“Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burned women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”–Louis Dembitz Brandeis

When I was about twenty-one or twenty-two, I happened to see a production on television of the playwright Christopher Fry’s 1949 play “The Lady’s Not for Burning.”  The experience stayed with me for quite some time, and is still one of my fondest theatrical experiences.  Yet not much is heard about the play these days, and for many people Fry seems old-fashioned and full of sentiment.  I remember mentioning the play with fond affection to a theater instructor, who informed me that I had bad taste:  a taste for Fry in the theater, he said, was as bad as having a taste for the horribly purple prose of Thomas Wolfe in fiction.  Since at the time I rather liked You Can’t Go Home Again and Look Homeward, Angel as well, I shut up, convinced that I wasn’t sufficiently sophisticated, or cognizant of what I should know, or just plain intelligent enough to see the differences he was talking about.  Yet all these years later, in spite of having lost my interest in and taste for Thomas Wolfe’s fiction, I still retain a fond affection for the plays of Christopher Fry that I’ve read and seen (I’ve only the experience of two, “The Lady’s Not for Burning” and “A Phoenix Too Frequent,” though at one point Fry was quite popular in the theater and there are a number of other plays by him as well).  Today, I wanted to write a little about the first play I mention above, “The Lady’s Not for Burning,” in the hope, I suppose, of encouraging other readers and enthusiasts of verse plays to read him, and maybe even of spurring some interest in putting his plays on again, who knows?  One thought has a million paths in the outside world, after all.

The play is set in a “small market-town” called Cool Clary around 1400, at a time when witches were still being burnt and a war in Flanders was still recent.  The action centers around a dual problem which presents itself in the home of Hebble Tyson, an officious and by-the-book Mayor of the town; this problem is that at one and the same time a young woman comes to his house for shelter, being designated a witch by the townspeople, and in an at first unrelated case, a man, Thomas Mendip, comes in requesting to be hanged.  Thus, the “right of free assembly” in a time and place where such rights were not matter of course is being exercise willy nilly by an unruly mob, and not to gain other legitimate rights, but in fact to deprive a young woman, Jennet Jourdemayne, of her life and property.

In this case, it’s the language of Thomas Mendip which attempts, if not to “free men from the bondage of irrational fears,” to mislead the accusers and focus on him, because, according to him, he sees no point in continuing life.  His speeches are full of the excesses of existential bombast of our own day except in verse:  for example, when one of the other characters says she hears a cuckoo singing in the spring air of April, he responds:  “By God, a cuckoo!  Grief and God,/A canting cuckoo, that laughs with no smile!/A world unable to die sits on and on/In spring sunlight, hatching egg after egg,/Hoping against hope that out of one of them/Will come the reason for it all; and always/Out pops the arid chuckle and centuries/Of cuckoo-spit.”  Thomas Mendip steps into a situation already full of tension, because the young heir of Tyson, his nephew, Humphrey Devize, is awaiting the arrival of his bride-to-be, Alizon Eliot; Humphrey’s brother, Nicholas Devize, is locked in a sort of sibling rivalry with his brother Humphrey, and naturally wants whatever his brother wants, or whomever.  At first the brothers are competing over Alizon, but when Jennet comes into the picture, they both start to compete over her, even though she is doomed to be burned the next day.  It is her language which, due to her scientific upbringing and background, tries to “free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”

Each character has comic lines more than sufficient fully to paint their characters.  To take a case in point, Tyson is always saying things like “Dear sir, I haven’t yet been notified of your existence”;”Out of the question./It’s a most immodest suggestion, which I know/Of no precedent for.  Cannot be entertained.”;”I will not be the toy of irresponsible events”; and the like.  He’s clearly an official’s official.  The Justice Edward Tappercoom is another such case, though he is less interested in the matter of Jennet’s soul and her possible hexings of others than he is eager to confiscate and enjoy her property by the law of the time after she’s dead.  The mother of the two competing brothers, Margaret Devize (the Mayor’s sister) is more sketchily filled in, though she too has her moments:  when asked by Thomas to concern herself with the mob outside, which may soon be stoning or in some way harming a woman accused of witchcraft, Margaret replies, “At the moment, as you know,/I’m trying hard to be patient with my sons./You really mustn’t expect me to be Christian/In two directions at once.”  This quite effectively states her interests and obsessions for the length of the play, though she has many other lines–she is just the good mother and housekeeper who concerns herself purely with the domestic arrangements, and keeps herself to herself when it comes to public controversy.  Even a drunk, old Skipps, the man whom the “witch” has been accused of turning into a dog, turns up at the end to confound the judgement, and does so “poetically.”  He has been located by the parish clerk Richard, who has earlier run away with the bride-to-be, Alizon, and they have turned back to reveal the truth of Skipp’s existence, so that justice will be served.  Skipps, not knowing what he may be accused of, responds in a masterly joining of Biblical poetry and doggerel:  “Who give me that name?…Baptized I blaming was, and I says to youse, baptized I am…wiv holy weeping and washing of teeth.  And immersion upon us miserable offenders.  Miserable offenders all–no offence meant….Peace on earth and good tall women.  And give us our trespassers as trespassers will be prosecuted for us…” et cetera.

The majority of the truly poetic lines, however, are given to Thomas Mendip and Jennet Jourdemayne, as they are the two main characters, she trying to persuade the audience in the Mayor’s house that she is not a witch, while Mendip tries to persuade them to hang him as the murderer of two men he says he killed, old Skipps and another man, which facts they all dispute without certain knowledge because they can’t believe any man would willingly come to have himself hanged.  As he says of his military service, however, “I’ve been unidentifiably/Floundering in Flanders for the past seven years,/Prising open ribs to let men go/On the indefinite leave which needs no pass./And now all roads are uncommonly flat, and all hair/Stands on end.”  Thus, he knows what it is to kill, and perhaps (if an actor were trying to find additional character motivation for why the character so persistently tries to focus deadly attention on himself) he is feeling, like Hamlet, “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world,” or something of that kind.

When Jennet, conversely, tries to use reason and logic with Tyson, she says, “Asking to be punished?  Why, no, I have come/Here to have the protection of your laughter./They accuse me of such a brainstorm of absurdities/That all my fear dissolves in the humour of it./If I could perform what they say I can perform/I should have got safely away from here/As fast as you bat your eyelid.”  Tyson, unfortunately, takes this remark as a partial confession.  She goes on, “They tell one tale, that once, when the moon/Was gibbous and in a high dazed state/Of nimbus love, I shook a jonquil’s dew/On to a pearl and let a cricket chirp/Three times, thinking of pale Peter:/And there Titania was, vexed by a cloud/Of pollen, using the sting of a bee to clean/Her nails and singing, as drearily as a gnat,/’Why try to keep clean?'”  The two, Jennet and Thomas, go on with their fantasy of talk, vying with each other but with different motives, until Thomas says he has “bedlam” under his hat, and “the battlefield/Uncle Adam died on.  He was shot/To bits with the core of an apple/Which some fool of a serpent in the artillery/Had shoved into God’s cannon.”  To this exchange of two souls who seem immediately to understand each other, Tyson responds in his totally uncomprehending way, “That’s enough/Terrible frivolity, terrible blasphemy,/Awful unorthodoxy.  I can’t understand/Anything that is being said.  Fetch a constable./The woman’s tongue clearly knows the flavour/ Of spiritu maligno.  The man must be/Drummed out of town.”  After a few minutes of this, Thomas loses his patience with Tyson and says, “You bubble-mouthing, fog-blathering,/Chin-chuntering, chap-flapping, liturgical,/Turgidical, base old man!  What about my murders?/And what goes round in your head,/What funny little murders and fornications/Chatting up and down in three-four time/Afraid to come out?  What bliss to sin by proxy/And do penance by way of someone else!”

The matter doesn’t become any clearer for the officials, and as to the ostensible wedding party, they are in a regular chaos and disorder because guests to celebrate are expected that night.  Finally, the officials decide to let the two erstwhile “convicts” spend their last night in company, she as her last night on earth, he as one who needs to be cheered up and sent on his way.

The unraveling of the somewhat complicated plot involves a party going on in the background offstage, an initially frustrated elopement of the clerk Richard and the girl Alizon Eliot, and the further fighting of the two brothers.  In the midst of this disorder, however, Thomas and Jennet are also falling in love with each other.  In a sense, this is an existential romantic comedy told backwards to dilute the potential sentimentality of the romance itself.  For example, as Jennet suggests about Thomas’s claims to have killed old Skipps and another man, “There was a soldier,/Discharged and centreless, with a towering pride/In his sensibility, and an endearing/Disposition to be a hero, who wanted/To make an example of himself to all/Erring mankind, and falling in with a witch-hunt/His good heart took the opportunity/Of providing a diversion.  O Thomas,/It was very theatrical of you to choose the gallows.”  When I say “an existential comedy told backwards,” I mean that the action of the play begins not at the beginning, nor really in the middle (as in medias res would dictate for an epic or novel), but nearly at the postulated end of the woman being accused and in the process of undergoing imprisonment and trial.  Instead, however, Frye whips the rug out from under the feet of his oppressing (or as with some like Margaret the mother, just indifferent) characters, and resurrects old Skipps.

That this is an existential play and not a simple romantic comedy, however, becomes quite clear in the end, in the alternatives to go or stay which are presented to Jennet and Thomas, and in the conditions under which they will have to leave or stay.  That is, to stay is deadly, but to go has its risks and forfeits as well.  And all the risks and forfeits of life itself have been gone through in the magnificent poetic excursions of language, especially from these two characters.  The choices they make, including the loss of the fear of loving, show that they carry existential baggage despite their apparently greater dedication to reason than the superstitious characters around them, because they only overcome the fear slowly, at least in dramatic terms on stage.

What does this have to do with freedom of speech, you ask?  Well, for one thing, the officials in the play are all constrained by fear of exceeding certain careful limits, not only from freedom of speech, but even from freedom of thought.  Their minds run in carefully cut grooves, and never get out of the ruts.  Even when Tappercoom offers to let Thomas and Jennet go at the end, it’s not because he sees their points of view; it’s only so that he can get Jennet’s property now that she is less demonstrably witch-like.  Only Richard the clerk frees himself from his parish role enough to run away with the woman he loves from the loveless marriage which threatens her.  The brothers and Margaret their mother do not change from having the initial concerns they had at the beginning of the play.  They are a little freer in their speech, but they too do not have any real freedom of mind to go along with it, the brothers sunk in lechery and competition, the mother in her household concerns.  It is only Jennet and Thomas who represent the forces of freedom, she in having the courage to go along with him into the night without knowing where they will go, he in getting over his “irrational fears” of closeness and love.  But this comes out sounding far more schmaltzy and sentimental than it does in the play, particularly if you see a powerful performance of it as I did.  Perhaps it would help readers to know that Richard Burton, John Gielgud, and Claire Bloom among others worthy of note were in one of the first productions of the play–maybe it’s possible to visualize it just a bit more accurately when you can see fine dramatic actors in your mind’s eye.

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