The Lady’s Not for Burning, Christopher Fry

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 ❤ 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.”  🙂

22 thoughts on “The Lady’s Not for Burning, Christopher Fry

    • I can’t get a feel for how well-known a play it is! It’s not just that I first heard about it in Tam Lin – that’s nearly the only place I’ve ever heard of it. But it feels like it should be more famous than that, for some reason. I’m so pleased I did manage to get hold of it at last.

  1. I really want to read this play; haven’t found a copy yet. I first heard of it via the Image Journal Top 100 list, which I’ve turned into a perpetual challenge for myself.

    • Kinda loving the Image Journal Top 100 list – there are a lot of authors I’m familiar with, but not with that particular work. I’d like to read more of those. But definitely, I thought this play was just wonderful. The scenes between Thomas and Jennet are lovely, particularly, when they’re talking about science and reality. So good.

  2. This would fit my quest to read more drama really nicely 😀 I also recently decided to finally read A Doll’s House, partially being it’s mentioned in The Children’s Book and I liked the stuff that was said about it.

    • I always want to read more drama, but it’s often so unsatisfying – or not unsatisfying, but frustrating because I can imagine in my head how the play would go but I can’t imagine how someone else would imagine it. So I get on a mad rampage to see it performed, and I can’t always see it performed.

      A Doll’s House was really good. It was not at all what I expected when I started reading it, and I liked it enormously. I’ll be interested to see what you think!

  3. OMG OMG OMG, I’ve been meaning to read this since bloody Tam Lin, too! And I do so hate being beaten to a punch.

    I’ll go caress my copies of Chapman’s Homer now, and thinking beautiful thoughts.

    • Hahaha, I thought you had written “I do so hate being beaten to a pulp.”

      Re: the play – I’ve had a hell of a time finding it. My bookstore never has it, and the one time I tried to get them to order it, they said it was going to take three weeks to get it in. Grrr. So when I saw it at Foyle’s I snapped it up straightaway. …Could always have interlibraryborrowed it, I guess, but I was in instant gratification mode while I was in London. It’s good! Read it!

  4. I’m just re-reading this and noticed that you had reviewed it – glad you liked it 🙂 it’s an old favourite of mine. I have seen it, and it was wonderful, I just wish it was available on DVD.

    But I don’t know Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, so I have to find that!

    • You’ve seen it? So jealous! I’d love to see how it would be staged (and acted). Re: Tam Lin – it’s a lot of fun, maybe a smidgey bit elitist at times, but very enjoyable.

  5. Hi, I was doing a search for a quotation from the play when I stumbled upon your post. Did you know that Kenneth Branagh did a film or television version of it, probably 25 years ago?

    I love this play; the wordplay is exquisite!

  6. The BBC version, with Kenneth Branagh and Cheri Lunghi, was absolutely wonderful, captivating from start to finish, one of the best things – as I recall it – I’ve ever seen on television. And now you’re going to hate me, because it’s not available on DVD. Which is tragic.

  7. I’m presuming you don’t live anywhere near Leicester, England…I’m part of a production of LNFB to be performed at the end of March in the aforementioned city!

    There is a VHS copy of the Kenneth Branagh version in existence. I’m sure that can be hunted down somewhere online.

    • I don’t live anywhere AT ALL near Leicester, England. Wish I did, I’d love to see it performed. Are you acting in it? What part are you? I will try to hunt down the VHS – maybe I can convince my library to buy it.

  8. I’m Alizon, which is proving to be a difficult part!

    I know my director certainly has two recordings of performances, one being the Kenneth Branagh version, on his ipod. He’s not letting us watch them yet, but I wonder if there’s a way I could send you a copy when I get one myself?

    • I can imagine Alizon would be hard to play! I always think it’s trickiest to be the straight man (or woman in this case). I think it’s Alizon who says something about God arranging her whole life so she could be with Richard – “It was complicated, but very kind”. That line makes me smile.

      I’d love to have a copy of the performances, but I don’t know how to accomplish it. You’d think there would be some way, if it’s a computer video file, but it’d be wayyyy too big for email…

  9. Dont bother.
    These people dont know good blank verse from bad.

    there are over 100 ‘try it on’ blank verse writers in the past 200 years; even wordsworth gave drama a go.

    Fry is one of the most appaling of the lot.
    Dont read him, and really, dont listen to the quacking of the sychophantic article or the posts.

    Read the classicals, even Gothe if you have to not this

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