The Curtain Playhouse and the 'Aura' of Historical Spaces

May has been a big month for theatre and archeaology in London. The Curtain playhouse, which opened in 1577, is one of the oldest known theatres from the time of Shakespeare and Marlowe. The site has been slowly excavated by experts from the Museum of London over the past few weeks and has provided historians with valuable information on the nature of early modern playhouses.

There are a few unique qualitites to the Curtain playhouse. Most intriguingly, it has a rectagonal shape rather than the polygons that characterise the Rose and the Globe playhouses on the south bank of the Thames. The Curtain was operated by James Burbage, a famous actor from Shakespeare's company,  The Lord Chamberlain's men, who operated out of this playhouse from 1577 until the first Globe playhouse was built in 1597. This is the site where Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Henry V premiered, and since neither the Globe or the Rose have been fully excavated, there is a lot of potential in this historical site.

Image of the bird whistle found at the Curtain site which may have been used for sound effects.  Image :  Museum of London .

Image of the bird whistle found at the Curtain site which may have been used for sound effects. Image: Museum of London.

If you have been following the BBC updates, artefacts that have so far been uncovered on the site include a bird whistle (possibly used for sound effects), a token and a comb. Examination of the walls has also suggested to archaeologists that they were reused from earlier buildings, which might explain the shape of the structure.

Theatre sites hold an intrinsic value for lovers of Shakespeare's plays. There are many reasons for this, but a common value for enthusiasts is the fact that Shakespeare, is that they are the very sites where their favourite plays and actors actually did perform. Take a tour of the historic site of the Rose Playhouse and you will be doing well if you aren't drawn in by the ethereal L.E.D archaeology lights marking the original site, where Shakespeare himself performed in some of his earliest plays. Likewise the replica Shakespeare's Globe Theatre elicits powerful experiences for many who attend, and many report feeling like they know what it was like to 'be there' as one of Shakespeare's first audiences.[1]

Why is it that we are so drawn to these historical sites? Walter Benjamin writes of the appeal of historical objects in having an 'aura' which is caused by their "presence in time and space", and in the case of historical sites, their "unique existence at the place where it happens to be".[2]

Gesturing back to a time that has precious little documentation of live performances, the historical theatre sites in London all provide us with a physical experience and understanding of structural factors that affected the original performance conditions. For this reason, these sites lend themselves to a level of authenticity that has immense appeal for lovers of theatre. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were creating theatre at a time that would become the foundation for scripted performance in the English language. As the Curtain and soon also the Rose is revealed, we will have more pieces of the puzzle to analyse against the many ideas we have formed about the earliest performances in permanent playhouses.

The Curtain playhouse site is open to the public until the 24th of June. The Rose site is also open to the public every saturday.

This edition of BROADSIDE is by Kathryn Parker (PhD student, University of Sydney)

[1] Dr. Penelope Woods has been researching this topic. You can read about her work here.

[2] Benjmain, Walter. 1936. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Hannah Arendt (ed). 1970. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Cape.