Who was John Lyly? This August sees two plays by John Lyly come…

Who was John Lyly?

This August sees two plays by John Lyly come to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. 

The Woman in the Moon, an astrological sex comedy, plays by candlelight for three performances only, followed the next week by a fully staged reading of Sappho and Phao for our Read Not Dead project, in conjunction with Before Shakespeare.

So who was John Lyly?

Well, he was England’s first great playwright, the most successful writer of fiction of his day, who out-sells everyone for the next sixty years. He was also a novelist, theatre impresario, pamphleteer, politician and courtier. Yet now, Lyly is virtually unknown.

At the age of just 24 Lyly was the literary sensation of his time. Short, well dressed, addicted to tobacco, his first book, The Anatomy of Wit, published in 1578, and its sequel, Euphues, his England made him, and his new style of English, the one to imitate; the epitome of fashionable wit – the Oscar Wilde of his day. 

Photo: A 1587 printing of Euphues, John Lyly, Thomas East (printer), Gabriel Cawood (publisher): Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection

Working for the notorious Earl of Oxford in the 1580’s, his plays were first performed publicly at the indoor theatres of Blackfriars and St Paul’s, then at the great Court festivities of Elizabeth I. Before Lyly, no printed play had ever run into a second printing in a single year. His first, Campaspe, ran to three.

He revolutionised romantic comedy, creating a new sort of dramatic prose, glittering with wit, beauty, and a mischievous sense of fun. Taking love as his great theme, in all its sweetness and bitterness, he wrote plays that were clever, funny, mysterious, magical, joyous, and profound. Shakespeare’s comedies are influenced more by him than by anyone else.

Lyly’s plays are filled with artists and philosophers, soldiers and shepherds, rascally schoolboys and love-struck court ladies. We meet astrologers and alchemists, witches and wise women, mermaids and monsters. Trees talk. He brings the Gods, the planets, the earth and the moon, onto the stage to act. His takes us to Classical Athens, to Tudor Rochester, from the pre-Christian sea-shores of the Mediterranean to the Saxon riverbank of the Humber. From Arcadia to Phrygia to Utopia, from a literal no-place to a cosmological everywhere. He is both Greek and Roman, and, at the same time, quintessentially English.

He’s also surprisingly modern. I’ve staged all eight of his plays for Read
Not Dead
, and he has been the biggest discovery of all. Actors and audiences
have fallen in love with him. His language has a clarity that makes him easier to
understand now than any of his contemporaries. And he’s still really funny.

Lyly shows us dreamworlds of metamorphosis and change. He challenges sexuality, desire transgressively crossing boundaries of class, sex, of the human and the supernatural. The victor falls in love with the captive, a royal lady falls in love with a lowly ferryboy, two girls falls in love with each other. The Earth loves a man who is in love with the Moon.

Lyly writes more for women characters than any of his contemporaries. “It is no
second thing to be a woman” he declares. Women are rulers, and can master the Gods. In his Utopia, even the first creator of man-and-womankind, the universe and everything, is a she.

In and out of favour with the Queen, he kept finding himself in trouble. He was
accused of witchcraft. He became entangled in religious controversy. His plays were banned, and his theatre closed down. Twice.

Ultimately, it’s in Shakespeare’s plays that we most see Lyly’s enduring influence. In the ‘great feast of language’ of Love’s Labour’s Lost. In the verbal sparring between Katherine and Petruchio, and Benedick and Beatrice. In Falstaff we see Endymion’s Sir Tophas, and Mother Bombie influences both Errors and Merry Wives. In the Dream we find Midas’ donkey’s ears and The Woman in the Moon’s supernaturally influenced love chase. In Twelfth Night and As You Like It we see the boys dressed as girls dressed as boys of Gallathea, and also the father-daughter relationship of Prospero and Miranda.

Yet since then, Lyly has been largely forgotten. With notable exceptions, C.S. Lewis among them, nineteenth and twentieth century critics have neglected and disparaged his plays, without ever having seen them in performance.

Read Not Dead has shown that neglect to be baffling. Tastes change. Marlowe went unstaged for centuries, and even Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy had to wait until 1969 for professional revival. Re-appraisals can take a long time, and one is more than overdue for the plays of John Lyly. 

This August, you have the chance to be part of that rediscovery – come and join us!

Photography by Robert Piwko 
Words: James Wallace, Director of The Woman in the Moon