Gentle ladies and gentlemen… John Lyly!!!

26th June 2013

Gentles all, put your hands together, please, for Mr John Lyly. We’ll come to he actually was in a moment, but first consider this: on Thursday the Illuminations team is filming a scene from his celebrated drama Sapho and Phao; then over the weekend his play The Woman in the Moon is being presented at Glastonbury. Early in August another Lyly drama, Gallathea, is to be given at Wilderness Festival. And sooner than you can say Mother Bombie (yet another of his plays) a new full-length study of the man and his work, John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, is to be published from the pen of Dr Andy Kesson. Still no wiser? Well, he is almost certainly the most significant sixteenth-century playwright that almost certainly only a few of you will have heard. But you will, you will – especially if you read on.

So John Lyly was, as his Wikipedia entry currently has it, an Elizabethan ‘writer, poet, dramatist, playwright, and politician’. He was born around 1553 in Kent, perhaps in Canterbury, and he seems to have studied at Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1579 he published Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit, a work of prose that became the late sixteenth-century equivalent of a best-seller.

In the words of G.K. Hunter in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Lyly (which is available online only by subscription), Euphues is ‘a mosaic composed of scraps of humanist wisdom and gossipy classical quotations (mostly from Plutarch and Pliny) and much of this material is indeed copied out of the encyclopaedias compiled by the greatest of the “elder friends”, Erasmus.’

Between 1584 and 1591 eight of Lyly’s plays, including Sapho and Phao (1584), were acted by boy players, at the St Pauls’ indoor theatre and what is known as the ‘first’ Blackfriars theatre as well as at court before Queen Elizabeth. Mother Bombie (1594), The Woman in the Moon (1597), and Love’s Metamorphosis (1601) followed, but his status as a fashionable writer did not last and he seems to have spent the years before his death in 1606 in relative penury. Apart from their considerable virtues in their own right, Lyly’s plays are held to have been a singular influence on the comedies of William Shakespeare.

I should stress that there are many who know far more about Lyly than I, and the little that I do know I have learned from the actor and director James Wallace and the academic Andy Kesson (and I hope both will correct my mistakes here). Both are great advocates for the interest of Lyly’s work, and the world of early moderns awaits Andy’s book with eager anticipation. James is directing our filmed scene from Sapho and Phao and then winging his way to Glastonbury to lead the presentation of The Woman in the Moon, courtesy of an on-the-road outing of the Read not Dead series from Shakespeare’s Globe.

We are making a four-minute or so scene from Sapho and Phao for the Shakespearean London Theatres project, and among our cast are Read not Dead alumni David Oakes and Claire Price. The scene will be available on the ShaLT website in a month or so, as will a short documentary about Lyly and his theatre. Here’s a slightly edited version of the action of the whole play, again courtesy of Wikipedia:

The play is set in Syracuse and the surrounding countryside. Venus, on her way to Syracuse to humble the pride of Queen Sapho, endows a young ferryman named Phao with great beauty… The beautiful waiting women of Sapho’s court learn of Phao, flirt with and court him; but he is disdainful of them. When Sapho catches sight of Phao she instantly falls in love with him; and Phao in turn is love-struck with her. Sapho hides her infatuation by pretending to be fever-stricken, and sends for Phao, since he reportedly possesses febrifugic herbs [medicines to reduce fever]. They share a mutual passion, but the enormous gap between their social positions is an insuperable barrier.

Through an accident with Cupid’s arrows, Venus herself falls in love with Phao [and] she turns for help to her son Cupid, who in Lyly’s hands foreshadows the later Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.Cupid performs part of his mother’s will, in that he cures Sapho of her love of Phao; but then Cupid succumbs to the queen’s charms. The pranksterish god not only fails to make Phao love Venus, but actually inspires him with a revulsion for her. The play concludes with Phao leaving Sicily; Cupid rebels against his mother’s will and remains with Sapho, adopting her as his new mother.

There may or may not be an allegory of events at Elizabeth’s court wrapped up in all of this, although the tale comes mostly from Ovid. You can read the play for yourself online here.

Now perhaps it’s just because I have become aware of him in the past few months, but I now seem to see references to Lyly everywhere (and not least on Twitter, courtesy of @AndyKesson and @David_Oakes). Or maybe he is finally breaking through and beginning to take his place among the other great dramatists of England’s early modern theatre. So now which of our major companies committed to the plays of this period will take the plunge and commit to a major production of one of John Lyly’s dramas? That really will be a decision that deserves applause.


  1. Good luck with this project which sounds terrific! Can I just mention that most people in the UK with Public Library cards can freely access the magnificent Dictionary of National Biography via their public library system’s website. It’s one of the very best reasons for joining a public library, though not very well publicised.

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