John Lyly was the foremost literary figure during a period that saw the first permanent commercial theatres built in London. As Shakespeare’s best-selling and most famous literary contemporary, it is crazy to think that the 2017 Dolphin’s Back production in the Wanamaker will be the first time Lyly has appeared in a UK professional playhouse since 1601, and only the second time in any playhouse. Lyly’s career coincided with that of Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, men whose reputations now overshadow him but who would nevertheless have thought of Lyly as the quintessential writer of their age. Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge and Edward Blount – who published Shakespeare’s first folio, for goodness sake – all describe him as the pre-eminent writer of their generation. After 400 years, he is well due a revival.
Lyly’s first two works were non-dramatic prose fictions, early examples of the English novel, and they immediately established Lyly as the dominant literary voice of his generation. Restless, explorative and playful, Lyly’s fiction sought new roles for female characters and developed a highly distinctive prose style, innovations which would also inform his drama. In the wake of his sudden fame, Lyly appears to have been headhunted by the Earl of Oxford to front a new company of choirboys to perform plays before the Queen. Lyly rose to the challenge of entertaining the monarch by writing a series of plays that explored the nature of monarchy itself, and in particular the status of love within the court. Lyly’s focus on love now seems unexceptional precisely because of his influence over Shakespeare, but at the time it introduced and provoked new ways to think of characters onstage, as people who not only felt love but suffered and were changed by irresistible internal and emotional pressure. Whilst I don’t want to spoil the ending of this play, it is worth remembering the way Shakespeare ends his comedies with marriage, almost always and almost obsessively, and to consider what The Woman in the Moon does to the idea of marriage, both throughout its action and at its close. Lyly’s plays are often enthusiastically queer; this play tries to queer heterosexuality. (More on Lylian queerness here.)
In writing for the stage Lyly adapted the literary style he had developed in his prose fictions, a style now called ‘euphuism’ after his central protagonist Euphues. This style is based around a playful network of sound-chimes, deftly balanced sentences and the use of material drawn from proverbial wisdom, classical myth or medieval encyclopedias. In this way Lyly brought a sense of precision, organization and flexibility to English prose in the same period that saw a similar revolution in verse in the shape of iambic pentameter. But Lyly’s work was also restlessly experimental, and The Woman in the Moon is his only surviving experiment in blank verse drama. It thus stands as an important contemporary to Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and though those plays are often celebrated for their introduction of blank verse to the stage, Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon may well have preceded them. Audiences at the 2017 production can enjoy a surprising, idiomatic deployment of the blank verse form: ‘I will not kiss thee till the sun goes down’, says its central character. ‘Thou art deformed’, she explains in her next line. Where Marlowe and Kyd filled their blank verse with exotic nouns and adjectives and sustained literary tricks, Lyly aims here for precision, clarity and honesty: something like a real person stating frankly what’s on her mind. Sex, of course, but not sex just yet, thanks.
The Woman in the Moon is a daring, even deviant play, refusing to affirm the Christian creation story and instead sketching out a version of the world in which the ultimate deity is female and Her most perfect creation is the woman, not the man. The play thus overturned traditional Christian concepts of the woman as an inferior afterthought, the secondary by-product of a spare rib framed between her two male authority figures. Indeed, the play not only refuses to tell that story, but actively contests it by showing the way female agency and power is threatened by the world around it.
The play’s opening scene is quite extraordinary in its ambition. The leading boy actor who played Pandora was asked to represent not only a character but also a prop and part of the set, for s/he first appears onstage as merely one of many inanimate bodies in Nature’s workshop. The original printed text then explains that ‘the Image’ (in other words, the body that will shortly become the play’s protagonist, but is not yet a person) is brought forward, where Nature orders life, movement and finally speech to be given to her.
The boy actor therefore moves from the passive sufferance of other people’s actions to slowly becoming a person animated onstage, and the text scripts these moments through a series of strange and highly kinetic stage directions: ‘The image walks about fearfully’, for example, or, my absolute favourite, ‘She plays the vixen with everything about her’ (what does that mean? How long does it take? And how does it serve as cue for the lines that follow?). Finally, she is given the power of speech, at which point she kneels and pays homage to Nature, her creator.
This scene therefore plots out and explores dramatic space (its interest in stage movement can be seen later in the play by the number of times characters say ‘Follow me’ and, in its second half, a sudden outcrop in references to fictional space: the grove, the cave, the sea). In this opening scene the boy-girl is slowly given the various powers that actors take for granted: movement, expression, speech. Lyly thus asked his actor to undergo a process that Shakespeare reversed in Titus Andronicus, where an actor is required to represent Lavinia, a woman who slowly loses the power of gesture and speech. By staging a scene of animation, of creation, The Woman in the Moon raises questions which are not only theatrical but ontological, concerning the status of humans, life and identity-before-life, and the complexity of these questions is played out in the printed text itself, where Pandora is simply called ‘it’ and ‘the image’ before she is given the power to speak. This nicely captures the transition that both actor and character undergo from thing to person.
The play’s opening moment thus explores concepts of agency and ability, and the rest of the play might be said to explore a form of disability. Pandora speaks only three speeches in this play under her own volition, and for the rest of the play she suffers under the control of the various planets (though perhaps it’s possible to overstate her loss of agency: her first planetary influence, Saturn, promises to make her ‘self-willed’, making her dependency surprisingly independent). Lyly’s contemporaries might have thought of this as a severe form of humoral madness; we might want to call it schizophrenia. As Pandora’s changing mental states lead the play further into farce, it will be exciting to see how the production manages Lyly’s constant aim to delight and disturb his audiences, putting astrology and psychology into an unlikely dialogue with sex, sovereignty and the detonation of the nuclear family. Ontology, agency, psychology and astronomy: that’s quite a lot to ask the audience to think about, whilst also presenting them with a six-person sex free-for-all. Jupiter is the only man on offer that Pandora turns down.
I’d like to end by thanking James Wallace and his actors, with whom I’ve been lucky enough to work for the past decade. James is an extraordinary director and an unsung hero at the Globe, with a greater knowledge of non-Shakespearean early modern plays onstage than probably anyone else on this or any other planet. It is wonderful to see the Wanamaker hosting his groundbreaking and uniquely fluent work, which plays with plays in an open dialogue between text and live performance. This is a director who has championed Lyly for many years at a time when scholars and other theatremakers still regard the playwright as (to pick a few of the clichés of scholarly condemnations of Lyly) sterile, static, untheatrical, mannered, artificial and a failure. It is a delight to see Dolphin’s Back aim a dorsal fin at all this nonsense.
[This is a slightly edited version of the programme note for the 2014 Dolphin’s Back production of The Woman in the Moon at the Rose, Southwark. Photos are courtesy of Ellie Kurttz ©elliekurttz]
Photo Selections (courtesy of Ellie Kurttz ©elliekurttz)