Christopher Fry’s work was virtually unknown to playgoers or readers until the success of The Lady’s Not for Burning in 1948, although he seemed to have been on his way to the creation of this play throughout most of his life. Born Christopher Fry Harris, the son of an architect, Charles Harris, Fry was reared in an intensely religious home. His father had been a lay missionary in the Bristol slums, and his mother was a devout Quaker. Fry was still young at the time of his father’s death, and his mother took in boarders in order to send her only son to the Bedford Modern School. She also did much to encourage his natural musical talents, translated, in his later writing career, into an appreciation for the music of language. His early performances as a solo musician may also have given him a taste for the more multifaceted world of the professional stage, toward which he aimed his life. Fry did not pursue a university education but left school at age eighteen to become a teacher. Around this time, he began to use his mother’s maiden name, Fry—the name by which he was thereafter known.
Between periods of teaching, Fry joined the Bath Repertory Company. His next experience with the theater was eight difficult years during which he stubbornly tried to make a living with repertory troupes, performing in plays by William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Sir James Barrie, and Noël Coward. When he moved to London in search of a career at the center of England’s dramatic activities, he found that economic necessity once again forced him to try other work—as an editor, cartoonist, secretary, writer of children’s plays, and even songwriter. He was director of the Wells Repertory Players at Tunbridge Wells from 1934 until its demise. According to Fry, through all this time his desire to write plays in verse never faltered.
Two years after his 1936 marriage, Fry received a small legacy from a cousin, which enabled him to begin sustained work on his plays. Shortly thereafter, his first published play, The Boy with a Cart, was conceived and first performed as a pageant play for the fifteenth anniversary of a village church, and Thursday’s Child was produced in Albert Hall, London, with the attendance of the queen at one performance. In 1939, Fry became director of the Oxford Playhouse, but, as a conscientious objector, he spent the World War II years in civilian service, fighting fires and clearing bomb damage in various parts of England.
In 1946, A Phoenix Too Frequent, the first of Fry’s mature achievements in verse drama, was performed in London’s private Art Theatre Club, followed by sixty-four performances in a West End theater. The play, despite its success, drew critical reviews that saw it as too facile in its verse and too lightweight in its philosophical implications, in spite of the fact that Fry’s original source was a tale from Petronius. The play, the first of Fry’s to cross the Atlantic for a commercial performance, closed after only five nights in New York in April of 1950. New York critics almost unanimously condemned the play for being overwritten and too slight with regard to dramatic conception.
The Lady’s Not for Burning was championed by Sir John Gielgud for London production in 1948, a production in which Gielgud also had a hand in staging and a major character role in performance. This first of Fry’s “seasonal comedies” brought him recognition and success on both sides of the Atlantic, and the play won the prestigious Shaw Prize as the best play of the year. Venus Observed, the “autumnal” play, followed the “spring” mood of The Lady’s Not for Burning two years later when Sir Laurence Olivier successfully staged and acted in it. The “seasonal” round of Fry’s intentions was interrupted by A Sleep of Prisoners published the year following, which was a religious festival play like The Boy with a Cart and The Firstborn. Published in 1954, The Dark Is Light Enough provided the “winter” comedy, and finally, in 1970, after slightly more than twenty years and the publication of Curtmantle in 1961, his Beckett play, Fry completed his expressed intention to write a play for each season of the year with A Yard of Sun, displacing A Phoenix Too Frequent, which some impatient critics had tried to take for the “summer” comedy needed for the cycle of the seasons.
As early as 1953, Fry wrote a script for a film of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, followed by Ben Hur and Barabbas. British television later saw his adaptation of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), a series of four plays on the Brontës, a television play called Sister Dora, and other mass media work.
After a gap of several years, Fry agreed to write a play about Caedmon, the unlettered peasant poet whose story is told in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731); entitled One Thing More, it was written on commission from the Chelmsford Cathedral. In 1987, in honor of Fry’s eightieth birthday, The Lady’s Not for Burning was televised by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).