Presented in collaboration with
Featuring Olivia Rose Baressi, Nathaniel P. Claridad, Amy Jo Jackson, Layla Khoshnoudi, Christopher Michael McFarland, Jason O’Connell, Aneesh Sheth, David Ryan Smith, Zo Tipp, and more
First performed in 1588, John Lyly's Gallathea is a queer love story set inside the landscape of classical myth. In order to avoid becoming dinner for a sea monster, Gallathea and Phillida are sent into the forest dressed as boys. Meanwhile, three shipwrecked brothers set out to seek their fortunes, Cupid stirs up his usual trouble, nymphs fall for mortals, and Neptune–God of the Sea–waits to make his move. This playful pastoral of love, desire, and finding yourself is an affirmation of identity–joyfully reclaimed for 2021.
This event will premiere LIVE on Monday, March 15. A recording of the livestream will be available until 7:00 PM EST on Friday, March 19 26 – then it disappears.
BULL SESSION | GALLETHEA / GALATEA
Thursday, March 25, 2021 | 7:30 PM EST
An interactive discussion of the play directors Will Davis and Emma Rosa Went, scholar Lauren Robertson, playwright MJ Kaufman, and members of the companies.
Red Bull Theater wishes to express its gratitude to the Performers’ Unions: ACTORS’ EQUITY ASSOCIATION, AMERICAN GUILD OF MUSICAL ARTISTS, AMERICAN GUILD OF VARIETY ARTISTS, and SAG-AFTRA through Theatre Authority, Inc. for their cooperation in permitting the Artists to appear in this program.
ABOUT THE PLAY
John Lyly’s Gallathea, licensed for performance in 1585, is a comedy about metamorphosis and desire. Performed by the boy actors of St. Paul’s, Gallathea was staged at court on New Year’s Day in 1588, where the audience included Elizabeth I. The comedy deliberately appealed to the cult of the so-called Virgin Queen; in it, three virgin nymphs—including the huntress Diana of Ovidian myth, with whom Elizabeth was often associated—are made to fall in love through the mischief of Cupid in disguise. Lyly’s comedy may have been perceived as an attempt to convince Elizabeth to marry, though by 1588 it was common knowledge that the aging queen would not produce an heir.
But Gallathea is much more than a paean and plea to Elizabeth I. Lyly’s distinctive prose style brings together oppositions through parallel structure, assonance, and alliteration, as in Cupid’s definition of love as a series of contradictions: “a heat full of coldness, a sweet full of bitterness, a pain full of pleasantness.” The result of such tense proximity is radical instability—any seemingly stable state of being might be transformed into its opposite—and this principle of mutability infuses the play’s mythic world of Lincolnshire, where the monster Agar threatens to produce watery catastrophe by flooding the pastoral landscape. To prevent such disaster, every five years “the fairest and chastest virgin in all the country” must be sacrificed to the god Neptune. In an aim to shield their daughters from receiving this dubious honor, the fathers of the beautiful Gallathea and Phillida disguise them as boys and hide them in the woods. There they meet and, both taking the other for a boy, fall in love.
The subplot, which follows three shipwrecked brothers’ arrival in Lincolnshire, acts as a kind of mirror image of the main plot. Rafe embarks on his own journey of transformation, serving an alchemist and an astronomer. The alchemist sees the world in terms of its potential for mutability, seeking to transform fire into gold, wind into silver, and water into lead. The astronomer wishes to occupy the perspective of the gods, and Rafe is delighted that he might also be “translated from this mortality” through “ethereal contemplation.” Lyly’s depiction of these trades is at once a rumination on the nature of poetry; the word’s origin in the Greek poiesis describes poetry itself as a craft, and Gallathea is a testament to the poet’s ability to make, transform, and unmake the world just as the gods do.
Gallathea’s thoroughgoing emphasis on metamorphosis is thus a reflection on the power—and delight—of theatrical possibility: the stage has the capacity to imagine into being, that is, what otherwise only could be. The play’s astonishing solution to Gallathea and Phillida’s wish to marry one another embodies this power of performance. On the surface, it conforms to the heteronormative conventions of Renaissance comedy, but it also suggests, much more provocatively, that a world which celebrates gendered transformation is possible.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Though his career contains moments of sparkling success, the life of dramatist and writer John Lyly (1554-1606), reveals a man who largely struggled for advancement within early modern England’s vibrant intellectual and political culture. He was born to a literary family: his grandfather, William Lily, was a crucial figure in the introduction of Italian humanism to English education, a sixteenth-century intellectual shift that would be responsible for the explosion of English verse and drama by the opening of the seventeenth century.
Lyly enrolled at Oxford in 1569, taking his MA in 1575. His aspirations were academic, but his aim to follow in his family’s scholarly footsteps did not come to fruition: he was denied a fellowship at Oxford in 1574. Like so many young men who could not parlay their humanistic education into an academic post or a position at court, Lyly instead set his sights on London. Not long after taking up residence in the rapidly growing city, he published Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit: Very Pleasant for All Gentlemen to Read. The extremely popular text combined bits of wisdom and classical quotations to tell the story of a young man who aims to make his way in the world by means of his intellectual gifts—all features that directly appealed to the young men who crowded London’s bookstalls in the late sixteenth century. By 1584 Lyly began writing plays for the boy companies that performed for small, select London audiences. Playwrighting also allowed him coveted access to Elizabeth I’s court: several of his comedies, including Gallathea, were staged for the queen.
But in a theatrical culture as experimental and fast-paced as early modern London’s, the mythic romance of Lyly’s pastoral comedies quickly became passé. A second generation of English playwrights—John Marston and Ben Jonson among them—parodied Lyly’s drama, writing highly satirical comedies for the boy companies that were gradually being supplanted by a varied roster of adult companies. Lyly appears to have stopped writing plays after 1601, and he expended a great amount of effort in the final years of his life attempting to secure court preferment that was never granted him; a letter written just two years before his death notes his debt and “many children all unbestowed.”
If John Lyly’s personal accomplishments were overshadowed by disappointment, however, at the historical remove of our own moment it is clear how crucial his work was to the emergence of English commercial drama. Lyly’s exuberant adaptations of classical sources, complex wordplay, and thoroughgoing commitment to the delights of ambiguity helped inaugurate the English Renaissance in London’s playhouses.
–Lauren Robertson | Columbia University