CLOSED APRIL 14, 2019
LUCILLE LORTEL THEATRE
121 CHRISTOPHER STREET
BY JOHN WEBSTER
DIRECTED BY LOUISA PROSKE
Vittoria is no angel...but is she guilty of murder? Her social-climbing brother ruthlessly exploits her carnal affair with a power-drunk Duke. The arrival of the Duke's wife, her brother, and the soon-to-be-Pope triggers a cycle of deceit and retribution that shatters family bonds and threatens the social order.
With his sumptuous language, John Webster spins an epic tale of intrigue, desire, and revenge that culminates in a fabulously bloody conclusion. Wickedness and beauty intersect in a hellish world, where endless deception weaves a terrifyingly entertaining tale of fake news, systemic misogyny, rigged trials, and hypocritical holy men.
Writing about a society sliding toward civil war, John Webster is a playwright for our era. Director Louisa Proske interprets his 17th-century play as a contemporary, dystopian dive into a dizzying maze of sex, wealth, and power.
Featuring Amara James Aja, Jenny Bacon, Lisa Birnbaum, Robert Cuccioli, Edward O’Blenis, Daniel Oreskes, Cherie Corinne Rice, Socorro Santiago, Tommy Schrider, Derek Smith, and T. Ryder Smith
Scenery by Kate Noll | Costumes by Beth Goldenberg | Lighting by JiYoun Chang | Sound & Music by Chad Raines | Video by Yana Birÿkova
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
JOHN WEBSTER was a Londoner born in 1578 or 1579, which made him about fifteen years younger than Shakespeare, and he lived until the early 1630s. He was the son of a successful coachmaker, John Webster senior, whose business supplying coaches and wagons brought him into contact with London theater companies needing carts to transport their properties and costumes. He was also brought into contact with those who built the yearly pageants for the Lord Mayor’s celebrations. Tradition has it that the young John Webster was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School and the Middle Temple (London’s training ground for lawyers), but the evidence for these claims is sparse. We know for certain that he married Sara Penial in March of 1606 when she was seven months pregnant, and that he began to write plays shortly after 1600. Like many dramatists of the period, much of Webster’s career was spent in collaborative writing. In 1602 the theater manager Richard Henslowe lent money to Webster, Munday, Middleton, Drayton, and Webster to complete a play on the life of Julius Caesar for the Admiral’s Men. That play is not extant, nor are many others upon which Webster worked; but we do have the two lively city comedies, Westward Ho and Northward Ho, that he wrote with Thomas Dekker in 1604 and 1605 for the Children of St. Paul’s, and the history play, Sir Thomas Wyatt, printed in 1607, also a collaboration with Dekker. On his own, Webster wrote two of the greatest tragedies of the Jacobean period—The White Devil in 1612 and The Duchess of Malfi in 1614—and a tragicomedy, The Devil’s Law Case, in 1617 or 1618. In the later years of his career he wrote city comedies and tragicomedies in collaboration with Middleton, Rowley, Fletcher, and others.
ABOUT THE PLAY
As far as we know, The White Devil (1612) was the first play Webster wrote solely by himself. Performed at the popular Red Bull Theater in north London, it was followed two years later by what is usually considered Webster’s masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi. Both are set in Italy and depict a world in which characters are defined by lust, lawless ambition, and treachery. T.S. Eliot, writing about Webster in “Whispers of Immortality,” suggestively said:
Webster was much possessed by
death And saw the skull beneath
the skin; And breastless creatures
under ground Leaned backward
with a lipless grin. Daffodil bulbs
instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
Eliot caught here the macabre fascination with death in Webster’s tragedies and the way in which the grave, repository of skulls and bones, mocks human ambition and aspiration. Whatever Webster’s characters hope to achieve, in the end they are defeated by the foe that captures everyone. Death comes in novel ways in The White Devil. Characters kiss poisoned pictures, have their necks deliberately broken when exercising on a vaulting horse, go brainsick from the fumes of a poisoned helmet, or, more prosaically, are run through with a sword. Webster’s talents as a dramatist are shown in part by his inventiveness with these technologies of death.
The White Devil belongs to the early modern genre of revenge tragedy, a type of play in which crime spurs secret retaliation that in turn spurs further revenge. We see this cycle when Brachiano, married to Isabella, falls passionately in love with the beautiful Vittoria, who is married to Camillo. In pursuit of his adulterous passion, Brachiano has Isabella killed by a poisoned painting and Camillo’s neck snapped at the vaulting horse. Flamineo, the discontented and poor secretary to Brachiano and Vittoria’s brother, is his instrument. In the play’s counteraction, Francisco, Duke of Florence and his sister of Isabella, seeks revenge for her murder, aided by the Cardinal Monticelso, and Count Lodovico, an unrequited lover of Isabella. Vittoria stands trial and is banished to a religious house before both she and Brachiano, and a host of others, are killed.
The voraciousness with which Brachiano and Vittoria, the play’s protagonists, pursue their adulterous passion, along with the remarkable composure displayed by Vittoria in the long courtroom scene that dominates Act III, are riveting theater. Brachiano and Vittoria are villain heroes; each ruthlessly spurns conventional morality; each displays remarkable courage and strength of mind in the face of almost certain death and, in Vittoria’s case, in the face of the combined forces of state and church. Her outspoken defiance of those who would judge her, her insistence that they stop speaking Latin and condemn her plainly in their shared native tongue, have made this character interesting to contemporary feminists. In a play in which men have most of the power, she seizes as much of it as she can, unmasking the hypocrisy and double standard by which her crimes are punished and men’s are not. Cornelia, mother of Vittoria and Flamineo, is the play’s only truly “good” woman, a figure of antique Roman virtue rather than contemporary Italian vice, but she is out-shone, theatrically speaking, by the shamelessly adulterous Vittoria and her Moorish maid, Zanche.
Flamineo, the discontented secretary, is Webster’s other remarkable creation in this play. He is clear kin to Bosola, the ambitious courtier in The Duchess of Malfi. Like Bosola, Flamineo serves the great and does terrible things, including murdering his brother, to win their favor. Like many other Renaissance aspiring servants, his efforts win him few rewards, but when it comes his time to die, he faces death with clear-eyed Stoicism: “We cease to grieve, cease to be Fortune’s slaves / Nay, cease to die by dying” (V.vi.252-53). Here, death inspires less terror than relief. It means the end of fearing death; it means the end of a life dominated by Fortune, that restless goddess who gives men opportunities only to snatch them away. Bosola has been great men’s lackey, trying to seize fickle Fortune’s rewards. In the end, he achieves a noble death only by embracing it and setting his face against the world whose prizes have teased and eluded him.
Jean Howard, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
LOUISA PROSKE (Director) brings her talent for creating vivid theatrical worlds, her raw passion and attention to detail to productions in opera, classical theatre and contemporary drama. She is the recipient of a 2018 Princess Grace Award and was chosen as the Musical America New Artist of the Month for May 2018. Opera productions include Agrippina (Lincoln Center Debut - Carnegie Hall/ Juilliard Vocal Arts), La Bohème Warhola (Pittsburgh Festival Opera), Così fan tutte (LoftOpera), Don Giovanni, Carmen, Lucia di Lammermoor, Daphnis & Chloé, Miss Handel (all Heartbeat Opera), Falstaff (Dell’Arte Opera), GianniSchicchi, Riders to the Sea, La Voix Humaine (Yale Opera); the world premiere of Invisible Cities at the Italian Academy New York; Nostalgia Kills You and ReAnimator Requiem (Experiments in Opera); Anthony Braxton’s Trillium J (as Associate Director). She is the proud Co-Artistic Director of Heartbeat Opera (“a radical endeavor” - The New Yorker, “pioneers” - The Wall Street Journal).
Theatre productions include peerless (nominated for a Berkshire Theatre Award for Outstanding Direction), Gaslight, This, Engagements (all Barrington Stage Company), One Day When We Were Young (Assembly, Edinburgh), Pinkalicious the Musical (Hangar Theatre, Ithaca), The Winstons (Juilliard School of Drama); Rum 'n Coca Cola in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore (The Tank), Cymbeline and As You Like It at Yale School of Drama, and a European tour of Macbeth.
Louisa has assisted such prominent opera and theatre directors as Willy Decker, Harry Kupfer and Robert Woodruff. Louisa’s translation of Fassbinder's film script In a Year with 13 Moons was presented at Yale Repertory Theatre, directed by Robert Woodruff and featuring Bill Camp. Louisa is an alumna of the Drama League Director’s Project and the Soho Rep. Writer-Director Lab. She holds an MFA in Theatre Directing from Yale School of Drama, and a BA in English Literature from Cambridge University, UK. She is on faculty at Maggie Flanigan Studio teaching Shakespeare Acting and Script Analysis.