Theater
11:03 pm
Sat June 16, 2012

The Stage On Which Juliet First Called Out For Romeo

Originally published on Sun June 17, 2012 2:05 pm

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of the Bard's old stomping grounds — ruins of a famous 16th-century theater, buried below the streets of modern London. Known in its heyday as the Curtain Theatre, it's often been eclipsed by its more famous younger sibling, the Globe.

But the Curtain is a big deal in its own right. Some of Shakespeare's most famous works premiered there — Romeo and Juliet and Henry V, just to name a couple. NPR's Rachel Martin talked to the archaeologist who dug up the theater, Chris Thomas of the Museum of London.


Interview Highlights

On what remains

"We've only seen parts of it so far, but what remains are the foundations — the brick walls of the Curtain Theatre — the floors inside the galleries and the yard. The yard is the bit in the middle where people used to stand."

On how they knew it was the Curtain

"We've looked at the Rose Theatre — we've dug parts of that up before — and we've dug a little bit of the Globe up before. And we've dug a little bit of Shakespeare's first theater, which was rather unimaginatively titled the Theatre. So we know what sort of form these things have, and we know what shape they have. ... What we've got here [with the Curtain] is the best surviving example of any of Shakespeare's theaters in London. The others are all quite badly disturbed by later buildings, but this one seems to be more or less intact."

On the Curtain's lifespan

"We think it [was] built in 1577, so that's a year after the first theater. And the last mention of it is in 1628, but it's just possible that it continued all the way up to 1642. And we know all the theaters would have been shut then, because the Puritans in power in England didn't like theaters, and didn't like people having a lot of fun, so they closed them all down."

On Shakespeare's audience at the Curtain

"It's probably not something for the elite. I think we've probably got to imagine that the productions were a bit more rowdy and the audience probably participated quite a lot more than they do in modern theatrical productions."

On the location of Shakespeare's theaters

"Well, to start with, the Theatre and the Curtain Theatre were in Shoreditch, which is immediately north of the City of London. So you can imagine that the theaters are in suburban areas that are just outside the jurisdiction of the city, so they can get away with quite a lot more. And then once the Rose and the Globe and the other theaters get built, they all get built on the south side of the river, again outside the city. So once the Theatre closes, the Curtain is on its own up in Shoreditch and all the rest are down in Southwark on the south side of the river."

On unexpected discoveries

"One of the nicest things is, buried in the floor, was a ceramic pot, just buried in the floor as a mouse trap. And I think those are the little things that are quite nice and give you a bit more of a feel for the people or the place."

On the future of the excavation

"Now we have to move on, in that we just located it, found it and covered it up for the time being. Now, if a new development gets permission to be built, then we'll be uncovering most of it, and we'll be putting it on display so that people can come and visit it, and that's when it will get really exciting."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Just in time for Shakespeare in the Park, archaeologists have discovered the remains of the bard's old stomping grounds - ruins of a famous 16th century theatre hidden below the streets of modern London. Known in its heyday as the Curtain Theatre, it's often been eclipsed by its more famous younger sibling, the Globe Theatre. But The Curtain is a big deal in its own right: some of Shakespeare's most famous works debuted there - "Romeo and Juliet" and "Henry the Fifth," just to name a couple. Joining us from London is the archaeologist who dug up the theatre, Chris Thomas of the Museum of London. He joins us from the BBC studios. Chris, welcome to the program.

CHRIS THOMAS: Hi.

MARTIN: So, first off, can you just describe what these ruins look like? I mean, are we talking about broken bricks, a few wooden beams on a roof? What does it look like?

THOMAS: Well, what we've done so far is we've just done some exploratory trenches to see whether the Curtain Theatre was actually on the site. So, we've only seen parts of it so far, but what remains are the foundations, the brick walls of the Curtain Theatre, floors inside the galleries and the yard. And the yard is the bit in the middle where people used to stand.

MARTIN: What do we know about The Curtain's life? How long was it standing? And what happened to it? Why was it destroyed?

THOMAS: Well, we think it's built in 1577, so that's a year after the first theatre. But it's just possible that it continued all the way up to 1642. And we know all the theatres would have been shut then because the Puritans didn't like theatres. It didn't like people having a lot of fun, so they closed them all down.

MARTIN: As an archaeologist, what is the part of the discovery that makes you realize the significance of what you found?

THOMAS: Well, it's one of those things that you find bits of, say, brick floor or brick walls and you think, ah, I wonder if that's part of the Curtain Theatre. And once we found the gravel yard and the wall and the doorway that leads into the gallery, we were fairly sure. But I think one of the nicest things is buried in the floor was a ceramic pot, just buried in the floor as a mousetrap. And I think those were the little things that are quite nice, give you a bit more of a feel for the people and the place.

MARTIN: And the time. When you find something like that, are there a lot of high-fives around the site or do you just say, oh, you know, let's just move on?

THOMAS: Well, I think high-fives may be a bit too far but I think we did all get very, very excited about it. And now we have to move on, in that we've just located it, found it and covered it up for the time being. If the new development gets commissioned to be built, then we'll be uncovering most of it and we'll be putting it on display so that people can come and visit it. And that's when it'll get really exciting.

MARTIN: So, the work is not yet done?

THOMAS: No. There's still plenty of work still to be done.

MARTIN: Chris Thomas is an archaeologist with the Museum of London. He joined us from the BBC studios in London. Chris, thanks so much.

THOMAS: Thank you.

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.