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'The Lady's Not for Burning,' by Christopher Fry

Has Anybody Seen it Lately?

by Everett Wilson
October 22, 2005

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'The Lady's Not for Burning,' by Christopher Fry
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.

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Chris Warman from Surry NH, USA writes:
August 10, 2006
Thanks for remembering Fry's wonderful play. I also grew up in Nebraska (born in North Platte in 1954 and grew up in Blair.) I didn't realize until after college that most of the very clever things my father was always saying came from this lively play. Am I invisible? Am I inaudible? Do I merely festoon the room with my presence? and so forth.

Some day a production will make it to DVD, but as far as I know, none have yet.

The Richard Chamberlain version from 1974 is my current favorite.

If you'd like to read the whole play, go here: http://barn.quietfarm.com/lady.html

Chris Warman from Surry NH, USA writes:
August 10, 2006
Everett - I forgot to ask in my earlier post. Where did you get the text of the

removed selections? They are new to me. Fry re-visited this play many

times and there are a number of versions. Where did you find that text.

Just curious.

Everett Wilson from The Partial Observer writes:
August 15, 2006
Thanks for the words. Your father sounds like a wonderful man, though I can envision family situations when his quotes might have been a little too apt.

The long ears moralizing in were in an early library edition of the play. It must have been in the early recording I heard in 1956 or 57 (I certainly could not have made it up). I'm sure it was in a copy I checked out of the library at North Park (now University) in 1958 or 59. The used printed copy I bought in the eighties did not have it.

Since publishing this piece I bought one of the few remaining copies of the video of Branagh's production. I thought he and his cast nailed it, though Branagh's delivery of the complex lines was a little two swift for my old ears - if I didn't know much of it by heart, I would have had a tough time. He was much nearer to the right age than Gielgud was, however, and looked exactly like Thomas should look.

Chris Warman from Surry NH USA writes:
July 19, 2008
Just an update. I periodically search for "The Lady Is Not For Burning" the Internet and ran across this old posting of mine. Still no DVD version and none on the horizon. The Forge Theatre in Phoenixville PA did a production in May. I wish I'd known about it beforehand. I would have loved to have seen it. I'm glad to see it is still in circulation. The location of the complete text on my web site moves around now and again. Just go to quietfarm DOT com and click on the quote at the bottom. The Gielgud LP version pops up every now and again on e-bay and I finally snagged a copy. I thought it was a bit stiff and still like the Chamberlain version best. Someday the BBC will discover it in their vaults and re-issue it. And my father, now 78, is still neither invisible or inaudible. To quote Thomas at the end, "Then let me wish us both good morning.— And God have mercy on our souls!"

Everett Wilson from Chetek writes:
August 15, 2008
Thanks for finding the version with the long ears moralizing in. I knew it had to be someplace!

Alice Boyd from NWMO somewhere in the wilds of MO writes:
December 18, 2011
"The Lady Is Not For Burning" is perhaps my favorite play. I first listened to the Burton/Bloom recording from a 78 record. I saw the play on TV with Richard Chamberlain, back in the late '70's. It is truly magnificent.

Alice Boyd

Avril Silk from Somerset, UK writes:
December 12, 2012
I love this play - I played Richard (I went to an all-girls school in Bristol!) and designed the costumes in the mid-sixties. I still have a photo and the programme, beautifully designed by our Art teacher. Last weekend I was discussing the play with a friend and set off on a fruitless search for a DVD version. (Of course, I longed to play Jennet, but hey.)

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