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Spaces for Women’s drama: an interview with Marion Wynne-Davies

Watch this interview with Professor Marion Wynne-Davies on how Lumley's "Iphigenia," sets a precedent for Mary Sidney Herbert's "Tragedy of Antony"
You last need to think about how Mary Sidney Herbert and Mary Roth might have been influenced by Jane Lumley’s translation Iphigenia. I am pretty certain that they had seen the manuscript, which I believe remained in Jane Lumley’s commonplace book, in the Lumley Library, which would have been owned, of course, by her husband, John Lumley. However, if the play had been staged, then I think that they would have heard of it. I think it would have been such an uncommon event to have a play staged by a woman, but it certainly would have been heard about in the familial networks of the Tudor and Elizabethan nobility. So here we have to think about was Iphigenia staged?
And it certainly seems it could have been, because Jane Lumley wrote it when she was living in Nonsuch, and Nonsuch has a banqueting house. Banqueting houses were used for the performance of household theatre. And the one Nonsuch does conform with some of the stage directions in the play Iphigenia as translated by Lumley. So I do think that Sidney Herbert and Roth would have heard of a performance. They wouldn’t have been able to see it. It would have been performed in the early 1560s. And they certainly wouldn’t have been able to get the manuscript. But the very idea of a woman translating a tragedy could have influenced Mary Sidney Herbert, The Tragedy of Antony.
And the fact that a woman could envisage a play being performed in the garden of her stately home might well have influenced Mary Roth in writing Love’s Victory, which she intended to be staged in the gardens of Penshurst. You asked me about how by studying, watching, and performing plays by early modern women that we could rethink our understanding of theatre in the age of Shakespeare. And what I’d like to do is to think about the sense of space, about how they evoke geography, because we often think about early modern women in relation to closet theatre, or certainly to private spaces.
So what I wanted to do was to open it out in the sense of, how do they evoke public space? and here Alison, I’m quite impressed and influenced by your own work playing spaces. So first, I’d like to look at Mary Sidney’s The Tragedy of Antony, which is a play that is steeped in war. Right at the start of the play, Mary Sidney Herbert tell us about the Battle of Actium. And she tells us how Octavius prepares, I quote, “a mighty fleet.” And this encourages, of course, Cleopatra to flee, and Antony to follow her, which allows Octavius to claim victory. And he does.
He says that he’s won, I quote, “the greatest victory in any sea battle hath been heard of.” Now, moving from sea battle, this, of course, leads to the siege of Alexandria. And I’d like to talk about the spatial terms in which the seas of Alexandria is discussed. Anthony says himself that he has been, I quote, “walled and caged.” And Philostratus, who is an Egyptian philosopher, presents a particularly graphic version of how the city is preparing itself for siege, both in the walled city and in the port. And he says– so Philostratus says, hard at our ports, and at our porches wait our conquering foe.
And I think we should read this in terms of Mary Sidney Herbert’s own experience of warfare. And she would have known, of course, of sieges and sea battles in the Anglo Spanish War. She might have heard about these sieges and sea battles firsthand from her brother, Robert Sidney, who fought at the siege of Zutphen and was waiting at Gravelines for the invasion of the Spanish armada.
So what we can see here is that a although Sidney Herbert is definitely writing a closet drama, intended to be read and not to be performed, she uses space to evoke a sense of geography and of the political events of her time, I think allowing her audience to kind of leave that closet, and to propel them out onto the world stage.

In this interview, Professor Marion Wynne-Davie discusses the use of household spaces for women’s drama, the banqueting house at Nonesuch for Lumley’s “Iphigenia,” (1557) and the Sidney-Herbert country houses from which Mary Sidney Herbert’s “Tragedy of Antony” (1592) and Lady Mary Wroth’s “Love’s Victory” c1619-21) were composed.

As you are listening, think about the ways in which the Sidney women’s drama crosses the boundaries between public and private.

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Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

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