Women in the Moons

Last year I saw Dolphin’s Back’s Woman in the Moon; last night I saw Edward’s Boy’s Woman in the Moon. This is presumably the first time in history anyone has been able to see multiple Women in the Moons, and we’re very grateful to both companies for sharing their work with us on this play. It’s an amazing play, featuring the largest part for a woman in all early modern drama in terms of her proportion of the lines, a study in sexuality, identity change and humanity, a female God whose most perfect creation is the woman, not the man, the onstage creation of that woman, sex orgies, a dead boar, interplanetary warfare and surprising pockets. This play has an amazing story, and as I’ve recently suggested we don’t think enough about early modern stories. It’s also one of the earliest engagements with blank verse as a stage medium, and it has some real showstoppers in its lines. ‘I will not kiss thee till the sun comes down’, says Pandora to one of her lovers: ‘Thou art deformed’. Or, as Venus puts it, ‘All those are strumpets that are overchaste’. I suspect both Marlowe and Shakespeare learnt a lot from this play.

I’ve written about this play previously on this blog, and we’ve also hosted interviews with the Dolphin’s Back company.  This post instead sketches out just a few brief thoughts prompted by Edward’s Boys the morning after seeing their production.

  1. My first thought is how weird this play is. This is a weird play. It is weird.
  2. My second thought is about how much sex Pandora has. Does any other character in early modern theatre, or even in theatre full stop, have this much bodily fun? I’ve written previously that Pandora engages in a six-person sex free-for-all, and that Jupiter is the only man she turns down. When you’re not interested in sexual advances by the famously sex-minded king of the gods, you know you’re onto a good thing. Pandora engages in all kinds of foreplay with men onstage, but her offstage sexual activity seems even more climactic, shall we say. At one point she returns to the stage after sexual rendez vous with two different men. ‘Both are pleased’, she tells us as she walks back onstage. I can’t think of any other early modern character who is so explicit about their sexual CV.
  3. So what is going on with Lyly and sex? Scholars have tended to see Lyly as dull, untheatrical and sexless, but his work is full of the kinds of sex usually considered elicit. Sappho and Phao is a how-to manual for women who want to avoid having sex with men, and announces at its conclusion that love is now ‘a toy made for ladies, and I will keep it only for ladies’. This line is made all the more unorthodox by the fact that the person saying it is named after the archetypal lesbian. Lyly’s next play, Galatea, then stages a story about two girls in love. Where Pandora returns to the stage from two different sexual encounters, the girls in Galatea seem to go offstage for something very similar: ‘Let us into the grove and make much, one of another’. Now that’s a chat up line. Meanwhile Love’s Metamorphosis‘ Protea has had at least one premarital sexual relationship, but unlike almost any other early modern play she is not condemned or judged for this: it’s just nonchalantly announced during a prayer. And now we have Pandora, who sleeps her way through a good quarter of the play’s cast. I’m not sure scholarship has yet caught up with the diverse queerness of Lyly’s plays. Queerness infiltrates not only sexuality but gender relationships in general: witness the ending of this play, in which a husband is forced to be servant to his wife for all eternity. If this play is a comedy, that is not the kind of ending Shakespeare would have given us. At this point in his career, indeed, Shakespeare was writing Taming of the ShrewTitus Andronicus and the Henry VI plays, none of which are enthusiastic about women in public or in powerful positions.
  4. This is not something I really thought about when I first read this play. Perhaps you need performance, that most embodied of media, to confront you with this very embodied human experience. I saw the RSC’s Hamlet the night previously, and no matter how many times I read Hamlet one thing always surprises me when I see the play, which is that the court starts to discuss Hamlet’s ‘lunacy’ long before he does anything particularly lunatic. In the same way, I’ve needed Dolphin’s Back and Edward’s Boys to make me see just how much sex takes place in Woman in the Moon. I can think of no other early modern play that is this sex-enthusiastic.
  5. So stay with me on this one, but it was fascinating seeing Hamlet and Woman in the Moon on back-to-back nights, and it made me think about their similarities. Because yes, Hamlet is described as ‘lunatic’, which derives from the Latin word for ‘moon’ and is the central idea of Lyly’s play. But these are also two plays very much dominated by their central roles, who rarely leave the stage and cause havoc to all around them, even as they themselves experience their worlds as a kind of chaos. Both have a kind of antic disposition put on to them as the result of supernatural interference; each is obsessively discussed by everyone else in their play. I’m not suggesting the plays are in direct dialogue, but there are striking similarities to be found here, and I suspect the experience of playing these title characters is not dissimilar in terms of the stamina and performative range they require of their actors. (And if the plays are in any kind of dialogue, of course, this is likely to involve the 1580s Hamlet mentioned by Thomas Nashe.)
  6. As this suggests, Pandora is a theatrical tour-de-force, explosively changeable in personality, posture, gesture, action and voice. She is created onstage, which means that the boy playing her has to represent something not yet alive; we then get one speech from her in her ‘natural’ personality; then the seven planets successively take over her brain and decision-making; then she gets two final speeches back in her ‘natural’ personality. Across the space of the play that means that she inhabits at least nine different psychological states, though it gets more complicated than that because some planets (such as Mercury and Luna) induce multiple personalities. In addition to her complex sex to do list, she brawls, raves, prophecies, steals, runs away to the seaside and sings. No wonder she needs a sleep at the end of the play.
  7. The unusual range of her activities is captured by two of early modern drama’s most descriptive yet elusive stage directions. In her very first action after being created, and long before she is given the ability to speak, the script tells us that ‘The image walks about fearfully’. That word ‘about’ is a very unusual stage direction term, offering free agency to the performer and denoting the wayward purposelessness or unplanned exploratory movement  that the play wants from its character. Not long after, when she is hounded by the play’s male characters, a stage direction says that ‘She plays the vixen with everything about her’. There’s that word ‘about’ again, and that extremely unusual phrase ‘plays the vixen’, which is either an unrecorded folk maxim or an expression that Lyly invents. (I’ve found only one other usage, in Thomas Nashe, who knew his Lyly: was a stage direction the source for non-dramatic prose writing? How often does that happen?!) Once again, the play hands over decision-making to its performer, and asks them to go crazy. The stage direction invites improvised or at the least unscripted violent behaviour and wordless or scriptless noise. The text also makes it unclear how this action should end: it cues the entrance of the shepherds, who see very different Pandoras: ‘See where she sits! […] Beware, she sleeps!’ ‘Asleep? Why, see how her alluring eyes,/ With open looks do glance at every side’. So what on earth is she doing at the end of this stage direction? These are complex stage directions that cue physically and psychologically traumatic behaviour from a character who has only just been born, and who is on her way through a cycle of around ten personalities. This is a difficult character to perform.
  8. The play in general is full of fabulous stage directions, by the way. ‘He pours down a number of courtesies’; ‘She hits him on the lips’; ‘She thrusts her hands in her pocket’; ‘Pointing first to the head on the ground and then to his wound’; ‘She winks and frowns’; ‘He soberly repeating these verse, first forward and then backwards’; ‘She starteth up and runs aways’; ‘He take his mistress by the hand and embraceth her’; ‘She falls down’; ‘She beats him’; ‘She awakes and is sober’; and, my very favourite, ‘He lays about’. This play makes heavy use of that word ‘about’. Finally, enjoy one of the play’s first stage directions, which gives us a sense of the play’s set and tells us that it was filled with clothed and naked figures:
    They draw the curtains from before Nature’s shop, where stands an image clad and some unclad. They bring forth the clothed image.
  9. I also spent the second halves of Dolphin’s Back and Edward’s Boys productions thinking about story, place, time and objects. This is a play in two fictional halves, it seems to me, and Edward’s Boys put their interval in between those halves. In the first half, there is a real sense of placelessness and timelessness. The world has just been created, after all, and there’s little sense of geography or schedule or possessions. This all changes in the second half of the play, when characters start arranging to meet in particular places and at particular times of the day or night. They start listing objects in a sort of early modern shopping list mode, and we even start hearing about Pandora and Stesias’ domestic situation: they suddenly have a cabinet, of all things, for example. It is as if the couple’s marriage, halfway through the play, generates a sudden theatrical domesticity, a need for physical space. As they agree to marry, Stesias says ‘Come, lovely spouse, let us go walk the woods’, and from hereon in the play is full of places to be.
  10. These places are so sudden, diverse and extraordinary that I’m going to list as many of them as possible. Do skip this paragraph if you’re not interested! But here are the places that explode into life in the play’s second half, in a play that previously had almost no sense of space: ‘Thus dance the satyrs on the even lawns’; ‘I fear me Cupid danced upon the plain’; ‘I’ll hide thee in a wood, and keep thee close. […] I’ll say thou art a satyr of the woods’; ‘But go no further than thy bower, my love’; ‘I will […] Strew all my bower with flags and water mints’; ‘Meet me in the vale’; ‘Will me to dive for pearl into the sea’; ‘Wilt thou, for my sake, go into yon grove?’; ‘Where might I hide me[?…] Oh, in this cave’; ‘So will I rise out of this hollow vault,/ Making the woods shake with my furious words’; ‘His fellow swains will meet me in this bower’; ‘I will go seek him in the busky groves’; ‘She played not unto Melos in her bower,/ Nor is his green bower strewed with primrose leaves’; ‘By all these streams that interlaced these floods’; ‘I’ll meet thee again,/ Under the same grove where we both sat last’; ‘I go to meet Pandora at the grove!’; ‘Which way shall we go?’ ‘Unto the seaside, and take shipping straight’; ‘Whither shall I fly?’ ‘Either to the river or else to thy grave’; ‘yet Pandora comes not at the grove’; ‘Away from my grove! Out of my land!’; ‘We are almost at the seaside!’; ‘I’ll wade into the water; water is fair’; ‘I’ll […] put thee in a wood to be devoured/ Of empty tigers and of hungry wolves’; ‘when I have her in my leafy bower’; ‘Give me a running stream in both my hands’. There is an awful lot of Marlovian erotic verse waiting to happen in those lines.
  11. Sometimes a reference to offstage space cues the setting for a future scene. The invitation to ‘Meet me on Enipeus’ sedgy banks’ in one scene leads to the announcement in another: ‘This is Enipeus’ bank. Here she should be’. Physical space is also used to express and articulate love and initiate stage action:
    Be you as steadfast to me as I’ll be to you and we two will go to the world’s end. And yet we cannot, for the world is round. And seeing ’tis round, let’s dance in the circle. Come, turn about!
  12. “Sometimes one physical idea seems to spark another. The reference to ‘water mints’, for example, is followed a few lines later by a reference to ‘water nymphs’. Sometimes offstage physical space and possessions necessitate stage action: ‘I cannot stay; my sheep must to the fold’. None of these physical spaces are mentioned in the first half of the play. The stage world has completely changed.
  13. Time also becomes an issue in the second half of this play. Here is another list you may want to skip, but the point is, none of this pressure on time occurs in the first half. And then we get: ‘Delay no time; haste, gentle Iphicles,/ And meet me on Enipeus’ sedgy banks’. ‘When shall I meet thee?’ ‘At midnight, Iphicles; till then, farewell’. ‘And as the sun goes down I’ll meet thee here. ‘And in the evening I’ll meet thee again’. Characters become impatient with the time: ‘The time draws nigh! Oh that the time were now!’ They even start bossing the sun around, telling it to get away: ‘When will the sun go down? Fly, Phoebus, fly!/ Oh that thy steeds were winged with my swift thoughts!’ Indeed, they start to ask if the very invention of daytime might have been a bad idea: ‘Wherefore did Jupiter create the day?’ These references to time continue and accumulate: ‘What, is it midnight? Time hath been my friend’; ‘The evening’s past, yea midnight is at hand’; ‘How often will you kiss me in an hour[?]’ (another amazing blank verse line); ‘But will you love me when the sun is down?’ ”I will not kiss thee till the sun be down./ Thou art deformed; the night will cover thee./ We women must be modest in the day;/ Oh tempt me not until the evening come’.
  14. And the play also starts to explode with physical objects in the second half, either onstage or imagined: ‘Go, go, Gunophilus, without delay,/ Gather me balm and cooling violets,/ And of our holy herb nicotian;/ And bring withal pure honey from the hive,/ That I may here compound a wholesome salve’. Compare this to: ‘No, let us go a-fishing with a net!’; ‘let me have a hawk’; ‘But shall I have a gown of oaken leaves,/ A chaplet of red berries, and a fan[?]’; ‘Give me a knife’; ‘So I shall have a white lamb coloured black,/ Two little sparrows and a spotted fawn’; ‘A blue kingfisher and a pebble stone’; ‘I’ll catch butterflies upon the sand’. In another long speech about objects, a character promises: I’ll give thee streams whose pebble shall be pearl,/ Lovebirds whose feathers shall be beaten gold,/ Musk-flies with amber berries in their mouths,/ Milk-white squirrels, singing popinjays,/ A boat of deerskins and a fleeting isle,/ A sugar cane and line of twisted silk’. At one point Pandora robs her husband: ‘Hast thou all his jewels and his pearls?’ But here did these come from? And what is a shepherd doing with them? It’s an unlikely narrative development, and it underlines how much this play is changed by the marriage at its centre.
  15. The play’s sense of time is experimental in other ways. If the world has just been created, how does Gunophilus know ‘two or three merchants’? Where have the ships come from? What is this world’s history? But what, too, of its future? If Pandora is the only woman on earth, and she ends the play by leaving earth in favour of the moon, will this human race die out? Is this an alternate universe, or Nature’s first-go attempt at creating humans? What’s going on here?
  16. Last night I found myself looking at Pandora and thinking ‘Who did Lyly write this part for?’ Given everything I’ve said about her dominance of the stage and the complexity of her role, this character presupposes performance expertise. Our project has been advancing the idea that 1570s-80s boy theatre was a more regular and commercial activity than scholars have previously suggested. This was a money-making enterprise with an established repertory. If we’re right about this, then how did this play work in repertory? Sticking with our focus on Pandora, who else had her performer previously played? We think Woman in the Moon was performed in the later 1580s at St Paul’s playhouse, at a time when theatre seemed to have shifted its focus from plays about women to plays about men. Certainly by this stage early modern plays are more likely to have male leads than female leads. So was the performer playing Pandora more used to playing male roles? And was the audience more used to seeing him in such roles? What does that do to the gender fluidity of this play, in particular the obsession with Pandora’s gender? She is created because she is a woman; she is created to be a woman. Characters comment incessantly on her gendered behaviour, calling her, for example, a ‘female martialist’ when she turns out to be the best fighter in the play. Since she is the world’s first woman, you might think that she gets to set the standard for how women behave, but no, it turns out gendered expectations precede the first woman. How were these ideas effected – and how were they cued – by the fact that this character was probably played by a boy most used to playing male roles? This is likely to be true, too, of the boy playing Pandora in Edward’s Boys production. However gender fluid these boys may have felt, what impact would their customary inhabitation of male positions have for their performance of a martial woman?
  17. Many people seeing the two recent productions of this play have called it misogynistic. For me, this is instead a play about misogyny. As Pandora puts it, ‘I cannot walk but they importune me’. It’s a play about the way men catch women into patriarchal nets. And the men in this play are flamboyantly stupid. A quick head count would have solved the problems in this play: four men demand one heterosexual woman, and then each of them expects her to commit herself thoroughly and totally only to him.
  18. This play also does fascinating things with gender. There’s lots to say here, but enjoy Pandora saying that ‘Love is a little boy; so am not I’. That’s quite a thing to ask a little boy to say. Similarly, other little boys are told that ‘Thou should be Nature in a man’s attire,/ And thou young Ganymede, minion to Jove’.
  19. Meanwhile, some characters speak directly to the audience in a manner unusual even in early modern plays. ‘Fenced with her tongue and guarded with her wit,/ Thus goeth Pandora unto Stesias’, says Pandora. ‘Wonder not at it, good people’, Gunophilus tells the audience. What do these lines do to the play’s general relationship with its audience?
  20. These various issues make me think about how much we need performance to think about plays. This can happen in different ways. Performers might spot things in the text you hadn’t noticed, but they may also introduce entirely new things to it which make you see it from an unexpected context. Performance can also change your perception of a text less because of a production’s decisions and more simply because the act of seeing a performance puts you into a different relationship with the text compared to the act of reading it. Scholars are at a disadvantage whenever they write about plays they haven’t seen, and it’s noticeable that the early modern plays with the worst press in terms of their quality as drama are also the plays least likely to have been staged. So let me articulate the subliminal propaganda behind this post, which is the basic need to stage non-canonical plays, or engage with them theatrically in some manner.
  21. And finally, let’s face it, if there is a conversation to be had about The Woman and the Moon and misogyny, then that conversation ought to be about why this play is not part of the modern repertory. Generations of female actors have been denied the opportunity of playing this transformative, virtuosic role. In the nineteenth century, Lyly was repeatedly denigrated as a feminine writer with an unhealthy interest in women. We need to face the fact that the modern theatrical repertory is founded on misogyny, which is why the fifteen or so of the 400 surviving early modern plays which regularly get performed now are all about men. And not just any men: as I wrote recently, Shakespeare is the archetypal writer of plays about grumpy, dour men.

All of these questions were prompted last night by Edward’s Boy’s extraordinary production, and I’m grateful to the entire cast, the production team and the director Perry Mills for their generosity in working on the play. Edward’s Boys have spent the past years tearing up the rules for early modern drama, exposing the lustful, playful and deliberately provocative nature of boy theatre, from Thomas Middleton to John Marston to Charles May to Thomas Nashe to John Ford to Thomas Dekker to John Webster and also to William Shakespeare (look, nobody’s perfect). You can see these past productions here. Can we take a moment to thank the many performers and producers who have worked on these productions, and to reflect on the extraordinary range of playwrights with whom they’ve worked? Aside from the Globe’s Read Not Dead project, that is a more impressive range of early modern dramatists than any other theatre company has managed, I suspect, including early modern theatre companies themselves!

Andy Kesson

One thought on “Women in the Moons

  1. Pingback: Galatea, BritGrad and diverse alarums | Before Shakespeare

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