Outside MOLA's archaeological excavations at Shakespeare's Curtain Theatre (c)MOLA

Playhouses and Theatres: Setting the Scene

Sarah Trehy

Shakespeare’s Curtain Playhouse, located in Shoreditch, London, is currently being excavated by a team of our archaeologists  ahead of construction of The Stage. In this blog, from archaeologist Brigid Geist, she looks in to just what makes a playhouse a playhouse, and a theatre a theatre.

The current excavations being undertaken at The Stage, Shoreditch, are revealing the archaeological remains of the Shakespeare’s Curtain playhouse, first recorded in 1577. Before this time, entertainers would travel the country performing in towns and villages. Seen as vagrants, they were often kicked out by village elders. This Elizabethan playhouse was one of many designed to give these entertainers a permanent place to perform for  an audience.

Fortunately for the actors, it became the fashion for members of the elite to patronise groups. These companies would take their patron’s name, such as Lord Strange (the Earl of Derby) or the Earl of Leicester. They would often perform at their patron’s house, along with tours around the country, performing in the courtyard of the local inns. In London these included the Boar’s Head and the George. Some companies became regulars at particular inns, such as the Earl of Leicester’s Men, who were associated with the Cross Keys. This developed into the repurposing of the inns in to makeshift playhouse, as well as the construction of innovative buildings called playhouses. The playhouses were  purposefully  situated outside of the city walls to avoid the administrative jurisdiction of the Guildhall and the prohibitive cost of land.

The difference between a playhouse and a theatre is essentially whether the venue is open to the elements (a playhouse), or closed (a theatre). Playhouses, along with the original inns, had covered gallery seating, but the stage and yard, for those standing, were exposed. The converted inns retained their rectangular shape, similar to the Curtain, whereas the purpose-built structures, like the Globe and Rose , were the more well-known polygonal shape. We have records of European visitors  to these state-of-the-art playhouses, and the plays performed on their stages. We even have a sketch from a Dutch visitor in 1596, Johannes de Witt, who drew the interior of the Swan playhouse during a performance a year after its construction. A friend of his, Arend van Buchell, was so enamoured with the drawing, he made a copy for himself, through whom the sketch survives. It gives a clear representation of how the open space of a playhouse was used.

 In comparison, a theatre would have been an enclosed space; an indoor venue offering much more comfort to the audience, as well as the chance to put on year round plays regardless of the weather. With this came the introduction of the interval, as a period of time was required to replace the burnt out candles that light the space. This would have had repercussions on playwrights, as plays now needed a natural pause to allow for the interval. Stage make-up was also adapted to enhance the effect of candlelight, for example paler make-up was used for ghosts, to give an ethereal effect.

In a short period, acting in England progressed from performing in private homes, to local inns, culminating in pioneering venues, either structures open to the elements, or in closed spaces, relying on candlelight.

In future blogs we shall be expanding on the architecture of these venues, and the characters involved, both on and off the stage. Keep an eye on the blogs page for more from the Curtain Theatre team. To see the Curtain archaeological site for yourself, come along to the MOLA Open Day July 2.

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