18 November 2013 13:38

Striking innovation and ancient tradition combine in a production of Lady Jane Lumley’s 1557 translation of Euripides’ play Iphgenia at Aulis staged at Lancaster Castle this week.

Remarkably, it was a young woman rather than a gentleman of the grammar schools or universities who first rendered Euripides’ drama ‘out of Greek into English’, and Lumley’s is the earliest known play by an Englishwoman. Lady Lumley (1537–1578) was the daughter of Henry Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, and wife of John, Lord Lumley, whose translation of Erasmus’s Education of a Christian Prince was dedicated to Arundel. Lady Lumley’s translation exists in only one manuscript copy, held in the British Library (Royal XV A ix), which I have edited for the production. In a Latin letter Jane (like Iphigenia her heroine), dedicates herself to her father: ‘Filia tua tibi dedissima, Joanna Lumleya’ . Euripides’ play dramatises how Iphigenia, daughter of the Greek Captain Agamemnon, is to be sacrificed in Aulis so that the Greek army can sail to Troy to retrieve Helen. By paring down the Chorus and rendering the text into surprisingly modern-sounding prose, Jane Lumley points up the brutal cost of war. She draws explicit parallels between the sacrifice of women in ritual bloodshed, and in marriage.

The Rose Company production of Lumley’s play, on tomorrow until 21st November at Lancaster Castle, realises the woman-centred focus of her script by using an all female cast. Actors from the Lancaster community (Ruth Gregson, Aliki Chapple, Helen Katamba, Christine Burn and Marion Cox) and members of the Department of English & Creative Writing at Lancaster University (students Catherine Bateman, Elle Lund, Beth Cortese, Eleanor Barton-Mather and myself) are directed by Emma Rucastle with voice direction by Marion Middleditch. Cross-casting has brought out some common emotional ground: the strength of parental love and the pain of loss experienced by both men and women are expressed with stark immediacy in Lumley’s prose lines. Agamemnon’s desperate cry ‘I know in what things I ought to show pity, and wherein I ought not, and love my children as it becometh a father!’ for example, speaks directly to spectators. With a playing time of just 70 minutes, Jane Lumley’s Iphigenia points up the ways male and female characters are imprisoned by ideologies of honour, public and private reputation, duty to family and to the state.

Lumley’s choice of Euripides’ text was bound up with her family’s recent involvement in matters of state. The Catholic Earl of Arundel, had been imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1551 and subsequently, like Agamemnon in the play, had manipulated and then sacrificed the Protestant Queen, Lady Jane Grey, to imprisonment and then execution in the Tower. Lady Jane Grey, the ‘nine-days-Queen’, was Jane Lumley’s cousin. Iphigenia’s declaration ‘I will offer myself willing to death, for my country’ perhaps replays Jane Grey’s resignation of her crown and her life. Any performance of Lumley’s Iphigenia at Nonsuch, the palace which Arundel was given by Queen Mary Tudor as a reward for his loyalty, would surely have resonated with these recent events.

Since imprisonment, both physical and metaphorical, is so important in Lumley’s Iphigenia, staging it within the walls of the former prison at Lancaster Castle, is highly appropriate. The production will give the Rose Company an opportunity to test out the resonance of the site as well as the script. The lost voices of those who were sacrificed to preserve the dominant order in war and in peacetime may be evoked through the live performance. Such an effect would certainly be in sympathy with Lumley’s own agenda. As well as being the first English woman to write a play, Jane Lumley was the first person to revive Euripides’ ancient text by giving it an English voice that spoke to contemporary audiences then and now. 

  • Performances at Lancaster Castle will take place at 7.30pm on Tuesday 19th, Wednesday 20th and Thursday 21st November. Tickets, priced £5.00, for these and subsequent performances in Cambridge and London can be reserved in advance or simply purchased at the door.

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