January 24, 2003: Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

National Theatre, Lyttelton, preview

I am so much moved and troubled by this production that I feel unable to write about it at the present moment. It is such a profound exposure of the depths of evil people are capable of — were then, are now — that I cannot face writing about it. We are on the brink of a horrendous war, and tonight I have seen the representation of children being hanged and strangled, and it is too much, too much.


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I have calmed down about the production of The Duchess, but I was mightily stricken by it for a day or so (it is now Sunday and I am on board American Airlines 109, shortly to take off for Boston). I suppose my strong reaction testifies to how powerful this production is in capturing Webster’s sense of irremediable evil gone out of control in a corrupt society and an unknowable world.

The set is simple but striking in a bold, thematic way. The central feature is a wide, high set of “bleachers” (an American English term), perhaps 8-10 rows high and covering the entire width of the stage. At various points in the action charac­ters walk all the way up and over it, disappearing out of sight over the rise. Downstage of this is a kind of depression, parallel to the front row of bleachers. Running the width of this is a very large square of plexiglass, perhaps eight feet square. At the opening moment of the play, the square being at stage right, we see — or sense, more than see clearly — various persons sitting by themselves and dispersed up and across the bleachers. The plexiglass square begins traveling towards stage left; as it moves, spotlights come on, one at a time, and then go off again. This serves to pick out each character and momentarily to frame and high­light that character — only to plunge them quickly again into the general gloom. After the fact, it strikes me that I was looking at a range of seats in hell. (“This is hell,” Marlowe’s Mephistopheles says, “nor am I out of it.”)

This is a modern dress production, clothed in the habits of our own times, and somewhat on the ordinary-to-shabby side, even in the case of the Duchess and others presumed to be wealthy. Almost all of it is black or at least dark. But then the brightest colors are the red piping on the Cardinal’s habit. Many of the men are dressed in clerical garb, and Roman collars. One of Bosola’s disguises is this same clerical garb. The production runs about two and a quarter hours and is performed without intermission as an indication of its quality of relentlessness. The sliding plexiglass square is also used to hide certain characters, such as the Duchess’s obsessed twin brother Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, who are spot-lighted into full visibility by this means. Overall, this striking device even adds a measure of metaphysical transparency to the entire production. We are in the presence of a chaotic, ungovernable force, before which human beings are quite helpless, even though they may assert their wills in the most aggressive way.

A measure of how oppressive this force proves to be is the transaction, early on, between Bosola, time’s independent contractor, and Ferdinand (or is it the Car­dinal?), who offers him a briefcase full of cash to spy on and in all ways become his ­agent with regard to the Duchess. When Bosola finds out, rather explic­itly, what is going to be involved in this hire, he at first reneges; but then, with a shrug, he bows to what feels like the inevitable and accepts the commis­sion. A curious and deeply interesting character, Bosola is paradoxically time’s servant and the conscience of the play, and his troubled manner throughout suggests that he is a figure for the ordinary man of mixed motives who tends to act instinc­tively even though he has, it seems, beliefs and principles. When, late in the play, he kills Antonio, the Duchess’s husband, he does so in error, for Antonio is the last person Bosola wants to see dead; in fact, it is in Antonio’s case, when Bosola receives the commandment for his death, that Bosola resolves to turn his successive evil acts around and do something beneficial, for a change, for some other human being.

Because it is the National Theatre, by long tradition the program has more commentary than other programs, although they charge no more for it than usual. There is included a selection of observations on Webster and his two chief plays (the other being The White Devil) that have in common, from Charles Lamb to T.S. Eliot and beyond, a sense of how ghastly Webster’s world is and how pitiful his characters. When the Duchess, deliberately and, it seems, perversely marries in secret a man of lower estate, and does so frankly out of sexual lust, she sets in action a train of accidents whose outcome is more horrible than anyone might have envisaged. Lisa Jardine, whose book on dangerous women is also excerpted here, reminds us of how important orderly and preferential succession in families, over generations, was in Webster’s time. She helps us to see the extent of the Duchess’s deliberate thwarting of these desiderata. The play itself shows us how severely she is punished for it. And in the character of Ferdinand, her twin brother, the play shows us depths of perversity and thwart (if that’s not a word, it should be) that no analysis of society and landed aristocracy can explain. This production, in the capable hands of Phyllida Lloyd, emphasizes some core of sick, incestuous anxiety felt by Ferdinand when he discovers his twin sister has given herself to another man. As she lies dead he falls on her and kisses her on the mouth. “Mine eyes dazzle; she died young,” he says, unable to deal with such a huge loss — a loss that drives him mad.

The structural feature of the play that clearly shows us what Webster is getting at — that the play is a tragedy about unmitigated evil, not simply the tragedy of the Duchess herself — is revealed in how much of the play there is still left to perform after the Duchess is strangled. By that point, in this production, we have given up all hope of an interval in which to collect ourselves and are reconciled to seeing out this pitiful and horrifying exposé of human mendacity and frailty to its bitter end. I have not been hit so hard by any play in many a year.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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