THE WHITE DEVIL
Monday, December 5, 7:30 pm
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St.
Directed by Louisa Proske
Featuring Justin Blanchard, Kathleen Chalfant, Clifton Duncan, Danaya Esperanza, Allen Gilmore, Sheria Irving, Merritt Janson, Andrew Long, Mark Nelson, Edward O'Blenis, Jeffrey Omura, Matthew Rauch, Jeanine Serralles, Rocco Sisto, and more
Morality is torn to shreds as a passionate affair between the beautiful Vittoria and her lover, the Duke, unleashes a murderous revenge plot in this Jacobean potboiler.
Although they are both married to other people, The Duke of Brachiano has conceived a violent passion for Vittoria Corombona, daughter of a noble but impoverished Venetian family. Vittoria's brother, Flamineo, employed as a secretary to Brachiano, has been scheming to bring his sister and the Duke together in the hope of advancing his career and their family fortune. But the arrival of Brachiano's wife Isabella, escorted by her brother and the Cardinal, forces their hands and the scheming quickly turns deadly.
The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
John Webster was a Londoner born in 1578 or 1579, which made him about fifteen years younger than Shakespeare, and 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 and 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. 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 use an Italian setting to depict a world in which lust, ruthless ambition, and treachery predominate, and in which heroic aspiration, whatever form it takes, is always defeated by death. 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!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.
What Eliot appreciated was the sense in Webster’s plays of death’s imminence and the way in which knowledge of the body’s inevitable putrefaction both mocks human ambition and makes it all the more precious. In The White Devil death is everywhere, but it is seldom the result of old age or sickness. Rather, people die by design. They 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. Yet in this wasteland of crumpled bodies, human beings keep clinging to their lusts and their desires, sometimes magnificently so.
The White Devil is usually thought of as a revenge tragedy, and in the broadest sense that is right. Brachiano, married to Isabella, falls passionately in love with the strong-willed and beautiful Vittoria, who has wed Camillo. In pursuit of his adulterous passion, in Act II 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. The counteraction of the play sees Francisco, Duke of Florence and sister of Isabella, seeking 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, including Flamineo, are killed.
The voraciousness with which Brachiano and Vittoria pursue their adulterous passion, along with the glorious 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. The flaring of her life force, with “its lusts and luxuries,” is an act of defiance that invites the audience to go beyond simple morality in judging her and Webster’s other characters. In this play, the truly virtuous, like Cornelia, mother of Vittoria and Flamineo, are also truly tedious.
Flamineo, the discontented secretary, is Webster’s other remarkable creation, and clear kin to Bosola, the discontented 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, yet he has the courage to face 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). In Webster, death is the inevitability that prompts the relentless pursuit of life’s lawless pleasures, as well as, sometimes, courage, insight, and Stoic resignation.
Jean Howard, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University