While I’ve never seen it staged, when I was a child I found a fading orange copy of Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not For Burning at the annual library book sale and read it over and over until the soft rain of sweet iambs wore certain lines into my brain. I knew it for gold because of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, which is a fine novel and also an extraordinary syllabus. It is difficult for me to imagine a time (the early 1950s) when such a play could be not just successful but popular: not a line lost, not a word misplaced, all fresh and clear and finely wrought, full of shining love for a broken world and Shakespearean insults and wordplay:
THOMAS: O tedium, tedium, tedium. The frenzied
Ceremonial drumming of the humdrum!
Where in this small-talking world can I find
A longitude with no platitude? (Act III)
And yet it is shot throughout with intense bitterness, a bitterness that draws me back in now for its gift of wakefulness:
JENNET: But what can you hear?
THOMAS: The howl of human jackals. (Act II)
The unseen-but-heard townsfolk are baying for Jennet’s blood, denouncing her as a witch for a murder that never happened. Except for Thomas, all the men in the play, which is set in the 1400s, wish to burn Jennet at the stake for profit or convenience, or to sleep with her before she’s burned, or else are indifferent to her situation. Richard cries silent tears of pity before running away. The women are passive and helpless. For all that we and Jennet suppose good intentions, Thomas is a cynic and an ass to Jennet, and essentially decorative; it takes a random encounter, reported by the runaways Richard and Alizon, to resolve the threat, though Jennet still loses her house and pets.
I don’t think it a coincidence that McCarthyism, with its own howling crowds of human jackals, reached its peak of power at the same time that The Lady’s Not For Burning did, around 1950-1954. Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. There was a real and present threat of one’s life or career ending violently and unjustly through another person’s false accusations. People knew what human jackals looked like.
In Conflict is Not Abuse (2016), Sarah Schulman records a therapist’s observation that “taking extreme bullying actions, like signing a petition against a friend, or denouncing a colleague to others or to the state, as often happened under McCarthyism, was so extreme in its pathology that the participants could never repair. They were so defended against the reality of the injustice of their own action that they couldn’t reconcile it to their false image of themselves as righteous.”1 We are once again living in a world where such denunciations are common and widespread, though the informant’s political affiliation determines whether the report is made to Twitter or to Texas. All proportionality is lost in the rush to create content, stir up outrage, accumulate followers and subscribers and thumbs-ups, and claim the resulting advertising revenue and bounties—or rather, blood money. Truth, in which I include true claims of real and serious harm, is also buried.
Tacitus described a period in Rome similar to the present, under the emperor Tiberius, in Annals Book III:
It was next proposed to relax the Papia Poppaea law, which Augustus in his old age had passed subsequently to the Julian statutes, for yet further enforcing the penalties on celibacy and for enriching the exchequer. And yet, marriages and the rearing of children did not become more frequent, so powerful were the attractions of a childless state. Meanwhile there was an increase in the number of persons imperilled, for every household was undermined by the insinuations of informers; and now the country suffered from its laws, as it had hitherto suffered from its vices.2
With very few changes, this could have been written about Texas in 2022. In what moral condition was Rome at this time of terror, when the state tried to increase pregnancies and births, informers riddled every household, and senators and common citizens alike were denounced left and right for the capital crime of writing satiric poetry about the emperor? Those who are strong-stomached can look up the execution of Sejanus’ children in Book V, approximately ten years later, which I will not detail here. Compare that daughter’s execution to the state’s treatment of a pregnant 10-year-old girl in Brazil (WaPo) or Ohio (The Hill) today.
We forget and we turn our eyes away from what civilization is capable of, because it makes us uncomfortable, and we prefer to live in comfort, if we can afford it. Some run away to seek their own happiness, some pluck impotently at their lute and mouth comforting nothings, some turn callous and tell women to resign themselves to their burning. These, mind you, are Fry’s “good” characters: well intentioned and by and large useless. Only Christopher Fry is able to save the characters, in the end. Only by careful authorial contrivances does Jennet remain unburnt.
I find Fry’s play unutterably beautiful, and I also want to throw a lute at him.
After watching a water bug eat a frog from the inside out, Anne Dillard reponds with a similar impulse, writing of the Biblical heave offering:
What I want to know is this: Does the priest heave it at the Lord?
Does he throw the shoulder of the ram of consecration... does he hurl it across the tabernacle, between the bloodied horns of the altar, hurl it at God? Now look at what you made me do. And then he eats it. This heave is a violent, desperate way of catching God's eye. It is not inappropriate. We are people; we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God, look at what you've done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!3
Teilhard de Chardin, whose books were blocked from publication by the Holy See until after his death, once offered up the whole world to God in his Mass. I, having less patience, heave the world at God—I hurl it. State by state, country by continent, I fling them at Him.
Christopher Fry, look at what you’ve done to Jennet and her peacock and her pet dog.
Christ, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the waste.
Now get in here and help us fix it.
Despite the send date, this is the June essay; I have been writing in circles on this one for a while. I have also spent the last two weeks, in a different context, facing down some thirty-odd Christians gloating over the end of Roe v. Wade, alone, in order to give witness to the Christ I know whose life was compassion to the end, who stood against religious dogma and called us to live, in Him, a life that was higher than the law and fully free.
So I am a little tired.
There should be two essays in July.
News and such:
There is a project I desperately want to tell you about, that was verbally accepted exactly eleven months ago, but eleven months have passed, I still don’t have a contract (!), and I am ordered not to speak of it until I do.
Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe invited me and Ellen Kushner onto the Coode Street Podcast to speak about Patricia McKillip’s life and work. Listen here.
Alternatively, try this mysterious game design podcast, with recent interviews with Michael Chu (April) and Greg Lobanov (coming first week of July).
On July 24, “Serenissima” will be published by Sunday Morning Transport, ed. Julian Yap and Fran Wilde. Thanks to Fran Wilde, this and their other July stories will be freely available. I began the first draft while sitting in the Biblioteca Braidense, and those who have read “Sketches” will recognize a certain character. My thanks to Hugo House for inspiring that story and then giving me a place to read it.
“Witchfires” will appear in Jonathan Strahan’s The Book of Witches in Fall 2023.
“The World Remade,” thanks to Jonathan Strahan, will appear on Tor.com in 2023.
“The Wretched and the Beautiful” will be reprinted in FSG’s Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn, edited by Brian Merchant and Claire L. Evans, out in August.
Schulman, Sarah. Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm. (Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016): 73. More from this book in a few weeks.
Tacitus, The Annals and the Histories, transl. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (NY: Modern Library, 2003): 99
Anne Dillard, “The Waters of Separation,” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, excerpted in The Abundance (NY: HarperCollins 2016): 178. Incidentally, I finally found the injunction to write as if my reader were dying, mentioned in “On Brevity,” in Dillard’s The Writing Life. I would have read it very long ago—at least fifteen years—and subsequently mixed up the two Annes.