Remains of Shakespeare's Curtain Theatre found

June 6, 2012 - 10:58 AM
Britain Shakespeare's Theatre

This is an image issued by Museum of London Archaeology on Wednesday June 6, 2012 , showing an archaeologist as she undertakes initial archaeological excavation work at the site of The Curtain Theatre in London in October 2011. Archaeologists say they have discovered the remains of an Elizabethan theatre where some of William Shakespeare's plays were first performed. Experts from the Museum of London have uncovered a yard and gallery walls from the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, just east of London's business district. (AP Photo/Museum of London Archaeology)

LONDON (AP) — Archaeologists in London have discovered the remains of an Elizabethan theater where some of William Shakespeare's plays were first performed — a venue immortalized as "this wooden O" in the prologue to "Henry V."

Experts from the Museum of London said Wednesday they had uncovered part of the gravel yard and gallery walls of the 435-year-old Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, just east of London's business district.

The remains — of a polygonal structure, typical of 16th-century theaters — were found behind a pub on a site marked for redevelopment.

The Curtain opened in 1577 and was home to Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, from 1597 until the Globe Theatre was built across the river two years later.

Plays premiered at the Curtain are thought to include Shakespeare's "Henry V" and possibly "Romeo and Juliet," as well as Ben Jonson's "Every Man in His Humour."

Shakespeare and his troupe moved to the Curtain after getting into a dispute with the landlord of their previous venue, known simply as The Theater.

Patrick Spottiswoode, director of education at Shakespeare's Globe, said the company's experience at the Curtain was not a happy one. Audiences at the venue, which staged sword fights, acrobatics and bear-baiting as well as plays, were demanding.

"It was a different kind of house and they were probably desperate to leave," Spottiswoode said. "Crowds would flock to The Curtain to see all sorts of activities — they didn't go there to see thesps."

The Lord Chamberlain's Men decamped in 1599 to the Globe, the theater they'd built using timbers smuggled from the original Theatre.

The Curtain survived as a theater at least until the 1620s, making it the longest-lived of London's Elizabethan playhouses.

Museum archaeologists plan further excavation of the Curtain later this year, and a real estate company redeveloping the site said it intends to preserve the remains.

The Theater and the Curtain were London's first successful playhouses — previously, plays had been staged in inn yards and other makeshift spaces. There is evidence that an earlier venue, The Red Lion, was built outside the city in the 1560s but lasted only a few months.

Traces of several of the venues have survived. In 2008, archaeologists found remains of The Theater just down the road from the site of the Curtain.

On the south bank of the Thames, Shakespeare's plays are staged in a reconstruction of the Globe playhouse built near the original site. Remains of The Rose, another Elizabethan venue, have also been found nearby.

All were built outside the city walls, free from regulation by civic leaders hostile to theaters and other disreputable entertainments.

Heather Knight, a senior Museum of London archaeologist, said that despite recent discoveries there is still much to learn about the Elizabethan theater.

"The late 16th century was a time of a theatrical arms race in London," she said. "The proprietors of these building were making improvements to attract customers. So to have the chance to look at the earliest of these buildings (The Theater), and the one that had the longest life is a real opportunity."

Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless