Curtain Theatre

Was an Elizabethan playhouse located in Curtain Close, just outside the City. It opened in 1577, and continued staging plays until 1624. The Curtain was built some 200 yards south of London’s first playhouse, The Theatre, which had opened a year before, in 1576. It was called the “Curtain” because it was located near a plot of land called Curtain Close, not because of the sort of front curtain associated with modern theatres, but of its proximity of the City walls, curtain or curtain wall referring to the part of city walls between two bastions

Little is known of the plays performed at the Curtain or of the playing companies that performed there. Henry Lanman appears to have been its proprietor, who is described as a “gentleman.” In 1585, Lanman made an agreement with the proprietor of the Theatre, James Burbage, to use the Curtain as a supplementary house, or “easer,” to the more prestigious older playhouse.

From 1597 to 1599, it became the premier venue of Shakespeare’s Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who had been forced to leave their former playing space at The Theatre after the latter closed in 1596. It was the venue of several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet and Henry V. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men also performed Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour here in 1598, with Shakespeare in the cast. Later that same year Jonson gained a certain notoriety by killing actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel in nearby Hoxton Fields. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men departed the Curtain when the Globe Theatre, which they built to replace the Theatre, was ready for use in 1599.

For seven years Henry Lanman (owner of the Curtain) had an agreement with James Burbage (owner of the Theatre) that all profit would be shared between them. This deal is how many believe Lanman was able to afford to open the Curtain, the rest is all very unclear.

The London theatres, including the Curtain, were closed for much of the period from September 1592 to April 1594 due to the bubonic plague.

As far as is known, Lanman ran the Curtain as a private concern for the first phase of its existence; He died in 1606 and it is assumed that the theatre had been re-arranged into a shareholder’s enterprise before his death at some point. Thomas Pope, one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, owned a share in the Curtain and left it to his heirs in his last will and testament in 1603. King’s Men member John Underwood did the same in 1624. The fact that both of these shareholders belonged to Shakespeare’s company may indicate that the re-organization of the Curtain occurred when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were acting there.

Burbage’s pooling agreement had run out in 1592. The Curtain had been in use from 1577 until at least 1624, after which its ultimate fate is obscure as there is no record of it after 1627. A plaque marks its site today, at 18 Hewett Street off Curtain Road.

  1. Leeds Barroll focuses in Shakespeare studies: An annual gathering of Research, Criticism and Reviews on the fact that Henry Lanman had offered the Curtain as an easer to James Burbage, proprietor of the Theatre. Thereby, he assumes that Lanman’s business, the Curtain, must have been doing as well as Burbage’s business, the Theatre, since both, Lanman and Burbage, had agreed on a pooling arrangement for seven years in 1585, to pool profits. Otherwise, it would be very unwise of Burbage to pool profits if he did better in the first place. Thus, the suggestion is given that both proprietors were doing equal business. Even though the Curtain was closed sometime after 1624 without any clear causes, the issue of financial problems cannot be addressed to that event without evidence.

Historical records have always pointed to the Curtain Theatre being close to modern-day Curtain Road in Shoreditch, east London. In 2011, archaeologists from MOLA were undertaking exploratory excavation for The Stage Shoreditch when they came across the remains of the Curtain Theatre.

In May 2016 MOLA unveiled their initial findings from the detailed excavation of The Curtain. Archaeologists can now show that the playhouse appears to be a rectangular building, measuring approximately 22m x30m, rather than being polygonal. Early findings from the excavation, of what is one of Shakespeare’s least historically documented playhouses, suggest that the structure, in places, reused the walls of earlier buildings, with the back section of the playhouse being a new addition. Walls survive up to 1.5 metres high in places, and archaeologists have been able to identify the courtyard, where theatre-goers stood, and the inner walls, which held the galleries where wealthier audience members would have sat.

They have found artefacts including a fragmentary ceramic bird whistle, dating from the late 16th century. Bird whistles were children’s toys but in this context may have been used for sound effects in theatrical performances. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, staged at the Curtain Theatre in the late 16th century, there are numerous references to bird song, such as “That birds would sing and think it were not night”.

Once the dig is complete, the remains of the Curtain will be preserved in-situ, and the artefacts uncovered and records taken during the excavation will then be studied in detail by our specialists. A display of the finds will sit alongside the theatre remains as part of a cultural and visitor centre at the heart of the Stage, a new £750m mixed-use development backed by Cain Hoy and designed by architects Perkins+ Will, including 33,000 sq ft of retail, over 200,000 sq ft of office space, and more than 400 homes. The development will also feature over an acre of vibrant public space including a performance area and a park.

To showcase what will hopefully be Hackney’s first scheduled ancient monument the site of The Curtain Theatre will be transformed into a captivating tourist attraction that will allow residents to lose themselves in Shakespearean history. Featuring the preserved remains of The Curtain Theatre and a purpose-built heritage centre, visitors will also be able to take a break at the sunken amphitheatre or even watch a performance. Under current plans visitors will have a chance to walk on a glass platform just above the theatre remains, view objects from the dig and watch augmented reality of scenes from Shakespeare plays.

The Curtain Theatre features in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.

Steve Welsh

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