NOTHING like it has ever happened before in this city. All afternoon actors, directors, and hundreds of other concerned locals have been gathering for an around-the-clock vigil in front of a modest-size strip of disinterred earth, in a desperate bid to stop concrete from being poured on top of it. To the untutored eye, this unprepossessing patch of dirt, in London's district of Southwark (pronounced ``SUTH-uck''), appears little different from any other. What makes it unique, however, is that it contains the just-found remains of the Rose Theatre, built in 1587, the only fragments of an Elizabethan playhouse ever to have been discovered.
Situated a stone's throw from the River Thames in what was once the heart of 16th-century London's theaterland, the Rose ruins have come as an extraordinary surprise to the archaeologists who've stumbled across them. While it's long been known that the area is of great historical importance - the spot where Shakespeare's Globe Theater once stood, for example, is only yards away - no hard evidence has previously existed to precisely pinpoint where any of the 10 Tudor theaters, so much a part of London life 400 years ago, once stood.
The drama began last December. The Imry Merchant Company, business developers who had bought the land, had just finished clearing away a 1950s structure as a prelude to building a 10-story office block. Part of the planning permission agreement was that Museum of London archaeologists would be allowed to have a look at the cleared site before any construction took place. The area proved of interest from the start, and it was not long before consulting historian Martin Clout was able to confirm that they were digging on the site of the Rose Theatre - where Shakespeare's ``Henry VI'' and ``Titus Andronicus'' are thought to have premi`ered and, indeed, where it is believed that the Bard himself trod the boards as a young actor.
The full extent of this treasure-trove, however, began to emerge only after months of painstaking archaeological work. And, in recent weeks, virtually each day has brought with it more precious discoveries.
On the day of my visit, archaeologists are planning to be on the site up to the last possible moment before the developers' takeover deadline at midnight; there is still much to do, they say. Indeed, excitement grew only a short while ago when a wooden water drain, which extended from the Rose's stage to a ditch behind the building, was removed from the site. Such discoveries underscore the importance of the Rose remains: The drain, for example, suggests that 16th-century actors may have used props with water, a possibility that would mean Elizabethan stage productions were far more sophisticated than has previously been imagined.
``I see the site as important as Stonehenge,'' historian Clout tells me, as well-known British actors entertain the growing crowd of protesters. ``The Rose Theatre, along with its contemporaries, witnessed the birth of our modern English language. So, in many respects, these remains are part of the roots of our civilization. And what we have found here is in a marvelous state of preservation. It would, therefore, be an act of supreme vandalism for anyone to do anything that might damage this area.
``This is a unique event,'' Mr. Clout continues. ``And there is a great deal more that can be learned from the site. Only about two-thirds of the building has been uncovered, and from this alone the information gleaned has proved nearly all historians wrong in various aspects of the construction of these theaters.''
AS the afternoon progresses and the sun sinks, the throng of supporters swells to some 3,000. Police are standing by, but there's no hint of disorder. The only evidence of militancy - albeit exceptionally polite - is on the homespun signs poking through the sea of heads. ``Please Don't Doze the Rose,'' reads one placard, while two young children clutch a sign that says simply, ``Save It for Us.''
Some of Britain's best-known actors - Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Ian McKellen, and Dame Judi Dench - take turns reading passages from Shakespeare's works, while strong words of solidarity coming from Lord Olivier and the Archbishop of Canterbury are read out. The gatherers are also told that Princes Charles and Edward have made it known, through informal channels, that they give their support. Even a group of Soviet actors currently filming in London has sent a message of ``deep concern,'' asking what they can do to help.
``It's like the Greeks knocking down the Parthenon to create a car park,'' the eminent stage director Sir Peter Hall tells the crowd. ``If we let these remains be destroyed, we will be an international laughingstock. No other country would allow it.''
In an interview, Dame Judi explains to me that, in the last few days, actors and directors had ``all contacted each other'' when they realized the developers' takeover date was fast approaching. ``Preserving this site is vital for us,'' says Dame Judi. ``The other day I was down here and actually stood on that stage and took my shoes off. As an actress, it was a great privilege to have been standing there. I feel very emotional about this site.''
Dame Peggy, who is seated nearby, adds: ``The Rose is teaching us things we never knew about Shakespeare's theater, and it should be absolutely sacrosanct. This site matters to everybody, not just to us and our children, but to people all over the world.''
As protesters prepare for the long night ahead, a chill fills the air. The member of Parliament for the area, Simon Hughes, who has emerged as the head of the protest, leads the crowd in song; repeated choruses of ``We Shall Overcome'' is the favorite. At the stroke of midnight, the sonorous chimes of Big Ben from across the Thames bring chatter to a halt. The developers are now legally entitled to take over the site, Mr. Hughes reminds the crowd. But it's clear, by the hushed mood, that no one needs reminding.
Cindy Starr, an American undergraduate from New Jersey, who is currently studing at the University of London, is here with a friend for the camp-out. ``I think this is fascinating,'' she says. ``I'd hate to see these remains destroyed because of an office building. It's great that so many people would show up for something like this. I just had to come and join them.''
Charles Jameson, a Southwark resident and banker - as much in protest against the city's current high-rise building boom as in support of preserving history - is also among the many determined to stay. ``The whole area is being redeveloped, and the character is going,'' he comments. ``It's wonderful that the only remains of an Elizabethan theater have been found here. So for the sake of this area, I would love the Rose to be preserved.''
After a while, however, the thoughts of those gathered turn to more mundane matters, such as finding a spot among the rubble to rest - perchance to sleep.
The night is long. Some sleep fitfully, but most talk quietly in small groups or drink endless cups of hot soup provided by the nearby Globe Museum. American actor Sam Wanamaker, who founded the museum and is the prime mover behind the rebuilding of the Globe Theater project, has donated the facilities in support of the protest.
By 6 a.m., the time Imry's workers are expected to appear, hundreds of tired but determined-looking people are standing with arms linked protectively around the site. They are not kept waiting long. Imry trucks loaded with sand arrive. Protesters position themselves in front of the leading vehicle, while others gather round supportively.
TO everyone's surprise, the first truck driver leans out of his window and cheerfully shouts, ``I'm with you!'' Then, after some good-natured banter, he settles back munching an apple, while the line of trucks remains immobile.
Meantime, Hughes makes phone calls to rouse Imry executives from their beds. A five-hour moratorium on all building activity is eventually agreed upon. At 7 a.m., to the roar of applause from the demonstrators, the sand trucks retreat.
Frantic phone negotiations are held throughout the morning between Imry, on the one hand, and Hughes, Dame Peggy, and fellow actor James Fox on the other. At each step, protesters are apprised of the developments. They are repeatedly asked whether they agree with what has been proposed. The level of debate before each vote is impressively high. And when the demonstrators don't agree - as often happens - Imry is urged to come up with another offer.
After closing discussions with Imry, Hughes heads for Parliament to formally ask Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley, in the House of Commons, what the government is going to do - if anything - to save the Rose. By now, hordes of journalists from around the world have descended on the site.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government, when compared with other recent British administrations, is not noted for its generosity in financial support for the arts. But the outcry that the threatened destruction of the Rose site has evoked is without precedent, and cannot be ignored.
Finally, at 3:45 p.m., word comes from the House of Commons. Mr. Ridley has agreed to make 1 million pounds sterling ($1.58 million) of public money available to facilitate further negotiations between Imry, a committee of protester representatives, and other relevant bodies. Moreover, Ridley assures Parliament, for four weeks nothing will be done on the site until a ``more acceptable arrangement'' has been reached.
Government intervention has come with breathtaking speed. Protesters are elated at hearing the news: They have put popular democracy to the test, and found that it works.
But optimism is guarded. The mood of the supporters is best summed up by Ian McKellen. ``The battle is in respite,'' says the actor, ``but it is not yet won. Those who are against us are hoping that our enthusiasm will wane over the next month. But we mustn't - we won't - let that happen.''