Literary Daybook, May 20

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
May 20, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On May 20, Hugh Conway begins an airplane trip that ends in Shangri-La.
-- "Lost Horizon" (1933)
by James Hilton

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to


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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1607, "The Woman-Hater," the first play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, was entered in the Stationers' Register. Either alone or together or with a handful of other collaborators, Beaumont and Fletcher wrote over 50 plays. Though few of them are now known, these plays dominated English theater throughout the 1600s, being produced and praised at four or five times the rate of Shakespeare's plays. Contemporaries placed John Fletcher in a "triumvirate of wit" with Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and when Shakespeare retired as resident playwright of The King's Men, Fletcher took over.

"The Woman-Hater" belongs to a popular sub-genre of the time, one not easy to describe or account for, though the titles can cause a start: "Rule a Wife, Have a Wife"; "A Wife for a Month"; "The Mad Lover"; "Women Pleased"; "The Maide's Tragedy"; "The Insatiate Countess"; "The Scornful Lady," etc. The reliable themes of sex and power are here given every possible tragic and comic twist, often at the same time. Misogyny meets chastity meets rape meets necrophilia, incest, nymphomania and cannibalism; there are eunuchs and dwarfs, lecherous tyrants and lamb-white shepherdesses and vice-versa; there are more genital puns than anyone could ever get, or want to; there are houses of male prostitution in which the inmates pine for marriage; there are spider-webbed plots in which Valerio can have Evanthe for a month, if the King can kill him and have her afterwards. Gilbert and Sullivan turned this play into "The Mikado," having sanitized it of scenes like the one in which the panderer Sorano happily tells the King that, sure, he can have his sister:


And if I had a dozen more, they were all yours;
Some Aunts I have, they have been handsome Women,
My Mother's dead indeed, [but] some few Cousins
That are now shooting up we shall see shortly ...

To these theatrical "stews," as such plays were described, must be added another ingredient: the fact that many were written for and presented by young boys, such as the Children of St. Paul's Company. How choirboys originally recruited to sing hymns came to be part-time actors in Christmas pageants, and then were recruited or forced to present plays like "The Woman-Hater" in the "private" theaters of the London gentry is itself an interesting chapter in British theatrical history.

-- Steve King


To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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