17 January 2014

The Duchess of Malfi


I am Duchess of Malfi still .....

Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi, from the School of Raphael
Four hundred years ago John Webster wrote the line, I am Duchess of Malfi still, for the heroine of his second great drama.  The dowager Duchess (whose name we never know) is facing her executioner, having clandestinely remarried against her brothers' wishes.  It is a line that is justly famous for its stoical majesty in the face of torture and death, but it is not as straightforward as it may seem.  Webster was a poet, and indeed dedicated the first printed edition (1623) of this play to Baron Berkeley, offering this poem to your patronage.... and his greatest skill was in language.  The Duchess, a widowed mother, who has remarried and had three children in secret, recognises her status and her title, and knows who she is, and who she still will be after death.  She is saying I am a Duchess, and will continue to be a Duchess even when stilled by your murdering hand.  It is pride of place and defiance of fate.
And that is the key to her character, even to the point of arrogance.  Her twin brother, Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, and their older brother, a Cardinal of the Church, have both instructed her not to remarry, and she has deceived them, and married Antonio Bologna, her steward.  It is not absolutely clear why they do not wish her to remarry, though it would seem that Ferdinand harbours incestuous love for his sister, and both brothers are ambitious to own her wealth.

The tragedy is in the revenge tradition, but it is also tragic in that the heroine falls and dies due to her love for 'an inferior,' and due to her deceit of her brothers.  Then, ultimately they die in a complex working out of the revenge for her death, and order is perhaps restored into the hands of one of her two sons....  In the meantime there has been a deal of grim behaviour, madness (including her brother's lycanthropia), waxworks of supposed murder victims, severed hands, strangulation, and stabbing.  In the end the stage is strewn with bodies, like a rugby field after an international - seven of the main characters and two infants having met untimely deaths.


So where is the entertainment?  Why do audiences want to attend this gore-fest?
Three things must be taken into consideration.  The venue; the production, and the text

In this case the venue is of considerable interest.  After years of work, seven and a half million pounds, and considerable research and experimentation, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has opened within the Globe complex. 

The Globe complex - the conical roof upper right is part of the Wanamaker Playhouse

From the street it might be a courthouse.  From the Foyer it appears to have been shunted in, all red brick and new, with no windows, an engine shed in a bustling station.  It even looks quite large.  A bust of Sam Wanamaker smirks by the pit door, pleased that his dream has come true, but disembodied like Sir Henry Wood overseeing all those Proms (surely he doesn't like them all?)

And then inside the shell, there is another shell, this time of wood, and within that we enter a Russian doll version of a Doll's House, where adults perch uncomfortably around a stage, like an inverted set for Stephen Daldry's National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls.....  It seems unreal, but then all theatres invite the suspension of disbelief, and paradoxically it also seems very real, as though we have strode back in time to when John Webster first saw his play performed inside the Blackfriars Theatre, by candle light....

It is breath-taking, (in more ways than one.)  The proximity of 339 other men and women, most of whom would seem to be in late middle age and well fed (though I spotted one Japanese woman and her teenage daughter luxuriating in their extra space) perched on hessian covered benches,  is breath-taking (one thing the designers may have overlooked is that people are generally bigger these days!)  The hundred or so beeswax candles are also breath-taking (I wonder what it will be like in the warmth of summer?)  And the dark is breath-taking.  When the candles are extinguished, and the blinds closed, there is barely a crack of light to be seen, not even a green LED nor a Fire Exit sign.  It is like being enclosed in a time machine, or a Jacobean Link Trainer, and the grain of the oak, and the meticulous attention to decoration, even the smell of hot wax, and wick-smoke, create the illusion of another time, another country, spinning on its own orbit, testing Galilean theories to the limit.

This is what I might have photographed if I had been able to take a picture inside
I have not seen the film Quantum of Solace so was not drawn to see this production by the name of Gemma Arterton.  I imagine having a film star in any play will create a buzz, and draw the crowds, though somehow I doubt whether many of those sitting near me were Bond film fans either.
Leave that aside therefore.  Look at the Duchess as a Duchess.  And there's the rub.  She's pretty, with high cheek bones and a slightly candle-lit voice, but she is doll-like, within this amazing doll's house.  When she said I am Duchess of Malfi still, she might have said I am Malibu Stacy still, or, my name's Gemma and I'm your waitress.....  Webster's Duchess is a mature Italian Duchess, widowed, with a son, and sister to a Duke and a Cardinal.  She is not a pretty schoolgirl waiting for a boyfriend in his dad's BMW.  Very noticeably in this production the two other women parts, the Duchess's maid, Cariola, and the Cardinal's mistress, Julia, carry more stature, and their deaths are consequently more moving.  If that comes across as harsh, the context is that this is a high quality production, and the Duchess beguiles where the others allure; she charms where the others interest. 
That said, she has a problem being twinned to Ferdinand.  His skinny, floppy madness calls to mind the spitting and hysterical tantrums of Rick in The Young Ones.  His great line should be, Strangling is a very quiet death, but this is almost thrown away in an entrance reminiscent of Max Wall.  Their older brother, the Cardinal, is much more sinister; his thoughtful, Machiavellian evil is much more disturbing, and his cynical eye is not unobservant.  He chides his brother for displaying his temper:
There is not in nature
A thing that makes man so deform'd, so beastly,
As doth intemperate anger.....

But then, when all is over, they dance together, and clap, and smile; they are only actors.....  O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings....   They do as instructed, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature.....  They die, to sleep! 

This production, at least, is faithful to the text.  Dominic Dromgoole may have his preference for dances, but his credentials are impeccable (Millfield, Cambridge, mother English Teacher, father Theatre Director, etc) and his direction is careful.  There is a considerable responsibility in presenting the first major production in this exciting and experimental space, and it would be remarkable if everything pleased everybody.  But I am not sure where the focus lies?  Was it enough to produce a well-nigh perfect doll's play, mouthing the words and acting the actions?  
Webster's source was William Painter's Palace of Pleasure, which retold the true story of Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi from her marriage in 1490 to the time she left in pursuit of her lover (and died) in 1510.  But Webster did not just dramatize that life-story.  He lived in London, and attended the theatre, and co-wrote plays with all the big names of the time.  He was aware of weaknesses at court: his description of the Duke and Cardinal as plum trees that grow crooked over standing pools would have resonated with the public which had heard that the court of King James was like a stagnant pond.  He was aware that Penelope, the sister of the Earl of Essex, had left her husband to live with, and have children by, Charles Blount.  When Essex, in jealousy, revealed this in a confession made in 1601, she was confined to house-arrest, like our Duchess.  Webster would have known that spying was rife - he could even have known that Marlowe acted as a spy - and he would have been aware that men tried to control their female relatives (and still do?)
Webster was familiar with the works of Shakespeare, would have attended performances of many of his plays, and they may have known each other.  Certainly Webster quotes from, and uses similar devices to, the older playwright, and Shakespeare was always commenting on current events and preoccupations. He certainly saw Macbeth, and probably would have seen King Lear.  The Winter's Tale was most likely written only a year or so before The Duchess of Malfi.
So what does this text communicate?  Is it that, We are merely the stars' tennis-balls, struck and banded which way please them?  Or is that, In all our quest of greatness, Like wanton boys.... We follow after bubbles blown in the air?   Or is the Cardinal's observation, How tedious is a guilty conscience? the lesson we should take away?  Or do Ferdinand's dying words, Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust, carry the heart of Webster's philosophy? 

My Last Duchess - at Ravello (above Amalfi)

It is no laughing matter, whatever.  The play is crusted and crudded with bloody shadows, and as Bosola says as he dies, it is a gloomy world!  But Delio, honest Delio, closes the play with a note of hope. 
                                    I have ever thought
Nature doth nothing so great for great men
As when she's pleased to make them lords of truth:
Integrity of life is fame's best friends,
Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end. 

A view of the Dukedom of Amalfi - Sweet Lemons

The world of the early 17th Century differed from ours in many ways.  Galileo had just produced the first effective telescope, though binoculars were yet to come. The world of nature was better known to Londoners than it is today, and references to birds flutter through this play to show that Webster, like his contemporaries, would have been familiar with the avian world.  Eighteen different species of birds are referred to (though he describes exactly but does not name the corncrake, and he uses vulturous as an adjective).  The Duchess observes that,
The birds that live i' the field
On the wild benefit of nature live
Happier than we,
and the Malcontent Bosola asks
Didst thou ever see a lark in a cage?  Such is the soul in the body.......
[prefacing W B Yeats by some three hundred years
 Come, let's away to prison;
We two alone will sing like birds i'th cage..... 
(Sailing to Byzantium)]

Touching this, and linking with Donne and metaphysics, perhaps the tenderest thought is expressed by Antonio, when he bids his wife farewell:
since we must part:
Heaven have a hand in 't; but no otherwise
Than as some curious artist takes in sunder
A clock or watch, when it is out of frame,
To bring 't better order.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The show is done, and the candles snuffed, their wicks to be trimmed.  Outside the river ebbs and flows, lit by the exotic coloured candles of the modern world.  How strange the contrast!  Though yet:
Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright,
But, look'd to near, have neither heat nor light.


Still, the Duchess is the Duchess, murdered by her family.  Does she stand for victims of domestic violence?  Does her case make us think of Diana?  Does the intrigue make us question the confidence of politicians (A politician is the devil's quilted anvil)?  Is the world a better place?
As the Cardinal says:
Fare you well.
Wisdom begins at the end:  Remember it.

I do recommend this experience.  I thoroughly enjoyed it......  I am Duchess of Malfi, still.....

 *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

{With many thanks to John Davison, who introduced me to the play at A Level, several years ago!}

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