The Lady's Not for Burning

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The Lady's Not for Burning is a 1948 play by Christopher Fry.[1]

A romantic comedy in three acts, in verse, it is set in the Middle Ages. It reflects the world's "exhaustion and despair" following World War II, with a war-weary soldier who wants to die, and an accused witch who wants to live.[2] In form, it resembles Shakespeare's pastoral comedies.[3]

It was performed at an Arts Theatre private club for two weeks in London in 1949 starring Alec Clunes, who had also commissioned it. Later that year John Gielgud took the play on a provincial tour followed by a successful London run at the Globe Theatre, which was later renamed in honour of Gielgud.[4] Gielgud took the play to the United States, where it opened at the Royale Theater on 8 November 1950, with Pamela Brown as the female lead. Richard Burton and Claire Bloom had parts in the cast.[5] The review of opening night by Brooks Atkinson had the highest praise for the acting, while describing the playwright as precocious with "a touch of genius," but saying that the words were "sometimes soporific" and that the acting made the play.[6] The play ran on Broadway through March 1951, and received the New York Drama Critics Circle award as Best Foreign Play of 1950–51.[7] It was revived on Broadway in 1983.[8] In the United Kingdom, a reading was produced at the National Theatre in 2006 and it was fully revived in a production at the Finborough Theatre, London, in 2007.

Television adaptations[edit]

There have been at least three TV adaptations: 1958 (Omnibus, S06E29), with Christopher Plummer and Mary Ure; 1974, with Richard Chamberlain and Eileen Atkins, and 1987, with Kenneth Branagh and Cherie Lunghi.


Thomas Mendip is a recently discharged soldier who is tired of the world and wants to be hanged. He enters the mayor's house and engages in brief conversation with Richard, the mayor's copying clerk. Alizon, the future wife of Humphrey, the Mayor's nephew, soon enters. She and Richard immediately feel a connection. Soon Nicholas, Humphrey's brother, enters, declaring that he has killed Humphrey in a battle over Alizon, and thus is deserving of her hand in marriage. Margaret, Nicholas and Humphrey's mother and Mayor Tyson's sister enter. Nicholas and Richard are sent to get Humphrey from the garden, where he is lying, quite alive, after the fight with Nicholas. Noises outside the house make a witch-hunt known, and Thomas repeatedly reminds everyone that he is there to be hanged, and asks why doesn't anyone do anything about it. The Mayor enters, declaring that Thomas shall not be hanged without reason, as there is absolutely no precedent for such an action. Thomas then says he has killed two people, so he is deserving of the gallows. The Mayor does not believe him. Jennet then enters. She is the accused witch. After recounting the wild tales they tell about her mystical powers, and laughing over their ludicrous nature, she is shocked to hear that the Mayor shares the crowd's opinion that she is a witch. The mayor sends Richard to get the constable to have her arrested, but Richard does not get the constable; he does not think she is a witch. The Chaplain enters next, apologising for his tardiness to evening prayers, explaining that the world is so amazing, it is hard not to be distracted doing everyday things. Thomas tells everyone that he is the devil, and that the world will soon end. The Mayor has both him and Jennet arrested.

Later on, The Mayor and The Justice, Tappercoom, discuss the unusual reactions of the prisoners to the mild tortures they are being put through. Jennet will not admit to any crimes at all, and Thomas is continually admitting new crimes. Margaret rushes in in a panic, searching for the tongs to put a blazing log back in the fire. The Chaplain, woken, relates a dream he has had about the ladder to heaven. Margaret returns, horrified at the number of people clamouring in the street over the accusations of Thomas and Jennet. The Chaplain suggests that they invite Thomas to the party that the family is having that night to cheer him up and make him go away, but the family is shocked. The Justice considers it, though. In the mean time, Richard enters, somewhat drunk. He is depressed about Thomas and Jennet, and about his hopelessness over Jennet. He reveals that Humphrey and Nicholas had been sitting in the cellar with Jennet, not saying a word. The Mayor, still displeased for his refusal to fetch a constable, commands him to scrub the floor. Nicholas enters, ecstatic and bloody. Humphrey enters, complaining that Nicholas attempted to address the crowd and was hit by a brick. Margaret questions the boys on their contact with Jennet. Nicholas claims honourable intentions, but accuses Humphrey of being on "business of the flesh, by all the fires of Venus." Margaret takes Nicholas off to be cleaned up. The Mayor comes up with a plan to determine the guilt of the prisoners. He, Humphrey, Tappercoom, and the Chaplain hide upstairs and eavesdrop as Jennet and Thomas converse freely. Thomas talks about how awful humanity is, and Jennet tells why people think she's a witch. They claim that she had turned an old man into a dog, the same man that Thomas claims to have murdered. They grow closer as they talk, and Jennet finally declares that she loves him, whether he's the devil or not. The Mayor and his company re-enter, taking her statement as an admission of guilt. He demands she be burned the next day. Thomas is outraged both at the sentence and the fact that he's being ignored, but the Justice proclaims him guilty only of being depressing and depressed, and sentences him to attend the party that night. Thomas reluctantly agrees, on the terms that Jennet be also allowed to attend. The Mayor and Tappercoom discuss his request as he threatens to inform the whole countryside that they released a murderer if they don't agree. They do, as does Jennet, if somewhat despondently.

That evening, Thomas, Humphrey, and Nicholas are bored together, waiting for Jennet to be ready for the party. Margaret, vexed over Jennet's continued presence in her house, urges Humphrey and Nicholas to return to the party, but they decline, and the three drink to boredom. Jennet finally arrives, and the three fight over who will take her to the party. Jennet goes with Humphrey, as he is the host. The Mayor comes into the room, and tries to get Thomas to go away. Thomas escapes into the garden, and Tappercoom enters as the Mayor as he complains about Jennet's beauty and charm tempting him. Tappercoom mocks him for lusting after her at his age, and reminds him that after she's dead they will possess her substantial property. The Chaplain enters, distraught. He laments over his failure to play a dance at the party. Tappercoom takes him back to the party to cheer him up. Richard enters, and tries to speak to the Mayor, but the Mayor proclaims that he's going to lock himself in his room and not leave until morning. Thomas re-enters and speaks with Richard over the sadness of the situation. Alizon enters, and Thomas quickly goes back to the garden to give them privacy. Alizon is distraught over the unfairness of the burning. Richard half-heartedly defends the laws, but Alizon tells him she doesn't love Humphrey. She loves Richard, and they agree to escape together. Richard rushes to get his savings, but Margaret stops him, looking for Alizon. They both rush off. Jennet, Humphrey, and Nicholas return from dancing. Nicholas stops Richard once again, and takes him to the cellar to get more wine. Humphrey attempts to seduce Jennet in exchange for her life, but he is stopped by Thomas. Jennet, upset, yells at Thomas, who admits his love for her. Nicholas returns, distraught because Richard locked him in the cellar. Margaret returns, very befuddled and unable to comprehend what has been going on in her house. Thomas and Jennet reconcile, and she tells him she doesn't believe him to be murderer. Richard and Alizon return with the old man that everyone claimed was dead or a dog, and Humphrey and Nicholas bring Tappercoom and the chaplain. Richard and Alizon slip off as everyone is distracted by the old man. Tappercoom is satisfied that there is no witch or murder, and Margaret sends Nicholas and Humphrey to take the very drunk old man home before leaving with the Chaplain. Tappercoom quietly suggests that Jennet and Thomas quietly leave town before morning before leaving as well. Thomas, despite his continuing disgust with mankind, agrees to accompany Jennet to whatever new place she goes to, and they slip off into the night.


  1. ^ Fry, Christopher, "The Lady's Not For Burning," Paperback. Publisher: Dramatist's Play Service (January 1998). Language: English. ISBN 0-8222-1431-8
  2. ^ Bemrose, John. "Drama that delivers." Maclean's. Toronto: 8 June 1998.Vol.111, Iss. 23; pg. 51
  3. ^ Friedlander, Mira. "The Lady's Not for Burning." Variety Review Database. New York: June 1998. pg. n/a
  4. ^ Gielgud, John, "Mr. Gielgud discovers Mr. Fry; Reliance on designer." New York Times. New York, N.Y.: 5 November 1950. pg. 98
  5. ^ Zolotow, Sam, "Play by Fry bows tonight at Royale; 'The Lady's Not for Burning,' a British Importation, Stars John Gielgud, Pamela Brown." New York Times. New York, N.Y.: 8 November 1950. pg. 49
  6. ^ Atkinson, Brooks, "At the theater." New York Times. New York, N.Y.: 9 November 1950. pg. 42
  7. ^ Shanley, J.P. 'Darkness at Noon' wins critics' prize; Drama circle award winners." New York Times. New York, N.Y.: 4 April 1951. pg. 34
  8. ^ Lawson, Carol. "BROADWAY." New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: 16 September 1983. pg. C.2

See also[edit]

The lady's not for turning, a speech by Margaret Thatcher