So this is the first post in a series – about Shakespeare in London, and the places where his places were originally performed.
Shakespeare must have come to London in the 1580s – by 1592, he was being insulted as an “Upstart Crow” which indicates some level of success (and fame).
There were already a number of purpose-built theatres scattered around the outskirts of London, The Red Lion in Whitechapel was the first, followed by the Theatre (1576) and the Curtain (1577) in Shoreditch, and the Rose at Bankside (1587), the first theatre-house in Southwark. They were built outside the city, as the Mayor and Corporation of London had banned plays as a measure to prevent the plague. It seems likely Shakespeare’s early plays were put on by a number of different companies – the title page of the 1594 edition of Titus Andronicus showed that it had been acted by three different companies.
The Theatre (in Curtain Road, part of Hackney), was built and run by Richard Burbage. It provided a home for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s own theatre company, and naturally was where many of his plays were performed. The lease for The Theatre was disputed, and they stopped using it in 1597 – in 1598 it was dismantled and they used the timbers to build the Globe.
The site for the Theatre isn’t perfectly known, and Curtain Road has changed massively since it was taken down. A dig in 2002 didn’t turn up any significant finds – quite possibly because the timbers had been taken down so long ago summary report but in 2008 a dig found the footings of what appeared to be a polygonal structure underneath Foxtons, which seems to me to be some kind of horrible warning… News story here.
The Curtain was built just around a corner from the Theatre in Curtain Close. It opened in 1577, and continued staging plays until 1622. It was known to be the venue of several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet and Henry V. In this Henry V the theatre building is referred to directly as “this wooden O” (well, we already knew our Will was keen on a bit of fourth-wall breaking…). The Curtain was destroyed by the great fire of London in 1666.
In 2012 a couple of exploratory trenches found sections of brick wall intact, alongside the surface of the yard, and the piers to support the wooden seats. News story. The site has since been redeveloped, but there is a brown plaque which commemorates the site. It reads:
On this site stood the Curtain Theatre 1577-c. 1627 Second English public playhouse where William Shakespeare acted and plays by Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were performed.
I’ve already talked about the Rose here, the first playhouse on Bankside, miraculously preserved under offices. We know that two of Shakespeare’s plays (Henry VI and Titus Andronicus) were put on at the Rose in Bankside in March 1592 and January 1594 respectively.
By which I don’t mean this Globe:
I mean the original one, built further back from the river and now semi-buried under another historical gem, Anchor Terrace – a very fine set of Georgian town houses, and the reason all that remains is an arc on a strip of land. The Globe was built in 1599, using the timbers from The Theatre, and Shakespeare originally held an eighth stake in the theatre. We can pinpoint the destruction of the first Globe with unusual accuracy – on 29 June 1613 a theatrical cannon, set off during a performance, misfired, igniting the wooden beams and thatching. According to one of the few surviving documents of the event, no one was hurt*. It was rebuilt in the following year, closed down by the Puritans in 1642, and pulled down shortly after…
Basically, if there’s one take-home message from this, it’s don’t be a Shakespearean playhouse – the life expectancy is not long…
*”Nothing did perish, but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks. Only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale.”