A Phoenix Too Frequent

A Phoenix Too Frequent is a one-act stage comedy in blank verse by Christopher Fry, originally produced at the Mercury Theatre, London in 1946. It has been adapted for television numerous times, in Britain and other countries, but has been less frequently revived in the theatre.

drawing of a woman in Ancient Roman costume standing by a bust on a plinth, depicting a man
Cover design by Ronald Searle for 1959 edition of the published play

The play depicts a grieving widow in Ancient Greece gradually finding the attractions of a young soldier outweighing her determination to join her husband in the underworld.

Background and first productionEdit

The Mercury Theatre, in Notting Hill Gate, London, was opened by Ashley Dukes in 1933. Part of its brief was to present new, experimental drama, and before the Second World War plays by T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and others were presented there.[1] After the war the Mercury continued to present new plays. In April 1946 the theatre staged a double bill, comprising the first British performance of The Resurrection by W. B. Yeats and the world premiere of Fry's A Phoenix Too Frequent.[2] Both works have small casts: four performers in the first and three in the second.[2]

Fry took as his inspiration Jeremy Taylor's retelling of a tale from Petronius.[3] He took the title from Robert Burton's translation of lines from an epigram of Martial, lamenting his lost love, in comparison with whom "a peacock's undecent, a squirrel's harsh, a phoenix too frequent".[4][n 1]

Original castEdit

The play was directed by E. Martin Browne.[7][8]


The scene is the tomb of the recently-dead Virilius, near Ephesus.[7] Dynamene, the grieving widow, has determined to remain in the tomb until she can join Virilius in the underworld. The play opens with the first night of gloomy fast and broken sleep, disturbed at 2 a.m. by Tegeus, a soldier. He has been put on guard over the bodies of six criminals hanged nearby. He is drawn by the light in the tomb and enters. Dynamene, encouraged by her maidservant Doto, gradually finds Tegeus so attractive that she opts for life with him rather than death with Virilius.[9]

They discover that in Tegeus's absence from his post one of the dead bodies has been cut down; this neglect of his duties renders Tegeus liable to court martial. He decides to kill himself rather than face the disgrace. Dynamene suggests that they substitute the body of Virilius. Tegeus is appalled, but she persuades him:

     How little you can understand! I loved
     His life not his death. And now we can give his death
     The power of life. Not horrible: wonderful!

Dynamene, Tegeus and Doto drink a toast to the memory of Virilius as the play ends.[10]

Revivals and adaptationsEdit


A Phoenix Too Frequent was revived at the Arts Theatre, London on 20 November 1946. Hannen again played Dynamene, Joan White played Doto and Paul Scofield played Tegeus. The director was Noel Willman.[7] The production ran for 64 performances.[11] A production directed by John Crockett toured Britain in 1950 and 1951, presenting the play in a double bill with Chekhov's farce The Proposal.[12]

The play was staged at the Fulton Theatre, Broadway on 26 April 1950, and closed after five performances. Nina Foch played Dynamene, Richard Derr Tegeus and Vicki Cummings Doto.[13] According to Emil Roy in a 1968 study of Fry, the early withdrawal of the piece was "largely because of faulty acting" and being coupled in a double bill with an unsuitable companion piece.[11] A later American production was staged by Writers Theatre in 2001, directed by Michael W. Halberstam with Karen Janes Woditsch as Dynamene, Sean Fortunato as Tegeus and Maggie Carney as Doto.[14] A planned 2020 production by American Players Theatre was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.[15]

Television adaptationsEdit

The first television broadcast was in June 1946 on BBC Television, based on the original Mercury stage production, featuring Hannen, Summerfield and Wheatley.[16] There were further BBC television versions in 1951, featuring Jessie Evans, Diana Graves and John Justin,[17] 1955, featuring George Cole, Jessie Evans and Noelle Middleton,[18] and 1972, featuring Lynn Farleigh as Dynamene, William Gaunt as Tegeus and Julia Sutton as Doto.[19]

In 1955 a version was broadcast on West German television. The cast comprised Sigrid Marquardt, Käte Jaenicke and Günther König.[20] The following year a production was broadcast on Danish television.[21]

A version aired in 1957 on Australian television, on the ABC at a time when Australian drama production was rare.[22] Produced by Paul O'Loughlin, it aired live in Sydney on 24 July 1957, and a recording was later broadcast in Melbourne. The cast comprised Dinah Shearing as Dynamene, James Condon as Tegeus and Audrey Teesdale as Doto.[23][24]

Between 1959 and 1966 adaptations were transmitted by television stations in Switzerland (1959, featuring Ingeborg Luescher, Beatrice Schweizer and Wolfgang Schwarz),[25] Finland (1960),[26] West Germany (1963, featuring Dinah Hinz, Charles Brauer and Angelika Hurwicz),[27] Austria (1966, with Christiane Hörbiger, Carla Hagen and Walter Reyer),[28] and Australia (1966, featuring Lynette Curran as Dynamene, Sean Scully as Tegeus and Fay Kelton as Doto, directed by Oscar Whitbread).[29]

Radio adaptationsEdit

The BBC broadcast adaptations in 1947, featuring the original Mercury cast,[30] and in 1976, featuring Sarah Badel, Gawn Grainger and Patsy Rowlands.[31]

Notes, references and sourcesEdit


  1. ^ Cui comparatus indecens erit pavo/Inamabilis sciurus, et frequens Phoenix: referring to the poet's lost love, compared to whom, in a more modern English version than Burton's, "the peacock was ugly, the squirrel unattractive, the phoenix a common object".[5][6]


  1. ^ Trewin, J. C., and Sayoni Basu. "Dukes, Ashley (1885–1959), playwright and theatre critic", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 4 October 2020. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. ^ a b "The Mercury: Plays by Poets", The Stage, 2 May 1946, p. 7
  3. ^ Wiersma, Stanley. "Christopher Fry's A PhoenixToo Frequent: A Study In Source and Symbol", Modern Drama, December 1965, pp. 293–302 (subscription required)
  4. ^ Fry, title page
  5. ^ Burton, p. 182
  6. ^ Bohn, p. 240
  7. ^ a b c Fry, unnumbered introductory page
  8. ^ Mercury Theatre: Two Plays by Poets", The Times, 26 April 1946, p. 6
  9. ^ Fry, p. 32
  10. ^ Fry, pp. 41–43
  11. ^ a b Roy, p. 50
  12. ^ "Appleby hears the Compass Players", Penrith Observer, 28 March 1950, p. 6; "Repertory", The Stage, 22 June 1950, p. 12; and "Exuberant Production by Compass Players", Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 27 January 1951, p. 4
  13. ^ "A Phoenix Too Frequent", Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 4 October 2020
  14. ^ Christianson, Richard. " Early Fry still charms", Chicago Tribune, 28 September 2001. Retrieved 4 October 2020
  15. ^ "A Phoenix Too Frequent", American Players Theatre, 2020. Retrieved 4 October 2020
  16. ^ "A Phoenix Too Frequent", BBC Genome. Retrieved 4 October 2020
  17. ^ "A Phoenix Too Frequent", BBC Genome. Retrieved 4 October 2020
  18. ^ "A Phoenix Too Frequent", BBC Genome. Retrieved 4 October 2020
  19. ^ "A Phoenix Too Frequent", BBC Genome. Retrieved 4 October 2020
  20. ^ "Ein Phoenix zuviel" – via www.imdb.com.
  21. ^ "Virilius" – via www.imdb.com.
  22. ^ Vagg, Stephen (18 February 2019). "60 Australian TV Plays of the 1950s & '60s". Filmink.
  23. ^ "Television News". Sydney Morning Herald. 17 July 1957. p. 7.
  24. ^ "Wednesday Television". The Age. 5 September 1957. p. 16.
  25. ^ "Ein Phönix zuviel" – via www.imdb.com.
  26. ^ "Malja Viriliukselle" – via www.imdb.com.
  27. ^ "Ein Phönix zuviel" – via www.imdb.com.
  28. ^ "Ein Phönix zuviel" – via www.imdb.com.
  29. ^ "Featured Fun". The Age. 30 June 1966. p. 9.
  30. ^ "A Phoenix Too Frequent", BBC Genome. Retrieved 4 October 2020
  31. ^ "A Phoenix Too Frequent", BBC Genome. Retrieved 4 October 2020