations on land bounded by Curtain Road/Hewett Street/Great Eastern Street/Fairchild Place/Plough Yard/Hearn Street, by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). Natural brickearth was only found surviving in about a 25m wide strip along the Curtain Road frontage between levels of 11.65-11.79m OD. Elsewhere natural gravels and alluvial deposits were observed between 10.60-10.90m OD. The modern ground surface occurred across the site between 15.50-16.50m OD. Yard and floor surfaces associated with The Curtain Playhouse were observed at various levels ranging 12.16-12.48m OD, with walls surviving between 12.30-13.82m OD. The cellar floor within the Horse and Groom pub (early C18 and Grade II listed) has been surveyed at 12.60m OD.
DESCRIPTION The archaeological investigations suggest that The Curtain Playhouse is 22m wide by at least 25m long (the full extent is unknown as the front of the pre-existing structure is beyond the limit of excavation on the Curtain Road frontage) giving an area for the footprint of the building of about 550m². The remains of the playhouse comprise the internal yard, elements related to the construction of the stage, a corridor and gully, the north and south galleries, and external gravel surfaces.
An eroded gravel surface forming the internal yard has been constructed over compact layers of demolition rubble and sandy silt. Investigation of the demolition rubble revealed fragments of Penn tile, with similar deposits of demolition rubble and silt found within the footprint of the playhouse, and it appears it was laid down to create a level, compact bedding layer within the garden area. Above this are patches of a mortar rich layer which is, in turn, sealed by a layer of gravel, forming the surface. A small remnant of gravel found close to the conjectured line of the playhouse’s northern external wall indicates that the gravel originally extended up to the external wall. Due to extensive truncation the gravel is located in discrete areas at heights of or around 12.16m OD.
Part of the internal gravel surface is truncated by a large rectangular brick structure, which has been confidently interpreted as the foundation for the stage. It is rectangular in shape, 14m long and 4.75m deep which gives an area of about 66.5m sq on which to perform. The side stage spaces at the Curtain would have allowed for entrances to be made from both sides of the stage. The brick foundation includes walls and evidence for ingressi in the form of a relieving arch in the surviving brickwork. Given the depth of the corridor at the back of the stage it would not allow room for a discovery space within the framing at stage floor level. What is more likely is that a balcony extending, possibly up top, half way across the stage at first floor level, would allow for curtains to be hung to reveal a discovery space. The gravel surface below the stage (recorded at 12.10m OD) has been truncated by a series of post holes and beam slots that may be evidence of the timber stage construction. The doorways leading to a space below the stage of the Curtain would indicate that it stood about 1.5m above yard level.
A line of post pads are present to the east of the back stage wall which represent foundation pads for a narrow corridor (about 1.2m wide) that connected the north and south galleries backstage. A gully runs in front of, and parallel to the stage. Its full extent is not known as it has been truncated by modern surfaces to the south. It is possible, given its location and characteristics that this represents an eaves drip gully which would suggest that the stage had some form of cover; whether this was a permanent cover, an original feature or a later adaptation is not known. The presence of this corridor at the back of the stage would indicate that there was no tiring house as at the modern Globe, and that the Curtain made use of side stage areas instead. The side (or offstage) space could give access onto or under the stage and could also be used for the storage along with the upper stories at the eastern (stage end) of the playhouse.
On the north side of the playhouse, a series of postholes and the edging of a stone floor indicate the position of the outer walls and, in turn, the north gallery. The underlying rubble bedding layer also respects this alignment. A floor of brick and tile and reused stone lies at 12.48m OD and forms the surface of a room to the side of the stage. A doorway in the wall leads down from the room to under the stage. A posthole close to the north-west corner of the stage suggests that the ground floor of the north side gallery was open-fronted: the gravel surface of the inner courtyard ran beneath the gallery space also indicating that there was no seating in the gallery at ground level. Externally, the timber superstructure for the southern gallery was built on a brick sill. A relieving arch at the eastern of the southern external gallery wall suggests the presence of a doorway, giving access into a garden area, in the south-eastern corner of the playhouse.
An external gravel surface exists on the north side of the building, with another truncated area of compacted gravel appearing to be part of the same surface, located 3.5m to the west. The gravel was cambered with larger sized pebble inclusions than those which formed the make-up of the internal yard surfaces. The northern edge of the gravel surface had been truncated by a later brick lined box drain. The gravel surface survives between 12.24-12.29m OD.
Following the closure of the playhouse the building was adapted and reused for housing, archaeological remains for which survive on site. The range of buildings that were constructed across the east end of the playhouse may have formed one or more separate properties but have been described in terms of rooms. The northernmost surviving room contains a substantial brick fireplace and hearth which are contemporary and integral to the construction of the eastern and northern wall. A break within the western wall of the room represents a doorway which was subsequently blocked up by a small section of brickwork, possibly in the C18. The southern wall of the room blocks the doorway in the north stage wall. It is founded on the stone, brick and tile floor of the playhouse’s north gallery except at its southern end where, as the floor is here less robust, it has been built in a construction cut. Investigation of the fill of the construction cut showed it to contain, amongst other things, the articulated skeleton of a cat, possibly deposited as a form of ritual protection. To the south a second room exists, the western wall of which is constructed on the west stage wall. Two further rooms also survive, the southernmost containing the remnants of a knuckle bone floor with brick surround. It was made entirely from cattle metapodials. The bones all stand vertically, and were probably placed with the anterior facets facing in the same direction, perhaps to ease construction and/or produce a more tightly packed surface. The good preservation of some of the bones suggests that they may have been protected, possibly by a door when in open position over the floor, or by another object. Unlike the door in the north gallery inner wall, the doorway in the south inner gallery wall was not blocked in the C17 but remodelled as part of the construction of the floor.
This range of mid-C17 buildings was partially demolished in the C18 for the formation of the Horse and Groom Yard. This can be seen in the archaeological remains as some of the C18 walls have been built directly onto the C17 walls.
Notable artefactural evidence that has been recovered from the site so far include the remains of money boxes, a specific characteristic of such playhouse sites although their exact function within places of commercial entertainment is not currently fully understood. Also recovered was a bird whistle potentially employed as a special effect in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, which references bird song and was performed at the Curtain in the 1590s. Unexcavated areas of the site retain potential for the survival of further such items.
EXCLUSIONS The following are excluded from the scheduling, but the ground beneath them is included: the buildings above the remains, including their foundations and basement slabs where they exist: the modern overburden beneath the buildings: all external surfaces and the modern overburden beneath them.
Books and journals
Bowsher, Julian, Shakespeare's London Theatreland: Archaeology, History and Drama, (July 2012)
Bowsher, J & Knight, H. (2016). Curtain Call: Inside an Elizabethan playhouse in Current Archaeology (Issue 316).
Knight, H. (2011) Curtain Road, Hewett Street, London. Evaluation Report. MOLA. London.
Knight, H. (2015) The Stage Site bounded by Hearn St, Curtain Rd, Hewett St, London. Report on 2nd phase and 3rd phase archaeological evaluation. MOLA. London
Knight, H. (2017) The Stage Site bounded by Hearn Street, Curtain Road and Hewett Street, London. Interim post-excavation assessment. MOLA. London.
Stabler, K. (2016) London's Elizabethan and Jacobean Playhouses and Bear Baiting Arenas: Research Report. Stabler Heritage.
This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
End of official listing