I have wanted to read this play ever since I saw the title. This review brought to you by Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, where I first read about this play with its very excellent title, and by the Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road, to which very many props for their mad selection of drama.
The Lady’s Not for Burning is a modern (1948) play set in the fifteenth century, and it is brilliant with its words but limited in its action, which all takes place in one room in the house of the city mayor. Thomas Mendip, a disillusioned ex-soldier, enters demanding to be hanged for crimes he claims he has committed; meanwhile the town has whipped itself into a witch-hunting frenzy, and Jennet Jourdemayne, a young, independent woman accused of witchcraft, comes to the Mayor’s house seeking sanctuary. Despite her protestations of innocence, the Mayor and his family and everyone decide that she is a witch, and schedule her burning for the following day. For Thomas, whom they believe to be innocent despite his protestations of guilt, they prescribe a night of jollity to cheer him up.
This is a very chatty play. Really there is nothing much going on here, action-wise, so the absurd aspects of the situation are played up beautifully. Although Thomas plays with words and ideas about damnation, in what Jennet calls his “fishing-net of eccentricity” (love it), his death wish is genuine, the reverse side of Jennet’s attachment to life. “I am such / a girl of habit,” she says. “I had got into the way / Of being alive.”
Their conversations about life and death and hell, Thomas loving Jennet in spite of himself, stand in contrast to the other pair of lovers, Richard and Alizon, your typical play-lovers, who can ride off into the sunset happy as clams, but who are, nevertheless, a bit boring and silly. Alizon says, “I love you quite as much as I love St. Anthony / And rather more than I love St. John Chrystosom.” Richard and Alizon save the day, but then they disappear without any final words, and you just assume they’re going to live happily ever after. Here are Thomas and Jennet by contrast, at the end:
JENNET: I was only suggesting fifty
Years of me.
THOMAS: Girl, you haven’t changed the world.
Glimmer as you will, the world’s not changed.
I love you, but the world’s not changed. Perhaps
I could draw you up over my eyes for a time
But the world sickens me still.
They end on a light-hearted note, but Thomas is still (as you see!) down on life, and Jennet has to leave all her things behind, fleeing the town to avoid any further accusations of witchcraft. It’s a happy ending without being actually all that happy. Such a cool play. I have to see it performed now.
(I just checked what local theatres are doing this season, and there is no The Lady’s Not for Burning – that would be a strange coincidence! – but they are doing A Doll’s House, which I would love to see, and Antigone, ditto, and The Importance! Of! Being! Earnest! Whether by design or gorgeous, glorious coincidence, they are doing Earnest over Oscar Wilde’s birthday! Brilliant! I can celebrate Oscar Wilde’s birthday properly for once!)
So I am excited to read more Christopher Fry. I maybe <3 him, cause his characters say things like, “I think / I have never met Humphrey. I have met him less / And less the more I have seen him,” and “Dear girl, / Before the world was, innocence / Was beaten by a lion all around the town. / And liked it.” 🙂