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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

X. The Elizabethan Theatre

§ 15. The Swan

In 1589, Francis Langley, who held a small office at court, purchased the manor of Paris garden. In November, 1594, we find the lord mayor protesting against his intention to build a playhouse on his property. The project was not dismissed; but it is not certain when the Swan playhouse was built. It may have been open in 1596. The Swan was used for plays, at any rate until 1620, and was still standing, though in a dilapidated state, in 1632. Dramatically, its history is unimportant; but the house has acquired notoriety from the fact that a contemporary drawing, or copy of a drawing, of its interior—the earliest view known of the interior of a playhouse—is in existence. Probably in or about the summer of 1596, John de Witt, a Dutchman, visited London. (It may be noted here that much of our information concerning the London playhouses of the day comes from foreigners, to whom they were objects of great interest and surprise.) The drawing in question was discovered in the library at Utrecht, in the commonplace book of another Dutchman, Arend von Buchell, accompanied by a descriptive passage headed Ex observationibus Londinensibus Johannis De Witt. The passage, with the drawing, may have been copied from a now lost letter or journal written by de Witt. The drawing, a rough sketch, must be used, therefore, with caution; but so many of its details correspond with the details of the Swan found in the contract for the building of the Hope, which was to be like it in many respects, that it may be taken as giving a rough idea of the general plan of an Elizabethan public playhouse. The drawing is made from a point which, roughly speaking, would correspond to the position of a man sitting in the middle of the front row of the upper circle of a large modern theatre, or the gallery of a small one.

The main features of the playhouse are clear enough. It is a tall, round (or, possibly, oval) structure some fifty feet high, with three roofed galleries, divided into “rooms,” or boxes, running right round it and interrupted only by the tirehouse behind the stage. The yard is open to the sky; there are no seats in it, and the audience can stand close to the stage on three sides, finding it probably between waist-high and shoulder-high. The description accompanying the drawing states that the building would hold tres mille homines in sedilibus—three thousand persons in the sedilia or galleries. Calculations have been made to prove that, if de Witt is rightly reported and meant what he said, and if the number of rows in the three galleries be taken to be eleven, a house two thirds of the size of the present Drury Lane theatre would be required to afford sitting accommodation for that number of spectators, if every seat in the entire circle was full; while the open yard would give standing room to a great many more. The number 3000, moreover, is not so surprising as appears at first sight; and that the Swan theatre should provide room for 1 1/2 per cent. of the total population of London and Westminster does not seem fantastic, when it is remembered that, according to John Taylor, three or four thousand persons daily crossed the river to Bankside in the days when the Globe, Rose and Swan were all open as playhouses, and bear-baiting, also, was in progress. A difficulty is caused by de Witt’s statement that the Swan was built of flint-stones heaped together and supported by wooden columns, painted so like marble as to deceive the shrewdest eye.

In no extant specification, not even that of the Hope, is there any mention of stone, and another foreigner, who visited London two years later, expressly states that all the playhouses on Bankside were of wood—sometimes, as we know from other sources, plastered over. Various suggestions have been made for getting round de Witt’s statement. It is simpler to believe him correct and to suppose that, in this feature (as, perhaps, in another to be dealt with later) the Swan was exceptional.

The extant contract with the builder shows that the Hope on Bankside, which had been a bear-house, was newly built as a playhouse by Henslowe and Jacob Meade in 1613. Possibly, the burning of the Globe in that year induced Henslowe to try for the Bankside public once more. The house was occupied by the lady Elizabeth’s and the Prince’s companies, and Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fayre, which was acted there in 1614, informs us that it was a dirty and evil-smelling place. In 1616 apparently, it fell out of use as a playhouse. As the contract states, it was of the same size as the Swan and the roof over the galleries was tiled, not thatched. Vischer’s View of London (1616) shows it octagonal outside; but Hollar (1647) makes it round. It was of wood, with a brick foundation.