In the 1570s, measures enacted to prevent the spread of plague drove London’s theatre troupes into the neighboring “suburbs of sin,” just past the city’s northern boundaries. In 1576 construction began on what would eventually come to be known as London’s first permanent theatre.
The Theatre was built by James Burbage and eventually served as a permanent performance space for the traveling players Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which famously employed the young William Shakespeare as an actor and playwright. The troupe performed there between the years of 1594 and 1597, during which time it is believed to have premiered some of Shakespeare’s early work.
In 1597, disputes with the property owner forced the troupe to relocate to the nearby Curtain Theatre. Continued disagreements with the landlord prompted brothers Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, sons of the late James Burbage, to dismantle The Theatre piece by piece and abscond with the materials on Christmas Eve night of 1598, according to popular legend. Materials from The Theatre are believed to have been used in the construction of the famous Globe Theatre.
Today, little is known about The Theatre’s appearance, though building plans and the designs of other Elizabethan theatres strongly suggest a polygonal structure. The discovery of part of The Theatre’s foundation in 2008 provided further clues as to the theatre’s exact shape and dimensions.
The neighborhood has since been absorbed into London proper and comprises part of the Borough of Hackney. Today, two plaques located at 86 - 90 Curtain Road commemorate the site’s significance. The city has approved plans to construct a new theatre on the site which will allow visitors to view The Theatre’s remains through a glass floor overlooking the original foundation. Stop by and you may just run into some of The Theatre’s regulars!
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