Photo: Robert Piwko
By MICHAEL CAINES
The TLS recently moved from an office just north of the Thames to a newer one just south, near London Bridge. That made it easy for me, a couple of days ago, to stroll along the river to Shakespeare's Globe in the afternoon and its neighbour the Rose Playhouse in the evening – to see two plays that both happen to concern utopian dreams and (a more common coincidence) troubled relationships between men and women. As far as I can see, there’s only one more date when this accidental double bill is repeated.
I hope there'll be a word in the TLS soon about the first of those plays, Pitcairn at the Globe (it then goes on tour); because it's only running for another week, though, here's a word about The Woman in the Moon at the Rose. And the word is: goandseeitifyoucan.
First published in quarto in 1597, The Woman in the Moon is one of the lesser-known plays by that Elizabethan university wit and master of Euphuistic prose John Lyly – in fact, it’s his only play written in verse, and seems to have been a late, doomed attempt to adapt to changing political circumstances and theatrical fashions.
Lucy Munro, writing in the TLS a few years ago, called it “possibly the ultimate expression of Lyly’s interest in change and mutability”: at the centre of the action is Pandora, created by Nature, desired by four hapless shepherds in Utopia (the name is taken from Thomas More but not much else, I’d say), and envied by the seven planetary gods (Saturn, Jupiter, Sol etc), who take immediate umbrage against her and then take turns in exerting their generally baleful influence over her.
In addition, I suppose Lyly hoped the play would delight those who could recognize how The Woman in the Moon transmutes its basic materials; Pandora’s creation is a tale as old as Hesiod but astronomical notions of planetary deities shaping human affairs were very much on people’s minds in the sixteenth century.
Revivals of Lyly in general are extremely rare; in the case of this, his last play, possibly the most notable of the past century was at Bryn Mawr College, when Katharine Hepburn took the lead role. As Pandora in the production by The Dolphin’s Back at the Rose, Bella Heesom (above) shows that the part requires tremendous versatility and stamina. She is barely ever off-stage, and has to play the seductress (under Venus’s influence), the fighter (Mars), the trickster (Mercury) and so on. And while the gods get to stand back and watch – although, true to form, Jupiter prefers to test Pandora by throwing himself at her – the rest of the company has to follow suit.
As directed by James Wallace, the play is a farcical race from one mood to another, ninety minutes without a break, as the shepherds (below) fight and plot against one another, the planets’ influence over Pandora influencing their behaviour in turn. Nature’s beneficent vision of a “solace unto men” gives way to chaos as this “newfound god” has to choose a single partner.
Photo: Robert Piwko
In reading the play, I’d not seen how the efforts of Pandora’s servant Gunophilus (James Thorne, making like a young Lee Mack playing both Dromios) to keep up with his mistress’s demands constitute a hapless subplot, culminating in him coming tantalizingly close to running off with her, only to be defeated by the latest in her sudden shifts of mood, as the changeable goddess Luna takes over.
In fact, with the period’s usual dismaying complacence about these matters, it’s Luna with whom Pandora chooses to remain at the end of the play, enjoying the fact that she made her “idle, mutable, / Forgetful, foolish, fickle, frantic, mad”. It is the inconstant moon goddess who can make the mutability of the past five acts a permanent state of affairs. “These be the humours that content me best.” A modern audience has to lump it, I guess, even if they don’t like it.
For its next trick, Wallace’s company revives another rarity, Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris, at the same venue (which, incidentally, is in need of either the general public or a magnate with taste and £5 million at his or her disposal, to transmute its own future). It reminded me that although this has been an exceptionally good year for admirable revivals of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, there are still plenty of thoroughly stage-worthy pieces that seldom get anywhere near a stage. Lyly’s lunacy, for example, only needs a strong ensemble, clear verse speaking, distinctive costumes and a small budget . . . .
What price a Ben Jonson season on a similar scale? At the launch of the Cambridge Ben Jonson edition a while ago, a friend of mine asked the three general editors on the podium which plays they’d like to see revived. There were a couple of more obvious choices, but one of them went for The Magnetic Lady, a late, allegorical, seemingly unsuccessful play that modern theatre companies and theatre historians have generally ignored. Just like The Woman in the Moon . . . Any other suggestions, dream seasons, fantasies of Caroline drama coming back into fashion – for the first time since the early 1640s?