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About GALLATHEA | Lauren Robertson

Red Bull's online benefit reading of John Lyly's play GALLATHEA will premiere LIVE at 7:30 PM EST on Monday, March 15. A recording of the livestream will be available until 7:00 PM EDT on Friday, March 19– then it disappears. GET DETAILS

​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.


Columbia University

On Thursday, March 25, join an interactive discussion of the Gallathea and MJ Kaufman's Galatea with director Emma Rosa Went, playwright MJ Kaufman, scholars Julie Crawford and Lauren Robertson , and members of the companies. Register Now


LAUREN ROBERTSON specializes in early modern drama, with emphases on the London commercial theater and the intersections of cultural and intellectual histories. She is currently at work on her first monograph, Spectacular Skepticism: Entertaining Uncertainty in the Early Modern English Theater, which examines how the theater embraced and exploited performance conventions in order to induce doubt in its audiences. Her article, “‘Ne’er was dream so like a waking': The Temporality of Dreaming and the Depiction of Doubt in The Winter’s Tale,” was recently published in Shakespeare Studies, and her book and performance reviews have appeared in or are forthcoming from Theatre Journal, Shakespeare Bulletin, and The Shakespeare Newsletter.

For complete details about Red Bull Theater's livestreamed benefit reading on Monday, March 15, VISIT HERE.


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