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FAVORITE THINGS
'The Lady's Not for Burning,' by Christopher Fry
Has Anybody Seen it Lately?

by Everett Wilson
October 22, 2005

Pamela Brown's mini-biography on the Web fails to mention that John Gielgud cast her as his leading lady in Christopher Fry's "The Lady's not for Burning."  She played the lady of the title, an English gentlewoman accused of witchcraft in a small English town around the year 1400 — as the playwright says, "More or less or exactly." I wasn't there to see it, being a barefoot twelve-year-old in Nebraska when the play opened at the Globe in London in May, 1949; but as a college student eight years later I sat with other advanced English majors in a professor's living room and listened to the audio recording.  I believe it was the original cast; at least most of them are on the recording I own now.  
 
The play is written in blank verse, and the four principal players in the Globe cast — Gielgud, Brown, a young Richard Burton and an even younger Claire Bloom — were all Shakespeareans. They took Fry's beautiful, clever verse and made it  human communication without turning the poetry into prose. The supporting cast met this standard as well.
  
The play is a comedy, but the danger suggested by the title is real. Jennet Jourdemayne, the lady, will die as a matter of course and bureaucrat convenience. Thomas Mendip — Gielgud's character, whom she has just met — is determined to save her, and then discovers to his dismay that he has also fallen in love with her.  (He hates the world, so love is a complication.) The Claire Bloom character, barely adult after being reared by nuns, is slated to marry the Mayor's nephew, who is both a boor and a bore. The Richard Burton character, a  penniless clerk in the Mayor's house, does his best to rescue her, and she wants to be rescued.
 
What a wonderful experience it was, and is! In my favorite scene, the mayor's nephew is doing his best to seduce Jennet. If she consents, he will  get her off. "Aren't you building your castles in foul air?" she asks, and then sums up his proposition as offering her a choice: "Tonight to sleep with you, or tomorrow to sleep with my fathers." Thomas barges in on them at this point. You won't find the following lines in the later printed edition I own.
 
Jennet:  "By what right do your long ears come moralizing in, like Perseus to Andromeda?  Pause a moment, and consider." 
 
Thomas (after a pause).  "Madam, if I were Herod in the midst of the slaughter of the innocents, I would pause if only to consider the confusion of your imagery."
 
Not every actor  can bring off lines  like that, but they could and did. 
 
I suspect the lines were cut because some efficient director thought it was irrelevant talk that slowed down the play (Who's Herod? What innocents?")  From my point of view, that's like saying the arias in Grand Opera interrupt the story. I don't think anyone says that, because the plots of many grand operas are tawdry little melodramas that aren't worth telling without the music.
 
In one of her informal essays Jean Kerr listed this play with a few others that she could see and see again.  I have never got to see the play on stage,  but I can see her point.
 
I said it was a comedy. There aren't any really bad guys — even the mayor's nephew is more jerk than villain — and the good guys win. They not only win, but they say some wonderful things while they're at it.


About the Author:
Everett Wilson also likes things that everybody likes, but he doesn't write about those.


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