In November 1595 Francis Langley built the Swan playhouse south of the river, about 300 yards west of Philip Henslowe's Rose, near Paris Garden stairs. As the newest theatrical impresario to chance his arm, Langley perhaps realised that the loss of inn-house playing in 1594 (theatre was banned at the four inns in the City that year) left room for another permanent outdoor playhouse in the capital.
However, other than in its first few years, it seems only to have staged plays occasionally. The Swan may have put on some of William Shakespeare’s earlier works in the 1590s, though scholars have been unable to prove this for certain.
Langley's time at the Swan had been troublesome and he appears to have fallen into disagreement with his own players on several occasions. When Langley died in poverty in 1602 it appears that Hugh Browker owned and probably ran the playhouse, but the identities of the men who ran the Swan after 1606 have remained a mystery.
Later in the Jacobean period, in 1613, the Swan staged Thomas Middleton’s city comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (the titlepage survives - see image gallery) and it certainly continued to stage plays occasionally during the reign of James I. Yet surviving contemporary accounts also show that the playhouse was often in use for fencing exhibitions rather than for the performance of theatrical works.
In about 1596 Johannes de Witt had visited the Swan and he later wrote to a friend about playgoing in London. He also included a sketch of the Swan in his correspondence (the main picture for this ShaLT entry):
'In London are four amphitheatres of obvious beauty, which from their diverse signs receive their diverse names. In them a different play is daily presented to the people. The two more remarkable of these are situated to the south, on the far side of the Thames, named the Rose and the Swan, from the suspended signs. Two others are outside the City towards the north, on the street going through . . . Bishopsgate ... Of all the theatres, however, the largest and most distinguished is the one whose sign is a swan (commonly, the Swan theatre), which, to be sure, accommodates three thousand people in seats. [It is] built of an accumulation of flint stones (of which in Britain there is vast abundance), supported by wooden columns which, on account of the colour of marble painted on them, can deceive even the most acute, whose form, at least, since it [the playhouse] seems to represent the general notion of Roman work, I have drawn above.'
Quoted in English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660, edited by Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry and William Ingram (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 441.