We will draw the curtain and show you the picture

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After my wonderful visit to the Curtain last summer, I was delighted to attend on Tuesday night a talk by Heather Knight on the progress with the excavation and what they have learned so far. It seems the word of the day is… enigmatic…

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Why so? Well, firstly because the Curtain isn’t what we were expecting. The Curtain is among the least well documented of the early playhouses, and going on previous excavations (like the Rose and the Theatre) and the contemporaneous information available (including etchings, and the Prologue to Henry V), everyone assumed it would be another polygonal purpose-built structure which it absolutely isn’t.

Secondly, because the archaeology is throwing up a lot of interesting questions for which there are no obvious answers. I’m going to share them (as far as I remember Heather’s excellent arguments) and I would welcome any thoughts to add to the debate!

The talk took us through some history of the playhouses – the need to build outside the city, not just to escape the regulations therein but also because it was so densely occupied that there simply wasn’t the space to throw up the sizeable new structures the playhouses were. Land was available – many of the playhouses were built on old monastery or (in the case of the Theatre and the Curtain) priory grounds. Which raised the question: Would theatre as we know it have been able to develop without Henry VIII’s break from Rome?

The newness of the whole concept of “theatre” was also raised. A Frenchman living in London in 1578 found the whole thing almost inexplicable, fumbling a description of “things made up” – as opposed to the mediaeval Mystery Plays which of course, were real since they came out of the Bible. It’s never been clear where the decision to go for polygonal playhouses came from, not indeed how the word theatre came to be associated with the buildings – unless it be through the revival in interest in the classical world. Heather shared a famous contemporary print of the Colosseum with the word “theatrum” above it* – was the love of the classical world so directly responsible for the vocabulary of the stage?

The talk set out quite clearly the limitations of archaeology in informing us what went on in the playhouses. It can tell us a lot about the building itself – hint at the possibility of a roof over the stage, let us know what room was used as the box office (due to the presence of these little beauties), tell us that there were two doors under the stage, and the likelihood that this allowed entrances and exits from multiple directions. But the business we call show is – as Heather put it – transient and leaves little trace. The dig has unearthed a large number of glass beads, some absolutely tiny and likely used on costumes. There are bird whistles, money boxes, tobacco pipes. And a pipeclay barrel, just about the right size to sit in your hand, with a naked Bacchus on top, which seems to serve no purpose. So still unanswered, largely, remains what really went on here? **

Heather posited a north-south playhouse divide – with those north of the river being more commonly square, while those in Southwark are much more often polygonal. The question she asked – and then, maybe, answered was – why are northern playhouses different? Contemporary sources which talk about going to Bankside for “idle tricks of love”, while the north was the place to go for “playing the man” dovetail nicely with the belief that Curtain was also commonly used for fencing displays. The Curtain’s most famous clown, Richard Tarlton, was also a fencer whose teacher shared a building with Burbage’s Blackfriars Theatre. Fencing was undoubtedly popular (there’s even a theory that Benvolio’s lines about Tybalt:

The fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepar’d;

Which, as he breath’d defiance to my ears,

He swung about his head and cut the winds

Show that Tybalt fenced like a Spaniard and therefore wasn’t to be trusted – if both author and audience could this allusion, it is clear fencing must have been widely understood.)  Finally – and I find this perhaps more convincing than I should – the fencing piste (still used in the modern Olympic games) is 14m long – the same size as the Curtain’s stage.

What we know we have in the Curtain is a smaller theatre, one with a stage designed to allow for many actors at once (and to exit and re-enter from different sides – thanks to those doors under the stage), and for processions. We believe that Henry V was originally performed at the Curtain (although the “wooden O prologue” must be a later addition given we now know definitively that the Curtain was neither wooden nor an O). John Aubrey, writing in 1678 (around 50 years after the Curtain had been destroyed) called it “a kind of nursery, or obscure playhouse, called the Green Curtain” So that’s final question I’m going to leave you with – was the Curtain the experimental theatre of its day?

Many thanks to Gresham College and to the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society who hosted the talk.


* Clearly a misnomer since, as all good classical scholars know, the Colosseum is an amphitheatre…

** There’s a link with a ballad called The Man in the Moon drinks Claret which we know was performed at the Curtain, and which refers to “Bacchus the Father of drunken Nowles”. So maybe the piece was some sort of emblem? It fits in nicely with lion-head marbled slipware lug for a wine jar, in any case – but that raises questions of its own, like how did it get there from north Italy?

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3 thoughts on “We will draw the curtain and show you the picture

  1. Anonymous

    The pipeclay figure is interesting. Some were certainly made as toys in the 17th C; and there is a whole 18thC and later tradition of sprigs of figures astride barrels on the so-called “hunting jugs” made of brown saltglaze stoneware – the sprigs themselves were sometimes made of a paler off white clay. Was this a decidedly late and decadent version of Bacchus?

    Like

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