These notes were written by Nathan Agin, dramaturg for our production, and originally appeared in the program for The Lady’s Not for Burning:
Almost immediately, you’re struck with the fact that Christopher Fry’s title begs the question, “what IS the lady for?” Simply for listening to? For pardoning? For admiring? For loving? Or for something else?
When Fry wrote this play in the late 1940s, England was just climbing out of a devastating and brutal time—the UK had lost 1% of its population (~450K people) during World War II. Fry was a pacifist and a Quaker, and during the war, he was a conscientious objector (ie, for reasons of conscience, he objected to service in the armed forces), and served in the Non-Combatant Corps; for part of the time he cleaned London’s sewers.
He did, however, have very potent memories of those serving on the front lines. In 2002, he recalled,
my boyhood memories of the Great War together with my memories of the Second World War are at the back of Mendip (and after the First World War, the tramps in their army greatcoats.) The horror that he has at mankind is real, not romantically assumed. There is a real battle between his love for Jennet (the alleged witch) and his reluctance to return to life.
Looking at Fry’s setting of the play, which is “1400, either more or less exactly” (the latter half of that phrase a conversation for another time), we discover an irony of how this time period was used by England as pro-war, and by Fry as a response to war. England had many different battles going on during both the 14th and 15th centuries (with Ireland, Scotland, and France, to name a few), but what happened shortly into the 15th century? King Henry V appears in all his battle glory.
As you may recall, Sir Laurence Olivier directed and acted in a film version of Henry V in 1944, which was produced in part by the British Government in an effort to boost morale about the war. And on the other side, here’s Fry with a malaise and weariness about life from a discharged solider. While you can watch that film and see the “thrill” of battle, there’s also a painful reality behind these kinds of savage conflicts.
As to the word choice, complexity, and structure of Fry’s writing, he stated in 1953 that
Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement. It is the language in which he says heaven and earth in one word. It is the language in which he speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time. It has the virtue of being able to say twice as much as prose in half the time, and the drawback, if you don’t happen to give it your full attention, of seeming to say half as much in twice the time. And, if you accept my opposition that reality is altogether different from our stale view of it, we can say that poetry is the language of reality.
Fry explores a multitude of themes in this play, from death to marriage to hypocrisy, and we can only do our best to keep up! What is the lady for? In my best guess, I’d say she represents a new perspective, a new way of thinking, and a new direction in life—just what England needed at the time.