Review - The Duchess of Malfi

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John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

A Review by Dr Tony Lynch

The conventional view of John Webster (c1580-c1634), the Jacobean playwright, is neatly captured in John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love. In the 1998 film Shakespeare asks a young boy feeding a live mouse to a cat what he thought of Titus Andronicus. The boy replies, “I like it when they cut the heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives… Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing.” The boy’s name is John Webster.

Webster, on this view – which, until recently, was my own – is a gothic horror man. Completely over the top when it comes to gore, death, torture and mutilation, to which he happily sacrificed plausibility of plot and character. OK, there might be the occasional flashes of poetic genius, but these gems sparkle perhaps even more than they should just because of the unremitting satanic vaudeville in which they have their place.

If one had to characterize the man and his plays in terms of a modern analogue, then Quentin Tarantino might be your man. So, certainly an important figure, but hardly an exalted genius like Shakespeare, or intellectual master of technique like Jonson. Rather a lesser epigone of Christopher Marlowe’s more melodramatic moments inflated to the level of absurdity.

I was wrong.

I found this out when I saw Milly Roberts’ superb production of The Duchess of Malfi (1614) at the Arts Theatre of this university a couple of weeks ago. I feel a certain embarrassment at my breakthrough, for one reason I achieved it certainly had to do with the play being edited to half its normal 3+ hours. Three hours of satanic vaudeville might have been fine for Jacobean audiences used to interminable sermons, but for a modern attention-challenged age it asks more than most can deliver, let alone endure.

But more important than the length reduction was nature of that reduction. For Roberts managed not merely to keep most of the poetic highlights, (“Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,/Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.” “That’s the greatest torture souls feel in hell,/In hell: that they must live, and cannot die.” “Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out./The element of water moistens the earth,/But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens.” etc.),

but did so while paring the action down to its emotional core, so that what I had previously thought a messily, even poorly, plotted show of gratuitous horrors became a taut social and psychological tragedy whose inner necessity equals that of Sophocles’ Antigone.

Webster and Sophocles? Antigone and The Duchess of Malfi? Surely this is going too far! Well, no. I don’t think so. For Roberts’ streamlined production let me see that The Duchess of Malfi is, like Antigone, a family tragedy of a special, and specially terrifying, kind. It is a tragedy of children together in a world without parents, condemned by their blood relationship to play or search for those parental roles they do not, and cannot, truly find or play, and in the process destroying themselves.

The play starts with the young, recently widowed Duchess being told by her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, for reasons never made clear, that she must not marry again. The Duchess agrees, the brothers leave, and she promptly marries her steward, equally promptly producing three children by him. Through the work of a spy (Bosola) hired to keep an eye on the Duchess, the brothers find out about the marriage and children, and all hell breaks loose. The elder brother, the Cardinal, is mostly furious at the Duchess’s disobedience which dishonours the siblings’ ties of trust, order and propriety, so undermining the authority of the absent father they must create amongst themselves; while the Duchess’s twin, Ferdinand, literally goes mad at what he takes to be an adulterous affair in which she has not only been unfaithful to them, but has dared, in her three children, to create a family of her own, a true family with a real, existing, father and mother; a family whose very reality shows the desperate illusion of their own parentless efforts to create themselves as family. And so the torture and killing that leaves everyone dead, except for the first son of the Duchess’s ill-fated marriage. This little boy – the only one of the three children we ever see, and then only once, now, amidst all the blood – is taken by some as the play’s final message of hope and redemption; but that, surely, is as wrong as can be (this, I take it, is why Roberts cuts this, for her whole interpretation pulls the other way). For this child, like his mother and her brothers, now lives traumatized in a parentless world, and so the cycle continues…

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Perhaps the trauma of parentless children trying – and failing – to make a life together as a family is an allegorical representation of a world without God. More likely, in Webster’s world, it is the other way round. A world without God an allegorisation of a world without parents, a world of children, of brothers and sisters, trying to make a life together, trying to be a family, and so trying to do the impossible; for we cannot be our own parents. And if we do try it, then our sister’s marriage is adultery at the same time as our imagined relationship with her incestuous. No wonder it ends badly.

Of course, none of this would have mattered at all if the actors hadn’t inhabited their roles, but inhabit them they did, and doing that they revealed the true magic of Webster’s poetry: the way it – far more than Shakespeare or Marlowe or Jonson – not only, as Eliot said, “reveals the skull beneath the skin”, but is the language of real people, caught up in the worst of that whirl of organism we call life.

So now I have the Webster bug. I wish Roberts and company would perform the tragic-comedy The Devil’s Law Case, and I wish they could perform what Webster himself thought his best play, the lost comedy Guise. Who knows? If we had that then John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love might have to lose a scene.

Dr. Tony Lynch

Photos: S. Horsfield


The Duchess of Malfi was performed at the Arts Theatre at UNE on October 3,4, and 5. 

Directed by Milly Roberts

Cast The Duchess - Jess Vince-Moin The Duke Ferdinand - Josh Osborne The Cardinal - Alex Robson Bosola - Peter Newman Antonio - Nick Sinclair Cariola - Torie Hall Julia - Ashleigh Baker Delio - Jeremy Stibbard Castruccio - Judd Newton Roderigo - Chris Myers

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