Monday, 30 July 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (1980/81)

By John Webster (c1613)

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1980
The Round House, London, 1981

Jacobean tragedy has risen enormously in public esteem since the era when George Bernard Shaw railed against “the opacity that prevented Webster, the Tussaud laureate, from appreciating his own stupidity”. Even TS Eliot’s famous lines – “Webster was much possessed by death | And saw the skull beneath the skin” – may seem too limiting. Now we want every Jacobean to be one of us. In The Duchess of Malfi, the widowed Duchess, having assured her brothers that she will never remarry, promptly does so, choosing a man who is her social inferior, the steward Antonio. This defiance of male authority leads inexorably to her grisly end, orchestrated by the sinister hit-man Bosola, an ex-galley slave. For Helen Mirren in 1981, it was a “play for today”: 

It is essentially a feminist play about a woman who is fighting for her autonomy. I see the Duchess as a radical who adheres to her beliefs so totally that she is prepared to be murdered for them. There’s still moral outrage against people who step out of line. Look at the fuss Princess Margaret caused by getting divorced. Many people no longer look on her as part of the Royal Family. (Quoted in Colvin.)

Adrian Noble’s production, which opened in Manchester, was widely praised. The Guardian relished Mirren’s “passionate playing of the Duchess, all graceful lechery and looks of such intensity that they could not only kill but, in all probability, raise the dead as well… Marrying beneath yourself is not the sort of thing, these days, that would get you murdered by your brothers, even if they had got their eyes on your property.” But it happens “in this twitching world of Webster’s where everything is enhanced and heightened to a morbid degree. And the staging is so intense and the playing so powerful… that it actually seems not only credible but also natural, inevitable that people should carry on in this bizarre way.”

The Observer noted that the production “seems to owe little to currently approved trends, since it is neither puritanically simple nor outrageously ornate… (Its) final achievement is that it duplicates the precarious balancing of Webster’s forces, admitting a fascination in cruelty, but never wallowing in it.”

The Times told us to

banish all expectations of decadence elegance and baroque chambers of horrors. So far as characterisation is concerned, this is a tough, extrovert reading of the play, with characters in the early scenes as unbent as it is possible for them to be in Jacobean tragedy… No liberties are taken with the text, but the sensation is of seeing the play afresh.

This critic was impressed by a “ragged Bob Hoskins, whose Bosola does look as if he is straight off the galleys”. As for Mirren’s Duchess,

she rises by visible degrees to the grand scale, presenting every phase of her courtship an clandestine married life in vivid emotional detail before the horrors descend. When they do, she exhibits all the physical collapse of total despair before regaining human dignity. Again, nothing heroic is imposed on the character; everything has been thoroughly imagined.

When the production transferred to London, doubts set in about the later scenes, but The Times critic remained enthusiastic:

There are passages in the torment scenes when Helen Mirren lapses into a dull intensity that taxes the attention, but the whole shape of the performance, from the joyous games to the willing embrace of death, constructs an image of nobility with authentic human materials... The Duchess is more than usually isolated as the only figure combining virtue and power.  

Michael Billington found potency in these later scenes:

The virtue of playing up the horror is that it makes the inherent moral goodness of the Duchess an even more powerful moral antidote. Helen Mirren also plays her excellently as a woman of strong sexual instincts who yet has a reassuring nobility of character.

For Robert Cushman, likewise, the performance grew stronger as the events unfolded:

Helen Mirren starts out a trifle cool, especially when choosing a husband; she is better at giving orders than at giving herself. But she rises to the prison sequences. Her actual execution – with the strangling of her maid as its electric coda – is superbly done.

Words like “strength” and “virtue” occur again and again in these reviews, but where we locate strength or virtue is not necessarily where the original audience would have found it. What once were vices are now widely seen as virtues. In fact, for a secular society, the Seven Deadly Sins can be recalibrated. Pride becomes “self-respect”. Wrath is “being honest about your emotions”. Envy gets a makeover as “drive” or “competitive spirit”; Gluttony is now “treating yourself”, Avarice “taking care of business” and Sloth “chilling out”. As for Lust – that familiar topic of Cosmopolitan features – the Duchess’s brother voices a prevalent Renaissance prejudice about widows, a suspicion that, having known one man, they will be over-eager to take another to the marital bed: “… they are most luxurious | Will wed twice.”  

The scholar Lisa Jardine observes that the “sensual strain” in Middleton’s Beatrice-Joanna or Webster’s Duchess is designedly a marker of their “guilt”:

In the eyes of the Jacobean audience they are above all culpable, and their strength – the ways in which they direct the action, scheme and orchestrate, evade the consequences of their impulsive decisions, and ultimately face resolutely the final outcome – need to be seen in this context.   

Where we, and the actresses who take on the role, applaud the Duchess’s assertiveness in yielding to that “sensual strain” in Act One, selecting a new partner and “fighting for her autonomy”, the boy actor who first played her may have elicited very different reactions in a seventeenth-century audience. The Duchess is constantly judged by the play’s other characters and any of those judgements was a plausible contemporary response. Antonio, the lovestruck steward, paints an idealised Petrarchan portrait of her: her look “speaketh so divine a continence, | As cuts off all lascivious, and vain hope.” To her ambitious brothers she is “loose, i’th’hilts: | Grown a notorious strumpet.” Her maidservant Cariola is at a loss to explain her behaviour:  

Whether the spirit of greatness, or of woman
Reign most in her, I know not, but it shows
A fearful madness: I owe her much of pity.

All the characters are agreed that her “strength” manifests itself only later, in patient endurance of her allotted fate:

FERDINAND How doth our sister Duchess bear herself
In her imprisonment?
BOSOLA                              Nobly: I’ll describe her:
She’s sad, as one long us’d to it: and she seems
Rather to welcome the end of misery
Than shun it: a behaviour so noble,
As gives a majesty to adversity:
You may discern the shape of loveliness
More perfect in her tears, than in her smiles.

This raises an interesting question. When a text floats free of its historical context, is it our duty to put it back into that context, or to place it in our own context, regardless of what the original “meaning” may have been? Here, emphases may differ between theatre practitioners and academic critics, the latter more concerned with reconstructing historical “meaning”. And what of the dramatist himself? Do we see his attitudes as historically determined, or do we say, as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, that “he was not of an age, but for all time”, gifted with a breadth of vision that transcended his circumstances? Sure it is that Webster makes the Duchess a sympathetic figure, aided by his skills in fashioning dramatic architecture and muscular, speakable verse. Quality writing is a stuff that endures, even over centuries and across languages. But do we credit Webster, as we do Shakespeare, with a capacity, if not to challenge, at least to call into question, the status quo? Should we regard these dramatists as ethical futurologists, the counterparts of those Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of science fiction who anticipated aeroplanes and televisions, inventions unrealisable in their day but thinkable to those with minds capacious enough?

We laugh at the way the eighteenth century “improved” Shakespeare, rewriting plays to conform to the classical unities or giving King Lear a happy ending. But there was a mad consistency in such modernisation that may be lacking in our pick-and-mix approaches. Viewing The Duchess of Malfi today, we suspend our historical sense in the early part of the play, flattering ourselves that the Duchess is a Cosmo girl in a “feminist” play and reassuring ourselves of the continued “relevance” of a 400-year-old text. Then we reimpose the sense of history later, as we must if we are to accept the plot development and the climax. We accept that behaviour such as the Duchess’s can only end badly for an aristocrat in early modern Europe; but not as badly as the play depicts, since widows enjoyed privileges of action not available to wives or unmarried women. The grand guignol conclusion, the stage piled high with corpses – these things we accept (if we accept them at all and the last Act is not to be played for laughs) as literary conventions, a Jacobean ratcheting-up of the mechanisms of Elizabethan revenge tragedy.   


Michael Billington, “Duchess of Malfi”, Guardian, 2 April 1981
Clare Colvin, “Mirren in Malfi”, Observer, 29 March 1981
Robert Cushman, “Malfi and Merchant”, Observer, 5 April 1981
Lisa Jardine, “The Duchess of Malfi: a case study in the literary representation of women”, in Teaching the Text, ed. Susanne Kappeler and Norman Bryson (1983)
Robin Thornber, “Duchess of Malfi”, Guardian, 17 September 1980
Irving Wardle, “Clearing the vital hurdle boldly: Webster in Manchester,” Times, 17 September 1980
Irving Wardle, “Duchess of Malfi: Round House”, Times, 2 April 1981

[Photo credit: Photostage]

Monday, 9 July 2012

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968/81)

By William Shakespeare (c1595)

National Youth Theatre, 1964
Feature film, 1968
BBC television, 1981

On 29 September 1662 Samuel Pepys attended the King’s Theatre for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’d never seen the play before, nor ever would again, as he confided to his diary, ‘for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’. The only redeeming features were ‘some good dancing and some handsome women’. Even allowing that the version he saw was probably much truncated, I know what he means. I’ve never seen a satisfactory production of this play. It usually comes out too frothy and pretty. The ideal Dream would present it as a comedy surrounded by a penumbra of troubled seriousness. Over the years there have been critical revaluations that push in that direction. In the 1960s Jan Kott, in a reading that influenced Peter Brook’s famous production at the end of that decade, found darkness not just at the edges but everywhere in the play. Relating Bottom’s dream to Goya’s Caprichos, he saw bestiality and miscegenation in Titania’s sleeping with an ass. He saw masochism in Helena’s submissiveness to her scornful lover (‘The more you beat me, I will fawn on you: | Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me…’) As he rightly said, the wood is not a benign place. When Titania beds down for the night, her attendants must ward off all manner of creepy-crawlies. These include the selfsame creatures that contribute their ‘poison’d entrails’ to the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth. The fairies are not the wisps of gossamer who stream through Max Reinhardt’s Hollywood film of the 1930s but something more equivocal. In the realm of fairy, Oberon’s and Puck’s ability to do good lies in their capacity to withhold mischief.

Mischief, not black magic. Kott went too far. After all, a strong body of opinion holds that Shakespeare’s play was written originally for an aristocratic wedding celebration and its elements contrived to flatter that audience, which may have included the Queen – ‘our imperial vot’ress’, in Oberon’s phrase. So ‘light entertainment’ was surely what was called for? But, if so, they’d commissioned a playwright incapable of turning out ephemera or trivia. ‘Sedimented within the verbal texture of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, writes Louis Adrian Montrose, in another of the influential essays on the text, ‘are traces of those forms of sexual and familial violence which the play would suppress.’ The play is marbled with what he calls ‘anxious misogyny’, right from the opening scene, where Duke Theseus has bridled the Amazon queen Hippolyta and Egeus threatens an ‘honour killing’ for his rebellious daughter who refuses to marry the man he has chosen for her.

‘But at the same time that the play reaffirms essential elements of a patriarchal ideology, it also calls that reaffirmation in question’ (Montrose again). As so often in Shakespeare’s comedies, the strongest characters are the female ones. The young men, Demetrius and Lysander, are barely differentiated, which makes it easier for them to undergo random transformations under the influence of the fairies’ love-juice. The two heroines, Hermia and Helena, remain constant in their affections (to their young men, if not to each other). Hermia, no ing√©nue she, knows her own mind, asserting the claims of romantic love over arranged marriage. And by Act IV the patriarchal imperative has softened. While her father continues to demand that the ‘law’ run its course, the Duke overrules him and permits the lovers to wed.

So all is set up for a comedy resolution in marriage. But is the symmetry perfect? This troubles me. Lysander is restored to his true love (Hermia) after Puck has administered the antidote. Yet Demetrius, apparently denied or judged not to be in need of the antidote, remains to the end under the influence of ‘love-in-idleness’, the fairy Rohypnol. He says he has reverted to his first romantic inclination – his heart to Helena is now ‘home return’d’ (III.ii.172, cf. IV.i.173) – but who’s to say it isn’t the drug talking?

None of these problems (if such they be) is resolved by the various productions in which Helen Mirren appeared. She played Helena with the National Youth Theatre in a 1964 production (‘bad casting as Helena is supposed to be tall and thin and I was short and fattish’, she wrote later) and Hermia in Peter Hall’s 1968 film, then returned as Titania in the 1981 BBC TV version. Of these, the latter captures best the psychosexual ambiguities I refer to, but even this fell short of what it might be.

Hall’s film was made on location in and around a country house, Compton Verney in Warwickshire. Visually beautiful, it suggests a house party of hip youngsters, togged out in Sixties dress. Faces daubed with mud may evoke the ‘dank and dirty ground’ of Shakespeare’s text, but the look remains if anything too beautiful. Helena, played in the later BBC production as a stereotype ‘librarian’ in granny glasses, is here rendered by Diana Rigg, an actress who was far more lusted after in the Sixties than the then relatively unknown Helen Mirren. Hall used disruptive ‘jump cuts’ to present illusion, while employing a hand-held camera to give simulated ‘reality’. By ‘post-synching’ all the dialogue, he got around the difficulties in those days of location filming and put the emphasis back on the text. As he told Roger Manvell, ‘This is not a film from a stage production or a film based on the play. It attempts to bend the medium of the film to reveal the full quality of the text.’

In her autobiography, Mirren says of Titania: ‘It was a role I had always wanted to play but which had eluded me, though I had played both Hermia and Helena, neither of which appealed to me.’ She explains that the BBC production came at a difficult time for her: her father had just died suddenly and she ‘found it almost impossible to act’. What helped her through, she recalls, was a great director (Elijah Moshinsky), the rest of the cast and a spectacular, character-forming wig made out of ‘pure, unbleached, very long, fine white-blonde hair’. In her book about the BBC Shakespeare series, Susan Willis comments on how Moshinsky’s camera ‘lovingly lingers [on Mirren] in mid-pool or mid-bower’. The production, as if bathed in aqueous solution, is dominated by a prominent water-feature, part of the set, through which Titania’s slightly ragged train must wade. Puck is a jagged-toothed punk, like an escapee from A Clockwork Orange. These are pointers in the right direction. Perhaps the Beeb could do it better now? A recent Richard II on television shows how much more fluent production styles have become in the last thirty years and how this ‘insipid ridiculous play’ might be reclaimed for a new generation of viewers.  

Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1967)
Roger Manvell, Shakespeare and the Film (1971)
Helen Mirren, In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures (2007)
Louis Adrian Montrose, ‘Shaping fantasies: figurations of gender and power in Elizabethan culture’ (1983), in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: New Casebooks, ed Richard Dutton (1996)
Susan Willis, The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making the Televised Canon (1991)