The victim of fashion? Rereading the biography of John Lyly

Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, Annual, 2006 by Leah Scragg

  We have looked at Lyly's Euphues and his plays as literary experiences
  worthy of comment in their own right. They may be seen, however, from
  another angle--as part of a tide of fashion which swept them up,
  sustained them for a moment, and then, as relentlessly, swept them
  away. (1)

FROM R. Warwick Bond's monumental edition of Lyly's work, published at the start of the twentieth century, (2) to G. K. Hunter's critical biography, quoted above, that has shaped understanding of the Lylian canon from the 1960s to the present day, the career of the most influential prose writer of the Elizabethan period, and foremost dramatist of the 1580s, has been constructed in terms of a rapid ascent and decline linked to changes in literary taste. The derision to which euphuism was subject in the closing decade of the sixteenth century, the apparent failure of The Woman in the Moon following the closure of Paul's boys, the lack of further new material that can be firmly attributed to Lyly in the fifteen-year period prior to his death in 1606, and his fruitless petitions to the queen pleading his poverty and past service have all led to his construction as "the victim of fashion," (3) too wedded to a particular dramatic mode to compete in a rapidly changing theatrical milieu, and unable to come to terms with a "shift of temper, which was to make [him] obsolete and isolated" before the completion of his "natural term." (4)

The case for Lyly's abrupt marginalization in a world of rapidly changing tastes is not as firmly proven, however, as the general conviction in its favor might appear to suggest. Central to the argument is the assumption that The Woman in the Moon, generally regarded as the last of Lyly's plays, postdates the closure of Paul's boys (circa 1590), and constitutes an unsuccessful attempt by the dramatist to transfer his talents to the public stage. A number of factors have combined to support this proposition. Unlike the rest of the Lylian corpus, but like much of the material produced for the Theatre or the Rose, the play is written in blank verse rather than euphuistic prose and is announced by Lyly himself as a new venture. The prologue pointedly defines it in terms of "a Poets dreame" (my emphasis), describing it as "The first he had in Phoebus holy bowre" and promising that it will not be the last "un-lesse the first displease" (11. 17-19). (5) Rather than evolving primarily through pattern, like the majority of Lyly's plays, it relies more heavily on the management of an intricate plot, and exploits the potential for multilevel staging associated with the public theaters. The publication history of the work also supports the contention that it stands aside from the remainder of the canon. The play was not among the group of five Lylian comedies published, following the dissolution of Paul's boys, by William Broome and his widow in 1591-92, but appeared in 1597, in the only quarto edition of a play by Lyly to include the songs. The absence of the musical component of the drama from the remainder of the Lylian quartos has been taken as evidence that the material was issued to the boy actor/choristers on separate sheets, becoming part, subsequent to the play's production, of the repertoire of the school, (6) and the embedding of the songs in the text of The Woman in the Moon has thus been seen as indicative of the different theatrical provenance of the work. The argument is supported by the absence from the 1597 quarto of the usual title page announcement that the play was performed by a juvenile troupe, and the fact that it was not followed by the promised further experiments in a similar vein has lent weight to its construction as a failed attempt to adapt to a new set of theatrical requirements.

The evidence afforded by the play itself, however, does not support the contention that it was written with an adult company in mind. Like the majority of Lyly's court comedies, the work has a preponderance of female and juvenile roles, and is primarily concerned with female experience. Not only is the central figure (Pandora) a woman, but so too is the presiding deity (Nature), together with her attendants (Discord and Concord), and two of the seven planets (Venus and Luna) who dictate the heroine's moods. Of the entire cast of twenty, only four parts are for adult men, the remaining sixteen of the dramatis personae being women, inexperienced youths, and boys--one of whom (Joculus) is specifically addressed in terms appropriate to a young child (e.g., at 3.2.39), and another (Ganymede) is mute. (7) The configuration of characters, which accords with that of Lyly's previous comedies, is clearly more suited to a private than a public theater troupe, and the likelihood that the play was written with the capabilities of a juvenile company in mind is supported by the performance skills on which the dramatist draws. As in all Lyly's plays, the action is punctuated by songs (following 1.1.54, 1.1.224, 3.2.41, 5.1.76), only two of which are included in the 1597 edition, and a number of other opportunities are afforded to showcase the musical talents of the actors. Pandora is roused, for example, from her melancholy at the close of act 1 with songs, "pipes" and "fidling" (1.1.225), while in 3.2. Joculus (a young son of Venus) encourages the heroine to dance by his own example (cf. the opportunities for singing, dancing, and tumbling in Campaspe, 5.1 and for dancing and playing in Gallathea, 2.3). The Latin word play through which Lyly habitually exploits the classroom training of his boy performers is also in evidence--most notably in the riddling prophecies uttered by Pandora, at Apollo's instigation, in 3.1. The play is thus more fitted to the capabilities of a juvenile rather than an adult company in a range of respects, and it is doubtful that a public theater troupe would have had the requisite personnel to stage it.


 

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