Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Wherefore art thou, “Woodden O” - Shakespeare’s pre-Globe theater un-earthed in London

We are all familiar with Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theater.  It has been lovingly reconstructed near its original location on the south bank of the Thames River in London.  But, Shakespeare’s plays were performed at several venues before the Globe was completed in 1599.  Shakespeare’s theatrical company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, performed early plays at a theater cunningly named “The Theater.”  When the company had a falling out with the landlord in 1597, Lord Chamberlain’s Men, moved to a smaller, interim venue known as The Curtain Theater, named for Curtain Close, a road in East London. 

William Shakespeare

Scholars agree that two of the Bard’s most famous plays, Henry V and Romeo & Juliet, were first performed at the Curtain.  The opening lines of Henry V make reference to the Curtain Theater:
Can this Cock-Pit hold
The vastie fields of France? Or may we cramme
Within this Woodden O. the very Caskes
That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?

The Curtain Theatre opened in 1577 not far from “The Theatre” and was one of a number of early theatres built outside the City of London’s city walls. This was the main venue for Shakespeare’s plays between 1597 and 1599 until the Globe was completed in Southwark. The Curtain Theatre disappears from the historic record in 1622.  Eventually, it was dismantled and its exact location forgotten.

The area of London were the Curtain was thought to stand, is now one of the most built-up areas of London.  Was there even an open place to dig for it?  A tiny gravel yard behind “The Horse and Groom,” a popular pub in the Shoreditch area of London, offered the only place to excavate.

The gravel yard behind the "Horse and Groom" pub in Shoreditch.
Experts from Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA) began exploratory work in June, 2012 and hit pay dirt.  They have found two sections of exterior wall, crucial for giving the dimensions of the theatre, and are confident of revealing more as the site is cleared for redevelopment.  An outer yard paved with sheep knuckle bones could date from the theatre or slightly later housing.

An MoLA archaeologist inspects the remains of The Curtain Theater

The site’s owners, Plough Yard Developments, in conjunction with The Estate Office Shoreditch, now want to make the remains of The Curtain Theatre into the center piece of a new development. The proposals include keeping the remains in place and potentially opening them up to the public via the public space alongside a mix of new homes, offices, shops and restaurants for Shoreditch.  More MoLA excavations will come as part of the redevelopment of this part of Shoreditch.

You can read more about the excavations at the Curtain Theater site here:  http://www.museumoflondonarchaeology.org.uk/NewsProjects/CurtainTheatre.htm

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