Remember me talking to you about Shakespeare’s early theatres, including the Curtain? Remember this building with this plaque on the wall?
Well, right at the moment both building and plaque have been replaced by a (thanks to London’s inexorable rise upwards as it builds on itself) deep hole, and what is at the bottom of that hole (apart from pipes, concrete and the surprisingly high water table) is archaeology.
All credit to the developers of the site – they knew what they had, and they have been willing to give Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) a very good run at the site* to see what they can – literally – dig up. MOLA in their turn have been very generous in sharing their findings with any Tom, Dick or Harriet who cares to book onto one of their Friday afternoon tours. And thus it was that last Friday – in the middle of the two-day heatwave break-from-thunderstorms that apparently constitutes a London summer – I found myself wandering into a portacabin with an unusual level of excitement.
The first and biggest thing the archeologists were able to find out was the floorplan of the theatre. And that actually turned out to be one of the biggest surprises. Most people had assumed that the Curtain was a “traditional”** polygonal timber-framed building, when in fact it was rectangular – a building at the front of the site acting as the entrance, additional galleries built either side of the yard, and the stage backing onto a garden wall. The idea of re-using a building shouldn’t have been that surprising – after all The Theatre became the Globe when the timbers were re-used – but everyone was slightly thrown for a loop because the Curtain was supposed to have been where Henry V was first performed, and given the very first speech contains the lines
Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Everyone had been busily assuming they were meant literally and the Curtain was a wooden polyhedron. Which, with hindsight and given we are talking about a playwright, may have been a little foolish. Or, you know, he wrote that bit later. MOLA even managed to find a quote from someone who described the Curtain and the Theatre together:
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.
In hindsight, it is easy to imagine the magnificent one being the polygonal Theatre, and the Curtain, more in keeping with the architecture of the times, being unworthy or more detailed description…
So now we are talking about something which probably looked more Exhibit 1 than Exhibit 2 and currently looks like the pictures above. It may not seem like much but it’s actually by-God a lot. The only one of Shakespeare’s actual theatres which exists as more than mere foundations, with a floor surface we know he walked on, the only surviving entrance into an Elizabethan theatre. They haven’t yet got to the stage, so there may be more discoveries there, and just the other side of that garden wall there’s a nice marshy patch which could have preserved all sorts of treasures.
The treasures so far have included leather shoes, bird whistles (basically the same as the one I had in the bath growing up – but pottery) and the usual collection of clay pipes which can be used to date other finds with extraordinary precision if you know your stuff. It may not sound particularly thrilling but it really truly is.
This comes out with a Father’ Day shout out to my dad, who booked the tickets, came with me, and got completely sidelined by the archeologists. He was also not happy about my mentioning his starring role in Shakespeare Untold last week, and is steadfastly refusing to write me a guest blog on Sir Thomas More and immigration. But I love him anyway.
* And once they have finished developing the site will be an open space, with the history preserved and room for performance and a lot of things which suggest they may have learnt a thing or two from what happened to the Rose…
** In inverted commas because how can the second of anything (the Curtain was the second purpose-built theatre after the imaginatively-named Theatre) be following any kind of actual tradition?