- noun a piece of cloth hung at a window, in a doorway, or round a bed, usually for privacy or to exclude light or draughts
- In a theater with a proscenium arch, a cloth thatscreens the stage from the audience's view before and after a performanceand between acts. It is either lifted vertically into the flies ordivided centrally and drawn to the sides (sometimes the top outercorners).
Curtains were introduced to the stage by the Romans in thefirst century AD but were not used in early European theaters.In the Elizabethan theater small curtains were used to hide discoveryspaces but the house curtain or front curtainwas not introduced until the advent of the proscenium arch in the17th century. By the mid 18th century the act drop was beingused to mark the end of an act and as a background for entertainmentsbetween acts. Henry Irving first used a curtain to hide scenery changesat his Lyceum Theatre in about 1880.
The first safety curtain was installed at Drury Lanein 1794. Such a curtain is made of fireproof material (such as iron)in order to prevent a stage fire from spreading into the auditorium.It hangs in front of the house curtain and must by law be loweredonce during a performance. see iron curtain.
In the 1820s and 1830s the act drop was often lowered whenthe actors had frozen into a tableau (see living picture).This is the origin of tableau curtains or tabs.The term later came to be used of any theater curtain and was oftenmisapplied to a curtain set.
Towards the end of the 19th century the travelleror running curtain appeared; this was drawn across the backof a stage so that scenery could be changed behind it while the playcontinued in front. At about the same time the advertisement curtainwas introduced to carry information about the theater's sponsors;this practice did not last beyond the early 20th century.
The advent of curtains introduced new scope for onstage disaster.Most actors have experienced curtains that failed to open, rose atthe wrong time, or fell unexpectedly, sometimes upon the performers.When in 1936 Terence Rattigan's first play, French WithoutTears, received rousing applause on its first night, the authorwas hurried onto the stage to thank the audience. A stagehand, notexpecting a first-night speech, lowered the curtain unceremoniouslyon his head.
The practice of lowering the house curtain at the end of atheatrical performance has given rise to the phrase to let orbring down the curtain, meaning to bring a matter to an end.Let down the curtain, the farce is over.François Rabelais: reported last words