- Purchase/rental options available:
Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 499-501
[Access article in PDF]
The White Devil
The White Devil. By John Webster. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York. 13 January 2001.
Shakespeare in Love memorably figures John Webster as a dirty-faced, mischievous boy with a macabre sensibility, brandishing a mouse to scare girls. Broadly speaking, literary history, in constructing the grown up Webster, has not offered a much different picture. Webster is generally regarded as the maven of Jacobean stage horrors, and while much about this portrait is correct, it also obscures the full complexity of his aesthetic, which [End Page 499] encompasses more than a catalog of mayhem and violence. Webster's plays are certainly dark and chilling, but his bloody thoughts do not suggest mere lurid spectacle; rather, they indicate his imaginative exploration of the intersections of sexual desire, the family, and the law in social contexts where women feel empowered to express the first but are forcibly subjected to the second and third.
The White Devil presents those intersections as the flash points of tragedy, and Gale Edwards's production of the play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music attempted, with uneven results, to place a powder keg at all the right moments. The highly acclaimed production offered some strong performances and moved at a relatively brisk pace that effectively accelerated as the play careened toward its grim conclusion. However, the production lacked a real feel for the texture of Webster's dramatic spleen, and I could not help feeling I was in a rather tame Broadway blockbuster horror story rather than in the visceral world of sexual politics and power struggles at The White Devil's core.
The generally broad acting style inflated the production unnecessarily and stood in contrast to the stage settings, which as a whole were simultaneously minimal enough to be unobtrusive and flexible enough to provide a few key locations, particularly the locked room of the play's end. The cast relied on sweeping hand gestures to be physically expressive in the cavernous space of BAM's Opera House, and this, at times, worked, such as when Angie Milliken, as Vittoria, made her pointing fingers speak volumes of contempt for her examiners during the trial scene. Marcus Graham, meanwhile, in a mixed performance, swaggered a bit too much as a sullen Brachiano, while William Zappa's Lodovico was nearly all bluster. Jeremy Sims turned in the most polished performance of the lot, and his extravagant portrayal of Flamineo suited his interpretation of the character as a malicious fop. While Sims was solid as such, this reading shut down the more compelling interpretive possibilities that reside in Flamineo and his complicated position at the center of the play's familial and political intrigues.
Edwards made several changes to the text of the 1612 play. In most cases, the aim was to update archaisms (i.e. "gutter" for "kennel") or to ensure that clarity and dramatic punch were not obscured by unfamiliar usage ("You lied?" for "Will you be perjur'd?"), and it would be quibbling to fault Edwards too seriously for this, although it is hard to imagine such liberties taken with Shakespeare. However, some word changes one might question, most prominently the pervasive substitution of "pimp" for "pander," and while I am not generally opposed to such tinkering, I do confess to being surprised that the program never mentioned the many modifications to the play's language.
If Edwards flattened out the dialogue in the service of clarity in a number of potentially small ways, she flattened out the shape of the play's narrative and the scope of its theatricality in a big and ultimately detrimental way by altering The White Devil's central murders. Webster has Duke Brachiano, benefit of a conjurer, bear preternatural witness to the murder of his wife Isabella and of Vittoria's husband Camillo. This moment shows a radical and thoroughly theatrical imagination at work, fracturing the play space and tweaking both the Duke's and the audience's sense of perspective, while at the same time injecting the play with a touch of...