Unearthed behind a pub: One of Shakespeare's first playhouses

London is slowly rediscovering its past, one redevelopment project at a time. And now, archaeologists have dug up a real jewel

An archaeologist helps unearth what experts believe are the remains of an Elizabethan theater that once staged Shakespeare's earliest plays.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Museum of London Archaeology)

Last October, behind an old pub in London's Shoreditch neighborhood, just east of the business district, archaeologists at the Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA) made a pretty startling discovery: One of William Shakespeare's first theaters. (MoLA just went public with the discovery this week.) The 435-year-old Curtain Theatre was the longest-running Elizabethan theater, until it disappeared from the map about 370 years ago. Here, a look at the newly unearthed theater, where Shakespeare fits in, and what we can expect for the Curtain's future:

What exactly was the Curtain Theatre?

The Curtain opened in 1577, a few blocks from what's believed to be London's first dedicated theater, called, appropriately enough, The Theatre. The Curtain was used as a playhouse until at least 1622, when it drops from the record, though historians believe it may have been used for another 20 years past that, until the English Civil War broke out in 1642. The theater's location was then lost to history, until developers uncovered it last October. MoLA immediately stepped in.

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When did Shakespeare set up residency there?

The Bard and his Lord Chamberlain's Men performed at the Curtain from 1597, when they lost their lease at The Theatre, until 1599, when the more famous Globe Theatre opened on the other side of the Thames River. According to Shakespearean lore, after the owner of The Theatre's land refused to renew the lease, manager-actor James Burbage dismantled the structure one night, stored the lumber for a winter, then used it to build the Globe.

What shows did Shakespeare perform at the Curtain?

The polygonal theater is most famously memorialized as the "wooden O" in the prologue to Henry V, thought to have had its first performance at the Curtain. The other big Shakespeare debut at the Curtain, scholars say, was Romeo and Juliette. But Shakespeare and his actors didn't have a good experience at the Curtain, where the demanding audiences were more interested in bear-baiting, sword fights, and acrobatics than plays, Globe education director Patrick Spottiswoode tells the AP. "They were probably desperate to leave."

What happened to the theater since the 1600s?

In short, London. "In America, if we come across a site of historical significance, we memorialize it by transforming it into an outdoor living history space," says Caity Weaver at Gawker. "In England, where, evidently, William Shakespeare's First Theatres just grow on trees... they go ahead and build new office, retail, and residential spaces right over them." That's changing, of course, Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole tells Britain's Telegraph. "I love the fact that we are excavating London, and slowly clearing away the miserable piles of Victoriana and Empire, and revealing the wild, anarchic, and joyous London which is lurking beneath."

What happens now?

So far, the archaeologists have uncovered the theater's remarkably well-preserved gravel gallery, where people stood to watch the performances, and the foundation walls. More excavation is planned for later this year. Plough Yard Developments, which owns the property, says it will continue building its mixed-use office-residential-shopping space, but hopes to "develop plans that will give the public access to the theater remains." Maybe plays will be performed at the historic site, says Peter Enzinna at the New York Daily News. But "whether or not the Curtain will undergo restoration efforts on par with the Globe's, which puts on plays daily and is host to a museum, gift shops, and cafes, seems up in the air."

Sources: ABC News, AP, BBC News, Gawker, New York Daily News, Telegraph

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