The Lady's Not for Burning

by Christopher Fry Harris

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Critical Evaluation

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The English dramatist Christopher Fry restored poetry and humor to the modern stage. From 1948 to 1970, Fry wrote a quartet of comedies, The Lady’s Not for Burning, A Yard of Sun (pr., pb. 1970), Venus Observed (pr., pb. 1950), and The Dark Is Light Enough (pr., pb. 1954), each related to a season of the year. The first written and probably the most successful of the quartet is The Lady’s Not for Burning, the play associated with springtime. The simple mention of a particular season carries with it the burden of traditional connotation. Spring suggests fertility, rebirth, new love, and the giddiness of spring fever. Summer suggests growth, heat, and languidness; autumn, ripeness, harvest, and maturity. Winter is inevitably associated with coldness and death. Fry uses this imagery in traditional contexts, but he also plays with the seasonal references in ironic contexts.

The Lady’s Not for Burning is set in April, and the characters frequently remark upon the weather and how it affects their states of mind. The play begins in a fit of spring fever, with all the characters’ actions seeming quite mad. Alizon quizzes Richard as to the nature of males, whom she finds so strange that she is surprised when they actually speak English. Richard blames the madness of men on the “machinations of nature;/ As April does to the earth.” Alizon is delighted with the analogy: “I wish it were true/ Show me daffodils happening to a man!” Precisely at this point Nicholas enters to claim Alizon as his bride, declaring that he has killed his twin brother and rival, Humphrey, in a bed of daffodils. Not surprisingly, Humphrey is not dead in the least and is found lying on his back, picking daffodils. As the action becomes more complicated, Margaret Devize, in motherly fashion, finally declares to her brother that the younger generation is all “in the same April fit of exasperating nonsense.” The silly but mostly harmless spring fever of the younger generation contrasts with the absurd and dangerous behavior of the elders.

The Lady’s Not for Burning teeters between rebirth and stagnation. The year in which the play is set, “1400 either more or less exactly,” traditionally marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern world in England. The elders of the town of Cool Clary are stuck in a medieval worldview in which the unusual is dangerous and the status quo must be preserved.

The Lady’s Not for Burning is a quixotic comedy, one in which the comic heroes, as does Don Quixote of Miguel de Cervantes’ famous novel, flee into “madness” in order to escape the madness of an authoritarian society. The youthful lovers—Jennet and Thomas, Richard and Alizon—cannot transform the ludicrous society of Hebble Tyson and the Devizes, a society in which material gain is the predominant virtue, so they must escape from it. The escape in this play resembles the severance from parental authority that youth must accomplish before reaching maturity. The younger characters are in tune with the mad delight and love of an “April anarchy,” so they must flee from those who are out of tune and who cannot recognize the rebirth that spring brings.

Margaret and Hebble declare their distaste for spring quite emphatically, and they cannot see the possibility for redemption in their midst. The redeemers are outsiders and will remain so: Alizon, the child of nature who “appeared overnight/ As mushrooms do” and was given to God; Richard, no one’s child, who was not born but “was come across”; Jennet, the alchemist’s daughter, who is called...

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a witch because she speaks French to her poodle and dines with a peacock; and Thomas Mendip, the disillusioned soldier, who wants to be hanged because “each time I thought I was on the way/ To a faintly festive hiccup/ The sight of the damned world sobered me up again.” Humor is not tolerated in this most rigid of societies; it is seen as tiresome and incompatible with good citizenship.

Laughter, however, is what Jennet seeks, and it is laughter, “the surest touch of genius in creation,” with which Thomas Mendip cheers her when things look bleakest. Only in each other can the lovers create a festive society. The world, however, does not change because of their love, as Thomas declares to Jennet. Although their festive society does not triumph, the play ends on a wish: “Good morning.—And God have mercy on our souls.” The ironic absurdity of the existing society does not destroy the idealism and desire of the protagonists for harmony. The Lady’s Not for Burning is a youthful comedy—one that looks forward with hope.

Christopher Fry wrote The Lady’s Not for Burning shortly after the end of World War II, when the austerities of wartime were still very much a part of English life. The lushness of the play’s poetic language and the fancy of its romantic setting were fashioned to appeal to the audience’s longing for relief from drab reality. The war-weariness of Thomas Mendip is a reminder of the harshness of what was, when the play was first performed, recent history. The verbal wit and sensuous imagery of Fry’s language satisfied a hunger for sophisticated drama in the generation coming home from World War II. The Lady’s Not for Burning, first produced in a regional theater in 1948, was transferred to London’s West End in 1949 in a highly successful production directed by and starring John Gielgud. The play was subsequently produced on Broadway.

Fry’s poetic drama was eclipsed in the 1960’s with the revival of the harsh naturalism of Britain’s “angry young men” and the experimentation of the absurdists. Although perhaps not as poetically impressive as T. S. Eliot’s dramas, Fry’s seasonal comedies have a much stronger theatrical appeal, undoubtedly drawn from the playwright’s long association with the theater as actor, director, and dramatist. The Lady’s Not for Burning helped to define the theatrical accomplishment of the mid-twentieth century in the English-speaking world.