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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

§ 18. Value of John de Witt’s drawing of the Swan

It is impossible not to turn back with curiosity to the drawing of the Swan theatre, the earliest extant view of the stage of the period. The platform it shows is supported near the front on two rough, solid beams, concealed by no “paling.” Half-way, or rather more than halfway, towards the back, two very solid turned pillars, resting on heavy square bases and with capitals above, stand on the stage, at a distance from each other of nearly its whole breadth, and support the front edge of a pentroof, which seems to project over the stage to a much smaller distance than the position of the pillars would indicate. This discrepancy is but one of many difficulties raised by the drawing. Behind the pillars, under the pentroof and right at the back of the stage, rises a wall with two large arched doors, each about halfway between the centre of the back wall and its outer extremity. On the wall, between the doors, the draughtsman has written mimorum aedes, indicating that this is the “actors’ house.” At some distance above the tops of the doors, the wall is broken by a gallery, in which sit what may be musicians, or actors taking part in the play, but what certainly seem to be spectators; and, above the gallery again, the wall rises to the point where the upper edge of the pentroof starts. Above the level of the pentroof, there appears another story, of equal or nearly equal width with the wall of the tirehouse. There are two windows in it, facing the auditorium, and, in a little doorway open in the side, on the (spectator’s) right, a man, either holding a flag or blowing a trumpet, stands on the upper edge of the pentroof (which must be supposed to turn the corner of the building on both sides). The roof of this upper story, apparently, is thatched, and from the summit on the (spectator’s) right flies the flag bearing the sign of the house, a swan. Near the front of the stage, an actor in woman’s dress is sitting on a bench; behind the bench stands another, also in woman’s dress: while, from the corner on the (spectator’s) left, an actor, bearing a long spear or staff, is striding along the front of the stage towards the centre. There are no hangings of any kind visible in any part of the drawing.

Some features in the drawing may be recognised from other descriptions as correct—the existence of the tirehouse, the turret, the waving flag showing that it is a play day, the blowing of the trumpet showing that it is a play day, the blowing of the trumpet showing that the play is about to begin (though the draughtsman has shown the house as empty). Further examination raises a number of difficulties.

In the first place, this stage is not movable; or, if it can be removed, those two heavy pillars supporting the small pentroof must rest, not on the visible bases on the stage, but on the ground below. If the stage is moved, the pillars will be in the way of any exhibition that is taking place, and it is difficult to imagine that these pretentious bases are shams. We are forced to conclude that the stage of the Swan was not movable. Again, how far are these pillars intended to be from the back wall of the stage, the front wall of the tirehouse? The drawing shows them at the very east a third of the way down the stage; yet the perspective is so faulty that the pentroof seems to project at the most a few feet forward from the wall. Granted that the pillars are right and the pentroof wrong, the latter still does not correspond at all closely with the “heavens” or roof, which, in the Hope, as we know from the contract, was to extend all over the stage, and which is known to have existed in other playhouses of the period. The matter is trifling at first sight, but is of importance because, mainly on the position of the pillars in this drawing, a whole theory of the production of plays has been formed. To clear the ground, it may be said at once that there is no occurrence before 1640 of anything which can fairly be considered evidence of a front curtain on a public stage (though, doubtless, it was in use at court and university performances), and that the theory of the common use of a front curtain is no longer tenable. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that, somewhere on the stage, there were hangings of silk, or wool, or “painted cloth,” sometimes, apparently, when tragedies were acted, of black. Of hangings painted in perspective to represent the scene of the play, there is no mention in a public or private playhouse, though they were in use at court and university performances. We hear of actors peeping through before the play begins, and of an impatient audience throwing things at the hangings. Stage directions printed in the playbooks, though rendered an untrustworthy guide by the impossibility of telling whether they were drawn up by the author or manager, or by the printer or some other unauthorised person, and whether they applied to performance at court, in a public playhouse, a private playhouse, or a provincial hall or innyard, seem to show that the public stage of the day required at least three divisions: namely, the front part of the stage; a back part, commonly used for interiors, which could be disclosed by the drawing of curtains, and which, when disclosed, could, of course, absorb the front part and occupy the entire stage; and, thirdly, a place above to serve for upper chambers, balconies like Juliet’s, galleries, towers and so forth. Arguing from this and from the position of the pillars in the drawing of the stage of the Swan, the theory referred to supposes a regular course of “alternation” throughout an entire play, much like that which was followed by each act of an oldfashioned melodrama, in which the front scene was used while the back scene was being “set,” the author’s duty, in the days of Elizabeth as in our own, being to contrive a scene of some sort, which the plot might or might not require, to fill up the time needed by the “tire-men” or sceneshifters. Accordingly, the theory mentioned supposes a curtain or “traverse” hung between the pillars shown in the drawing of the Swan, that is, at about one third, or half, of the depth of the stage which should conceal from spectators the preparations for the next scene going on behind it.