Posts Tagged ‘John Webster’

Plays, briefly noted

August 7, 2021

A few quick notes today on several plays I’ve read as part of a survey of early-ish modern drama.

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Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Robert Greene
(Ernest Benn, 1969) [c.1590]
xxxvi + 95 p.

An early example of a romantic comedy for the English stage, Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is an entertaining play that would be fun to see staged. I was surprised to discover that a significant group of the characters are based on real historical figures — King Henry III and his son, the future Edward I, and Elinor of Castile; I didn’t expect to encounter such a precise historical setting in a comedy, although, on reflection, I suppose there is no good reason that it should not be done. Even the titular Friar Bacon, although the connection is not explicitly made, is thought to have been based on the Oxford master Roger Bacon.

The play is notable for its double-plot, which was to become a staple of Shakespeare’s comedies, but which had been previously rare. In one, Prince Edward, intended in marriage to Elinor, falls in love with a fresh-faced peasant girl, the Fair Maid of Fressingfield, but a love quadrangle arises when an Earl also falls for her. In another plot, Friar Bacon uses magical arts to assist various characters to achieve their particular ends: he teleports them, allows them to see events far removed (using something like a palantír), and conjures devils. This portrait of Bacon was among the most intriguing aspects of the play; C.S. Lewis often remarked on the close relationship of magic and science in the early modern period, and this play is a good exhibit of the tendency. Bacon is the university scholar and experimentalist par excellence, and within the play that essentially means that he is a master of dark arts.

Friar Bungay is a secondary character whom, one suspects, was vaulted into the play’s title primarily for alliterative effect. The play is written mostly in blank verse — one character speaks in rhyme to good comedic effect — but to my ear the verse is not particularly distinguished.

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The White Devil
John Webster
(Oxford, 1996) [1612]
102 p.

I enjoyed Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi so much that I was greatly looking forward to reading this play, written just a couple of years earlier. Its Roman setting, its plot driven by high church intrigue among the Medicis, and its good press had me expecting another success.

Alas. Alas for me, no doubt. I had enormous difficulties following the story, could not seem to remember how characters were related to one another, failed to grasp why characters killed other characters, and arrived at the last page without having marked a single passage as being of special interest. If pressed, I am not sure I could say what the white devil happened. I am ready to heap the blame on my own head, for it is undeniably true that I have been reading under inauspicious circumstances (ie. tending to sudden, though inadequately prolonged, bouts of unconsciousness). It’s probably a fine play; you should read it and tell me about it.

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A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1613]
52 p.

The title, as I understand it, is as much to say, “A snowball in hell”. We have here a riotous comedy of London life in which the social classes are caught up in a melee of adultery and procreation. We learn, along the way — although one hates for superficial prejudices to be confirmed — never to trust a man surnamed “Whorehound”.

There actually is a chaste maid, just as there is, they say, a slender chance of a Hadesian snowball. She wants to marry a fine young man who loves her truly, but is under pressure to accept the proposal of the aforementioned Whorehound. Under such circumstances, there’s but one thing to be done: run away! And, failing that, the play indulges in a rather sweet, Much Ado About Nothing-style feigned death to bring everyone to their senses.

My favourite character was the elder brother of the fine young man, a married man who, in desperation, plans to separate from his wife to avoid impregnating her again:

But as thou sayst, we must give way to need
And live awhile asunder, our desires
Are both too fruitful for our barren fortunes.
How adverse runs the destiny of some creatures–
Some only can get riches and no children,
We only can get children and no riches;
Then ’tis the prudent’st part to check our wills,
And till our state rise, make our bloods lie still.
Life, every year a child, and some years two,
Besides drinkings abroad, that’s never reckoned;
This gear will not hold out.

I can relate. Mind you, he goes on to offer his impregnation services to whomever wishes to take advantage of them, a course to which, though my virtue be but little, I cannot relate.

Anyway, it’s a fun play, stuffed with double entendres and outlandish characters, and it all wraps up splendidly.

Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

January 14, 2020

The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster
(Bloomsbury Methuen, 2014) [c.1613]
192 p.

This is auspicious. Almost my first steps off the beaten trail in seventeenth century drama have turned up a play that seems an outright masterpiece.

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The Duchess is a young widow. She falls in love with a man below her social class, and marries him in secret. Meanwhile her brothers, anxious to avoid just such a demeaning connection, forbid her to remarry. When the marriage is eventually discovered, violence erupts, and, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the play ends with the stage littered with bodies.

The play has wonderful characters. The Duchess herself is a strong and noble character, winsome and beautiful, and the arc she follows from admirably strong woman to tragic heroine over the course of the play is wonderfully handled. Her elder brother, a Cardinal, is a fine model of the worldly and corrupt Renaissance churchman (and not only of the Renaissance!). Her younger brother, Ferdinand, is a piece of work: prone to fits of violent emotion, there is something unsettlingly carnal and possessive about his guarding the Duchess against remarriage. The Duchess’ secret husband, Antonio, is open-mannered and honest, a man whose entry into the Duchess’ orbit puts one in mind of a lamb going to slaughter.

But perhaps the play’s greatest character is Bosola, a servant of the Cardinal who begins by spying on the Duchess and ends drenched in blood. His deeds are evil, but he has doubts and misgivings about them that flower into tragic regret. He is one of those rare birds: a sympathetic villain. Here, for example, is his speech at the death of the Duchess:

BOSOLA.  O, she’s gone again! there the cords of life broke.
O sacred innocence, that sweetly sleeps
On turtles’ feathers, whilst a guilty conscience
Is a black register wherein is writ
All our good deeds and bad, a perspective
That shows us hell!  That we cannot be suffer’d
To do good when we have a mind to it!
This is manly sorrow;
These tears, I am very certain, never grew
In my mother’s milk.  My estate is sunk
Below the degree of fear:  where were
These penitent fountains while she was living?
O, they were frozen up!  Here is a sight
As direful to my soul as is the sword
Unto a wretch hath slain his father.
(IV, 2)

It is a great moment: the villain weeps at the state of his own soul. And it is a great speech too, seeming to burst from him in a moment of passion and moral clarity.

I remarked when I read a few of Ben Jonson’s plays that the poetry seemed world’s away from Shakespearean verse. Not so in this play; on the contrary, I was again and again reminded of the Bard. Here, for example, is an exchange between the Duchess and her brothers in the first Act, in which the Duchess says she’ll not remarry, and the brothers, for their own reasons, doubt her:

DUCHESS.                          Will you hear me?  I’ll never marry.
CARDINAL.           So most widows say;  But commonly that motion lasts no longer
Than the turning of an hour-glass:  the funeral sermon
And it end both together.
FERDINAND.                 Now hear me:
You live in a rank pasture, here, i’ the court;
There is a kind of honey-dew that’s deadly;
‘T will poison your fame; look to ‘t.  Be not cunning;
For they whose faces do belie their hearts
Are witches ere they arrive at twenty years,
Ay, and give the devil suck.
DUCHESS.  This is terrible good counsel.
FERDINAND.  Hypocrisy is woven of a fine small thread,
Subtler than Vulcan’s engine: yet, believe ‘t,
Your darkest actions, nay, your privat’st thoughts,
Will come to light.
CARDINAL.            You may flatter yourself,
And take your own choice; privately be married
Under the eaves of night——
FERDINAND.                  Think ‘t the best voyage
That e’er you made; like the irregular crab,
Which, though ‘t goes backward, thinks that it goes right
Because it goes its own way:  but observe,
Such weddings may more properly be said
To be executed than celebrated.
(I, 3)

Even just from this short segment, we have three well-delineated characters with definite points of view. We have neat concision (“The funeral sermon / And it end both together.”), a memorable simile (the crab), an aphorism (“For they whose faces…”), and some delightful wordplay (the last two lines). It is very good poetry and very good drama, and to me, at least, it feels quite close to the verse Shakespeare wrote.

One difference, though, between the two is that Webster’s characters (in this play) generally have short speeches; as a rule, no one character holds the stage for very long. The few exceptions to this tendency are interesting though. In this one, for example, the Duchess tells a moralistic fable to illustrate the fickleness of worldly judgments of rank and worth:

DUCHESS.  I prithee, who is greatest?  Can you tell?
Sad tales befit my woe:  I’ll tell you one.
A salmon, as she swam unto the sea.
Met with a dog-fish, who encounters her
With this rough language; ‘Why art thou so bold
To mix thyself with our high state of floods,
Being no eminent courtier, but one
That for the calmest and fresh time o’ th’ year
Dost live in shallow rivers, rank’st thyself
With silly smelts and shrimps?  And darest thou
Pass by our dog-ship without reverence?’
‘O,’ quoth the salmon, ‘sister, be at peace:
Thank Jupiter we both have pass’d the net!
Our value never can be truly known,
Till in the fisher’s basket we be shown:
I’ th’ market then my price may be the higher,
Even when I am nearest to the cook and fire.’
So to great men the moral may be stretched;
Men oft are valu’d high, when they’re most wretched.—
But come, whither you please.  I am arm’d ‘gainst misery;
Bent to all sways of the oppressor’s will:
There’s no deep valley but near some great hill.
(III, 5)

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It would be an interesting exercise (which I’m sure has been done) to go through the play cataloguing references to death. My guess is that it is saturated. Death lurks from behind curtains and casts its shadow from the footlights before eventually assaulting and conquering the stage. Here’s one example, spoken by the play’s truest and gentlest man as he stands in the ruins of a church:

ANTONIO.       I do love these ancient ruins.
We never tread upon them but we set
Our foot upon some reverend history;
And, questionless, here in this open court,
Which now lies naked to the injuries
Of stormy weather, some men lie interr’d
Lov’d the church so well, and gave so largely to ‘t,
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till dooms-day.  But all things have their end;
Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have.
(V, 3)

But though death snatches away most of the principal characters by the end of the final Act, the very last speech, by Bosola, rescues the play from mere despair and destruction by pointing up a larger moral:

These wretched eminent things
Leave no more fame behind ’em, than should one
Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow;
As soon as the sun shines, it ever melts,
Both form and matter.  I have ever thought
Nature doth nothing so great for great men
As when she’s pleas’d to make them lords of truth:
Integrity of life is fame’s best friend,
Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.
(V, 5)

Alas, but few of these characters can claim that crown!

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The play premiered at Blackfriars in London, and played also at the Globe Theatre. Apparently it was one of the first English plays to be performed indoors, with lighting effects. (One scene takes place in complete darkness.) So, at least, was the claim made by the producers of a filmed stage performance that I had the benefit of seeing, and which I highly recommend.

It might be that The Duchess of Malfi is not quite up to Shakespearean tragic standards, but I’d need to spend more time with it before I’d be confident about that. In the meantime, it has been an altogether marvellous discovery for me.

Favourites of 2019: Books

December 28, 2019

It is gratifying to arrive at year-end and discover that, against the odds, I have somehow managed to read quite a nice selection of books over the course of the past twelve months. Today I’d like to comment briefly on those I most appreciated.

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I have had three reading projects on the go this year: the first, a multi-year effort to read the complete surviving body of Old English poetry (in translation) I finished up in February. This was a very rewarding project that brought many delights and surprises with it, and I have written about it at some length in this space.

This was Year 3 in my on-going reading project in Roman history and literature. The entire year I passed in the company of the Augustan poets of the first century before Christ, reading the entire surviving poetic corpi of Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus. Of these, the work I enjoyed the most was probably Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but what most surprised me was the poetry of Propertius, a poet whom I’d heard little enough about but whose delightful, passionate, dramatic poetry strongly appealed to me. I am looking forward to continuing this project in 2020, when I plan to sojourn first with Seneca’s plays and letters before taking up the historical works of Tacitus.

A third reading project, launched in the latter part of the year, is focused on plays from the early modern period (roughly 1550-1800). I’ve started on the stage in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and, of the half-dozen or so plays I’ve got under my belt so far, the most impressive has been John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a masterful tragedy that I found totally convincing.

I suppose a fourth, less formal, reading project has been my tour through the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I began the year reading the annals of Psmith and close out the year mid-stream in the chronicles of Blandings Castle. But it seems churlish to deliberate about which of these choice morsels is most deserving of praise, so I’ll not try.

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I tackled two long novels this year, and mercifully they were both worth the effort. The Tale of Genji is an 11th century Japanese classic that inducts the reader into the hyper-refined world of the Heian court, where elaborate manners and self-control are the order of the day but, in subdued tones, all the passions and interests of human life are present under the surface. It’s a beautifully written (or beautifully translated) masterpiece that I found challenging but worthwhile.

The second was quite different: in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo I found a gripping tale of injustice provoking a long and patient revenge, and I relished every page. It’s a story that seems tailor-made for the big screen, and somebody should really make a film about it. Hey!

I also read — well, finished — for the first time this year C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, and, despite my mild allergy to science fiction, I found much to admire in it. Like the medieval authors whom Lewis so admired, he found a way to pack a good deal of “sound instruction” into his fiction, and I liked that these books grappled with weighty philosophical and theological themes.

The last fiction book I’ll highlight is Richard Adams’ Watership Down. This was a great favourite of my sister’s when I was growing up, but I, for whatever reason, never read it. I ought to have done so. The story is exciting, but Adams takes the time to develop his characters in rich detail, and I loved how he created for his rabbits an elaborate social and religous culture. The book is also a pretty thoughtful meditation on politics and the common good, for those — not me — with a talent for thinking about such things.

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I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to find the time and mental energy to engage with substantial non-fiction, but I did finish a few good books. Two were re-reads: Lewis’ The Abolition of Man is an evergreen meditation on the foundations of moral judgment and on the probable consequences of the modern habit of pouring acid on those foundations; Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture is an essential book that excavates an ancient account of what a well-lived human life looks like, and what practices sustain it. These are two books to read again and again.

I spent a lot of time this year on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, a learned meditation on the nature and goals of education, especially as conceived prior to John Dewey; that was another country, and Hicks is an excellent guide. I also spent many a happy hour paging back and forth through Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God, a volume that I can confidently recommend to readers in search of an accessible and concise treatment of the basics of philosophical theology. Finally, I enjoyed reading Jacques Barzun’s analysis of Romanticism as a cultural and intellectual movement in European history, and in human society more generally, in his Classic, Romantic, and Modern.

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That’s the kind of year it’s been for me. As usual, I’ve made a histogram of the original years of publication of the books I read this year, and it looks like this:

Not a bad spread this year, helped, of course, by the Roman, medieval, and early modern reading projects. Interesting that the 18th century almost got missed entirely.

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Trivia:

Longest book: Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1240 p.)

Oldest book: Horace, Satires (c.30 BC)

Newest book: Harts, The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla (Oct 2019)

Multiple books by same author: Thornton Burgess (11), Shakespeare (10), Wodehouse (6), Ovid (5), Horace (4), C.S. Lewis (4).