To the Curtain Theatre at Shoreditch, where we watched the play, Every Man in His Humour, by Mr Ben Jonson, with Mr William Shakespeare among the actors. Well, we almost did, the only minor problem being that we visited the playhouse in 2016 rather than 1598. However, we were treated, on this site open day, to a clear and well illustrated talk about the site and the excavations, and a tour of the exposed remains.
We came away with a book, Shakespeare’s London Theatreland, by Julian Bowsher, published by Museum of London Archaeology, which has been responsible for excavating six of London’s early modern theatres (as well as two bear-baiting establishments), and so has acquired an unparalleled corporate knowledge of these fascinating sites – and not just of the archaeology but of the literary, historical and archival background.
One of the many intriguing aspects of the history of this site was its use and reuse: the Curtain appears to have been constructed by using a tenement building as its front and a garden wall as the back of its stage. A tiring room was erected behind the wall, not without difficulty, as the area was increasingly marshy as it sloped towards a tributary of the Walbrook, and the remains of broken masonry (possibly from the rubble of the priory: see below) dumped in the area suggest an effort to create firm foundations.
The space between the tenement and the back wall was enclosed by two viewing galleries, probably three storeys high, which were erected on the base of a sturdy brick support wall which kept the timbers out of the muddy ground. The playing space, with the stage against the wall, was thus rectangular, rather than the famous multi-sided ‘wooden O’ of many contemporary depictions (so raising the question of whether Henry V was in fact first performed here). It more closely resembled the inn courtyards, such as the George Inn at Southwark, or the other George Inn in Huntingdon, than what we think of as a typical Elizabethan theatre.
But unlike an inn courtyard, the ‘pit’ at the Curtain, in which the groundlings stood, was about a metre below the then ground level, and was surfaced with gravel. And, most amazingly, one of the ingressus, or entrances to the wooden gallery steps, was floored with animal knucklebones, providing a crude doormat or boot-scraper for the use of the customers who had paid sixpence for an expensive seat, rather than the penny which got you into the pit.
When the playhouse was first in use in 1577, Shoreditch was a country district outside London (and outside the authority of the city’s magistrates) with available space which enabled the erection or repurposing of relatively large buildings like playhouses. James Burbage’s ‘Theatre’ was the first in Shoreditch, and was multi-sided and custom-built in the grounds of what had been (before the Dissolution of the Monasteries) the priory of Augustinian canonesses at Holywell.
The nearby Curtain was not named for any theatrical curtain but for its location at the old curtain wall of the abbey, south of the Theatre (which was later taken down and moved to Bankside by the Burbage family, who reused the salvaged materials when they built the first Globe in 1599).
As far as can be ascertained, the Curtain, which could probably accommodate about 850 spectators between the pit and the galleries, ceased to be used around 1625 (the focus of the playhouses and other such spectacles having moved to the South Bank), and reverted to tenement housing, as is shown by, for example, the remains of a later hearth having been built into one of the gallery walls.
The surrounding land levels rose, and the pit is about 15 feet below the modern ground level. The site was at greatest threat, ironically, through redevelopment in the 1970s, when – although the likelihood of its containing the remains of a playhouse was known – concrete piles were sunk and water pipes embedded in concrete for a building which survived in usefulness for only about forty years. The latest developers have, thankfully, taken a considerably more enlightened view than their predecessors, allowing excavation before building begins, and intending that the MOLA discoveries will form a part of the new residential scheme (for the emollient advert, click here).
But back to the title of this piece: the floor of the pit at the Curtain was covered with gravel, whereas the floor of the Rose theatre, famously discovered on Bankside in 1989 and excavated by MOLA, was covered in hazelnut shells. At the time, this remarkable fact was explained by the shells having been discards from the groundlings’ snacks (‘hazelnuts were Elizabethan popcorn’), and much was made of this touching connection to the past – litter louts across the ages, as it were.
This didn’t make sense to me at the time: did everyone bring their own nutcrackers to the play, or if the nuts were pre-shelled, why did the shells end up on the floor? It’s theoretically possible to crush a walnut in your fist, or squeeze one against another to crack both (I can’t), but hazelnuts – no chance. However, having other things on my mind in 1989, I failed to pursue this curious assertion. I was thus very excited to be told, at the Curtain, that the hazelnut shells were a deliberate floor-covering at the Rose, used instead of gravel because supplies were readily available as waste from the soap-making establishments along the South Bank, which used hazelnut oil as an ingredient.
The hazel (Corylus avellana), also known as the cobnut or filbert, is a shrub or small tree common in Europe, west Asia and north Africa.
I have one – self-seeded about twenty years ago – in my front garden, and I suppose it is probably now a protected (if entirely unintended) tree because of the rules of our local conservation area. It produces plentiful nuts, which are systematically stripped, eaten or made away with by the grey squirrels.
Hazels were (and still are) cultivated in orchard spaces known as platts, the most famous of these being in Kent, while the most famous variety is Coryllus maxima ‘Kentish Cob’. The trees thrive through being coppiced, the wood that is cut from the base in a regular cycle being used for fence-poles, woven fences, or bean- and pea-sticks, as well as for whittling and carving.
There seem to be two types of Elizabethan soap recipes: soap for washing clothes, which contains unpleasant-sounding ingredients – ashes, lime, water, tallow fat and lye (sodium hydroxide, the hardening ingredient); and soaps for the skin, which were rather less abrasive and smelled better. ‘Castile soap’ (anyone remember ‘Knight’s Castile’ and wonder how it got its name?), originally imported from Spain, used olive oil rather than animal fat, and and of course hazelnut oil was a cheaper, home-grown alternative.
Soap-making, previously centred in London and Bristol, became in 1632 a monopoly of the Society of Soapmakers of Westminster, with a ban on manufacture beyond one mile around London (which reduced output at Bristol significantly); soon afterwards a prohibitive tax, which was repealed only in 1852 (at an annual loss of £1,126,000 in tax revenue (!)) was imposed. So the waste product of this luxury item was recycled into a cheap flooring, which, presumably,when it got too filthy (or too dusty and disintegrated), was shovelled out and replaced with more. Was it a challenge for the actors to be heard above the crackling noises as the groundlings shifted around?