John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a (so far) atypical selection for the Arden Early Modern Drama series because it’s one of the few plays by a contemporary of Shakespeare which is still performed with great regularity, enjoying over forty commercial productions between the mid 1940s and late 80s (with countless others since). Which is doubly unusual given that most of Webster’s plays are lost, with only a couple of others including the equally popular The White Devil and a smattering of collaborations still available.
Which isn’t bad considering he was largely a part-time playright, with recent research uncovering evidence of a second life working in his father’s coach-building business. It’s also interesting that his authorship of the plays isn’t questioned even though he arguably received a less distinguished education than Shakespeare in a school run by his father’s firm. But as editor for this volume Leah S. Marcus demonstrates, he was not a man intellectually punching above himself, it was simply that his priorities were differently weighted in comparison to his colleagues.
Marcus offers a few conclusions as to why the play was so popular then, and continues to be so now. She talks at length about the nostalgic element, of Malfi as a reminder of Elizabeth I during the Jacobian period, her more unsavoury personality traits all but forgotten. There’s also the darkness of the plot, the clandestine marriage eventually destroyed by the lycanthropic Ferdinand and the details of the murders, not least the poisoned bible. More recently it is it’s capacity, like the best plays, to feed into contemporary allusion, even evoking the Holocaust in the 1940s.
But mostly it’s simply that it’s a damn good play. It’s based on historical sources, developed heavily from the life of a Duchess of Amalfi, an Italian Renaissance figure who also married and had children in secret, only to be captured and disappear as they attempted to flee to Siena once they’d been found out. Though Webster embellished the story somewhat (see above), there’s something very seductive about witnessing such an unbelievable story within a theatrical setting. This is a Hollywood narrative at its finest, but in the early 1600s.
The main documentary texts referred to are included as appendices, though like Shakespeare, Webster had a magpie approach to his writing and the text is filled with allusion and laced with elements of Delio and Donne (post conversion) Unlike many Arden editors, Marcus has decided to leave much of this discussion to the textual notes which makes for a much more focused and readable approach both there and in the introduction (which have sometimes, in other volumes, become bogged down with such things).
As ever, one of the more interesting passages concerns the text. For very tangible reasons, Malfi has two first quartos, an A and B. Printer Nicholas Oakes had quite happily prepared the text and was merrily knocking out editions when Webster happened to pop in to his shop to see how things were going. The firstly the playwright noticed a “Hymne” not by him had been added and there were a range of textual errors. Once the work began again, the “Hymne” had become a “ditty” with a disclaimer pointing to it not being by Webster and a range of other corrections applied.
That printing and the further three are also inextricably linked to the production history, since each contains information about the locations of the various shows and actors involved. These also mirror theatre history as boy casting gives way to actresses with Q3 showing Mary Betterton as (perhaps) the first time a female played Malfi (opposite her husband as Bosola, Ferdinand’s spy). As was the fashion, Q4 was heavily truncated close to the Restoration, and three other adaptations followed, with only the full text returning to rotation in the last century.
Sadly, not as much room is dedicated to the more contemporary productions though there are some useful the photographs of Judi Dench and Helen Mirren at the RSC in 1971 and Royal Exchange Manchester 1980 respectively, the costume of the latter heavily influenced by Elizabeth I. Nevertheless, this is another well turned out edition from Arden and for once we’re able to easily experience the play for ourselves. This useful 1972 BBC production has been uploaded to YouTube and I can also recommend this previously review Stage on Screen version.
The Duchess of Malfi (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Leah S. Marcus. Methuen Drama. 2009. RRP: £10.99. ISBN: 978-1904271512. Review copy supplied.