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Swan Elizabethan Theatre

Picture of the Swan Theatre

Picture of the Swan Theatre

The known facts about the Swan, which was used as one of the massive amphitheatre venues for early English Elizabethan Theatre, are as follows:

  • London Location of the Swan - Paris Garden, Southwark
  • Paris Garden formed the part of Southwark parish of St. Saviour known as the manor of Paris Garden

  • Bear baiting was also performed in the Swan
  • The Swan was opened in 1574
  • The theatrical entrepreneur involved with the Swan was Francis Langley
  • The Swan was one of the 12 massive amphitheatres, including the Globe Theatre, which were built around the City of London

In 1574 the City of London started regulating the Inn-yard activities.  The Theatrical entrepreneurs fought back and started to build purpose built wooden theatres such as the Swan. It was styled on the open air Roman amphitheatres providing a classical connection and an air of respectability to the Theatrical profession. The Swan was extremely quick to build, approximately 6 months, requiring only cheap building materials it therefore increased profits for the theatre at least five-fold.

The Swan Theatre
The picture of the Swan amphitheatre interior at the top of the page is the only picture of an Elizabethan theatre interior which has survived. In 1596 a Dutch traveller called Johannes de Witt attended a play at the Swan Theatre in London. Whilst he was at the Swan theatre Johannes de Witt made a sketch of the inside of the Swan Theatre. A friend of Johannes de Witt named Arend van Buchell copied the sketch and de Witt added this drawing to his diary. His diary note, together with the Swan interior picture, is probably the single most important source of information regarding the internal layout of Elizabethan London theatres. All of the Elizabethan London theatres, or amphitheatres, were similar in design, so the picture of the Swan Theatre can be used a good guide to the structure and layout of these first purpose-built theatres. The exact dimensions of the amphitheatres have been lost in time, but the picture of the Swan allows for an approximation. The Swan was built by Francis Langley and opened in 1595.

The Diary note of Johannes de Witt on the Swan Theatre
From diary of the Elizabethan traveller, Johannes de Witt:

"There are four amphitheatres in London so beautiful that they are worth a visit, which are given different names from their different signs. In these theatres, a different play is offered to the public every day. The two more excellent of these are situated on the other side of the Thames, towards the South, and they are called the Rose and the Swan from their signboards. There are two other theatres outside the city towards the North, on the road that leads through the Episcopal Gate called Bishopsgate in the vernacular. There is also a fifth, but of a different structure, intended for fights of animals, in which many bears, bulls, and dogs of stupendous size are held in different cages and behind fences, which are kept for the fight to provide a most pleasant spectacle to the people. The most outstanding of all the theatres, however, and the largest, is that whose sign is the swan (in the vernacular, the theatre of the swan), as it seats 3000 people. It is built out of flint stones stacked on top of each other (of which there is great store in Britain), supported by wooden pillars which, by their painted marble colour, can deceive even the most acute observers. As its form seems to bear the appearance of a Roman work, I have made a drawing of it"

Description of The Theatre amphitheatre
The Swan was described as an Elizabethan Amphitheatre which was octagonal or circular in shape having between 8 and 24 sides. The open air arena of the amphitheatre was called the 'pit' or the 'yard'. The stage of the amphitheatre projected halfway into the 'pit'. The Swan had a raised stage at one end which was surrounded by three tiers of roofed galleries with balconies overlooking the back of the stage.

Facts and Information about the Amphitheatre styled Elizabethan Theatres
Interesting general facts and information about the amphitheatre venue such as the Swan:

  • Audience capacity of an Elizabethan amphitheatre was between 1500 and 3000
  • Building materials used in the construction of early Elizabethan Theatres were timber, nails, stone (flint), plaster with thatched roofs
  • The 'Box ' and the 'Box Office' - Playgoers put 1 penny in a box at the Elizabethan theatre entrance. At the start of the play the admission collectors put the boxes in a room backstage called the box office.
  • The Entrance to the theatre - Usually one main entrance. Some later theatres had external staircases to access the galleries 
  • The owners of the theatre were called the 'Housekeepers'
  • There was no heating in the Elizabethan Theatre. Plays were performed in the summer months and transferred to the indoor playhouses during the winter
  • Lighting in the Elizabethan Theatre - Natural lighting as plays were produced in the afternoon. However there was some artificial lighting mainly intended to provide atmosphere for night scenes
  • Toilet Facilities? None . People relieved themselves outside. Sewage was buried in pits or disposed of in the River Thames
  • Size of Elizabethan Theatre - Up to 100 feet in diameter
  • Shapes of the Elizabethan Theatres - Circular or Octagonal in shape having between 8 and 24 sides
  • The height of the raised stage was 3 to 5 feet and supported by large pillars or trestles
  • Stage dimensions varied from 20 foot wide 15 foot deep to 45 feet to 30 feet
  • Only very rich women, who often wore masks, or women of dubious morals attended the amphitheatres
  • Musicians - Music was an extra effect added in the 1600's
  • A selection of ropes & rigging would allow for special effects, such as flying or dramatic entries
  • The floor of the Stage was made of wood, sometimes covered with rushes. Trap doors in the floor would enable some additional special effects such as smoke
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