Brush up your Webster

I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned that I’m doing another play. We’re currently in rehearsals for John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. I do like me a bit of Jacobean tragedy, particularly when it’s as stabbalicious as this.

The play is a highly abridged version, for the simple reason that we’re taking it up to the Edinburgh Fringe, where performance slots are short. I went up there back in 2005, and I therefore speak from experience when I say that the chance to go to the festival is not to be passed up. It was a haze of bohemian drunkenness and attacking Vanessa Feltz in the street (long story). The play that time was Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney, which is right up my street, and we were honoured to have Mr Ridley himself attend some of the rehearsals.

One of my enduring memories was when our extremely drama-student-stereotype lead actor attempted to grovel to Ridley, saying “I feel a bit weird with the author here, like there’s this little dwarf of authorial intent saying, ‘That’s not how it should be performed!'” Ridley’s reply, with an entirely straight face, was, “Yes, but what you have to remember is that you can rape the dwarf.” Good times.

But enough wallowing in the past. The Duchess of Malfi, or Malfi as it’s known to friends, is a rather splendid tale of forbidden love, greed, corruption, Machiavellian plotting and lots of imaginative death, with undercurrents of incest and xenophobia. Everything you’d want from a Jacobean tragedy, really. It’s also notable in that the best lines go to the Duchess, which is rather unusual for the era – women in Jacobean drama either tend to be boring or evil. Yr. Humble Chronicler is playing the Cardinal, brother of the titular Duchess and mastermind of the various plots. Once again, I’ve been cast as the psychotic agent of a corrupt theocracy. There’s obviously something about me that suggests that quality. Maybe it’s all the blasphemy.

The play was premiered at some point in the early 1610s at the Blackfriars Theatre, one of Wm. Shakespeare’s old stomping grounds – indeed, the company that staged it, the King’s Men, was Mr Shakespeare’s. And speaking of Shakespeare, it was apparently also performed at the Globe.

 Unfortunately, we can’t be too precise about the dates. One of the most irritating things about Jacobean drama is how very little we know about some of its key figures. Even the life of Shakespeare is heavily based on speculation, educated guesses and the study discipline that historians call “making shit up.” About Webster, who is one of the best-known and most highly regarded Jacobean dramatists after the Bard, we know very little indeed. We think he studied law and we’re pretty sure he was born and raised in London, but a lot of this comes from survivng documents from about the right period that feature the name “John Webster.” According to T. S. Eliot, “Webster was much possessed by death/And saw the skull beneath the skin,” but no surviving documents indicate that he had any form of X-ray vision, so Eliot’s sources for this frankly astonishing claim are unclear.

Still, as Bill Bryson notes in his highly-readable Shakespeare, even Webster has been fortunate in historical terms. A lot of dramatists are only known as names on posters. Some of them, not even that. There are plenty of authors whose identities have been lost to us – we can only speculate educatedly on the authorship of my favourite Jacobean work, The Revenger’s Tragedy, for instance. Sucks to be those guys.

Webster’s best known plays are The White Devil and, of course, the aforementioned Duchess of Malfi. These are both rather grim and stabtastic, regarded today as outstanding examples of their genre, so it’s perhaps surprising to learn that the vast majority of his work was actually comedy. I suppose Webster gots to pay the rent.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how it goes. Hurricane Jack is coming over for beer and movies, so I must depart.




Filed under Arts, Current events, History, Literature, London, Theatre

3 responses to “Brush up your Webster

  1. I love the Duchess of Malfi, largely because it is bonkers! Studied it at A Level and saw a really comedically bad version ( wobbly sets etc) but still think it is a fab play. Bit of a geeky reference but did you notice John Webster crops up in Shakespeare in Love as a young teenage actor who seems to spend most of his on screen time torturing mice!

  2. ophelia

    Love the Revenger’s Tragedy!

  3. Pingback: Mine eyes dazzle | London Particulars

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