The production history of Ben Jonson’s Volpone can be divided roughly into two periods: before and after Donald Wolfit first assayed the role of the stage’s most notorious faker. As Mira Assaf and Richard Dutton note, from 1938 Wolfit dominated the role for some twenty years, “monopoliz[ing] the market for Volpone for such a long time that it was inevitably an influence (either positive or negative) on everything that followed for some time” (6). Wolfit’s Volpone toured the world in a number of different incarnations linked by a strong emphasis on the play’s animal imagery, a tendency to farce, and a grandstanding, scenery-chewing performance from Wolfit himself “that selfishly eclipsed the other members of the cast,” whose roles were often severely cut (Assaf and Dutton 7). The long shadow cast by Wolfit’s ownership of the role is still evident in the play’s stage histories.
For students of the play’s performance history, Wolfit’s performance is happily preserved in a 1959 BBC television version, adapted by Wolfit himself and produced by Stephen Harrison. While never released commercially, this complete 92-minute production survives in reasonable condition (the visual quality better than the audio) and offers a fascinating vision of Wolfit’s production reimagined for television, combining a theatrical sensibility in its approach to space with a camera design intent on maximising Wolfit’s own command of the frame. In this Volpone, unlike the more recent Stage on Screen production, which keeps a critical distance from its lead, Volpone extends his charismatic control to the camera, controlling and shaping the viewer’s gaze. [End Page 641]
The Michael Macowan production that featured Wolfit’s debut as Volpone was notable for being the first to emphasise strongly the animal types figured in the central characters, and Harrison’s screen version makes clear even in its opening credits these associations, glossing not only Volpone as “the Fox” but Mosca as “the Fly,” Corvino as “the Crow,” and so on. These associations are developed subtly throughout the film through costume touches (Volpone’s furs, the severe black angles of the carrion’s robes) and through the sometimes stylized mannerisms of the actors, such as Wolfit sniffing his gold chain before putting it around his neck. Most notably, Carl Bernard as Voltore holds himself taut during the first trial scene, looming over Celia and Bonario in the dock and jabbing his fingers forward like talons, crowing over his prey as the trial moves towards victory. The subtlety of this approach ensures the production never becomes parodic but rather allows the allegorical nature of the figures to emerge gradually at moments of key interaction.
The Sir Politick subplot is stripped down to its barest bones, Politick and Peregrine only appearing briefly at the beginning of the mountebank sequence while Lady Would-Be is omitted entirely. The disappearance of the subplot places increased focus on Volpone and Mosca’s own environment and, by extension, their control of it. As the film begins, John Wynyard’s Mosca establishes Volpone’s world, opening curtains, unlocking doors, placing robes and chains in place for his master and drawing the curtains of the bed to reveal Volpone in bed. The relationship is intuitive and unspoken, Mosca here a dark-jerkined butler to his luxuriously moustachioed master. While Mosca busies himself establishing the world of the plot, Volpone concentrates on making the bare minimum of movements, allowing Mosca to dress him patiently before moving to his riches. There is rarely an explicit instruction, Mosca knowing in advance what his master needs to wear and pre-empting his plans.
From his first appearance, Volpone remains central to the frame...