Duchess Revivals

BOSOLA. What would I do, were this to do again? (4.2.26)

The Duchess of Malfi was an instant hit with London audiences. The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s theatre company) debuted the play at their indoor theatre, the Blackfriars. The play quickly became part of their stock, frequently revived both at Blackfriars and at the Globe. The Civil War saw the general closing of the theatres, but the play was revived with the Restoration of Charles II. The play still resonated with the theatre-loving Cavaliers that made up Charles’s court, and it proved popular in the 1660s and 70s. By the late seventeenth century, companies had started liberally to adapt the play to align better with “modern” sensibilities. The eighteenth century never saw the play professionally revived with its original script, and even its literary offspring, adaptations such as The Fatal Secret, suffered decreasing popularity.

Samuel Phelps at Sadler’s Wells brought the play back in the mid-nineteenth century, its enormous success demonstrating that the piece could still be commercially viable. The production participated in an ongoing trend for “authentic” revivals of Shakespeare and his peers, but the scripts were still heavily altered. In 1892, William Poehl and the Independent Theatre Society delivered a production that adhered much more closely to the original script, but even this was bowdlerized, many of the play’s most shocking moments taking place offstage. The Duchess was seen as simply too much for the modern stage. The full text only found its niche in the ‘Little Theatre’ movement, the early twentieth-century development of an art theatre separate from the commercial West End. These amateur and semi-professional productions opened to mixed reviews; even as critics celebrated Webster’s poetry for its continued relevance, they saw the play’s staging conventions as grotesque and rooted in an irretrievable historical moment.

The landmark production of the twentieth century came when George Rylands directed Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud at the Haymarket Theatre in 1945. As Edmund Wilson suggests in his “Notes on London at the End of the War,” much of the play’s success arose from a sense that it spoke feelingly to a community reeling from its confrontation with man’s inhumanity:

“And they somehow get the emotion of wartime into…The Duchess: the speeding up of crime and horror, the cumulative obsession with grievance and revenge…One sees… in The Duchess of Malfi, the scene where her doom is announced to the Duchess amidst the driveling of the liberated madmen, at the moment of the exposé of the German Concentration camps.”

Since 1945, the play has been a staple “classic,” continually revived in both amateur and professional productions.

Peggy Ashcroft as the Duchess (1940s)

– Megan Smith, dramaturg


John Webster (c. 1580 – c. 1634)

John Webster, the dramatist, was born to John Webster, the London coach and wagon maker, at a time when the coach industry was rapidly expanding. The industry being too new to have its own guild, John Webster Sr. joined the Merchant Taylor’s Guild and became one of its most prominent members. As a member, he could (and most likely did) send his son to the Merchant Taylor’s School, the most prestigious preparatory school of the time. Our John Webster would have thus come under the influence of Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster and a noted humanist. Mulcaster is perhaps best known as the author of the quote, “Nature makes the boy toward, nurture sees him forward,” the first known instance of the distinction between “nature” and “nurture” (though we should note that Mulcaster suggests the two are distinct but allied properties rather than opposed). Mulcaster also strongly believed in the pedagogical function of drama, and school exercises may well have served as Webster’s introduction to playwriting. At some point in his adulthood, Webster, too, joined the Merchant Taylor’s Guild—as odd as it is for us to think of a dramatist as a member.

Webster moved from school to school, studying at the Inns of Court, a rough contemporary equivalent of law school. Like so many law students, he abandoned the law for greener pastures. By the time he hastily married his very pregnant bride Sara Peniall in 1606, Webster had already left the Inns for the stage. (Webster’s son was born two months after his marriage. Exercising the remarkable creativity that informs his literary endeavors, this Webster also named his son “John.”)

As was common practice, Webster’s early work for the theater was collaborative. “His” first known play (Caesar’s Fall) had a total of four writers. These dramatists would generally sketch out the general structure of a piece as a team and then apportion individual scenes amongst themselves. The prevalence of collaboration in part results from the need for speed in early modern playwriting, the need to constantly change up the repertory of the various dramatic companies. No one would have been more astonished than Shakespeare or Webster to find their plays the objects of intense literary study four centuries later; theater, unlike poetry, was merely popular entertainment. (Ben Jonson, whose arrogance was matched only by his blubber, actually would be indignant at his perceived lack of prominence in comparison to pal Shakespeare.)

As described by his contemporaries, Webster was a very slow writer, one of the reasons that we don’t have much of his work today. His modern reputation entirely rests on three plays: the tragicomedy, The Devil’s Law Case; the tragedy, The White Devil; and his acknowledged masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi.

– Megan Smith, dramaturg


Mandrakes and Madness

FERDINAND. I have this night digged up a mandrake.

CARDINAL.                                                                       Say you?

FERDINAND. And I am grown mad with’t. (2.5.1-2)


DUCHESS.                               Come, violent death –

Serve for mandragora to make me sleep. (4.2.226-27)

Practical advice for when you find yourself by a gallows in the dead of night with a yen to dig up large roots: don’t. Renaissance superstitions about the mandrake abound and contradict one another. The mandrake was said to grow under the gallows, to feed on blood, and to utter a shriek when pulled from the ground that could kill or madden those who heard it. And yet it was also used in amulets to avert misfortune. In part, those past peddlers of ghoulish mysteries drew on a perceived resemblance between the mandrake root and the human body, one somewhat exploited by the artist of the picture below:

In my quest for knowledge about the mandrake, I perused many images, and I will admit that one was definitely creepy. I have chosen not to share that image in an effort to preserve others from the dreams of fiendish roots that I am sure will now haunt me. The exact shape of the mandrake varies. The picture below reminds me of a mini squid monster:

Should you wish to add the mandrake to your own collection of herbal remedies, you should know that it has been used variously as a hallucinogenic, anesthetic, aphrodisiac, emetic, and sleep aid—the use that the duchess invokes above. (I beg to add that I cannot vouch for any of these applications.) It belongs to the same family as belladonna, and you might also use it to poison your enemy/friend/lover/relative—but you would probably encounter difficulty convincing your victim to ingest the quantity that it would take.

– Megan Smith, dramaturg


Renaissance Drama and Lusty Widows

As everybody knows, widows are dangerously licentious creatures. Having once been exposed to “the marital act,” their blood runs hot in their veins as a constant inclination towards promiscuity overwhelms them…

Okay, maybe “everybody” doesn’t know that, but a large percentage of Renaissance Europe did. The “lusty widow,” a stock character in English Renaissance drama, spoke to a greater social problem: the fact that widows occupied a dangerously liminal zone in the era’s hierarchical order. On the one hand, they had a greater amount of both social freedom and legal rights (generally concerning property law) than either wives or unmarried ladies. On the other, they were still legally subservient to men and, of course, still subject to all the natural weaknesses of the female body and brain that justify such divisions. As Juan Luis Vives puts it in his Instruction for a Christian Woman, a handbook for female education that was nearly as influential in Protestant England as it was in Vives’s native, Catholic Spain,

“Many be glad, that their husbands be gone, as who were rid out of yoke and bondage: and they rejoice that they be out of dominion and bond and have recovered their liberty: but they be of a foolish opinion. For the ship is not at liberty, that lacketh a governor, but rather destitute: neither a child that lacketh his tutor, but rather wandering without order and reason.” (Instruction for a Christian Woman, Juan Luis Vives, trans. Richard Hyrd, 1557)

Indeed, as easy as it is to say that widows remained generally “subservient to men,” the question arises: to whom exactly were they responsible? The men in the family into which they were born, those in the family into which they married, their own adult sons (if they had any)? Should they remarry in order to gain a new husband? According to Vives, the answer to this latter question is “yes” but only if their lascivious inclinations would otherwise lead them to damnation; remarriage otherwise would serve as a poor alternative to a life newly dedicated to Christ. And should a widow need a new spouse, she should never choose a young, handsome man (who would only further enflame her riotous libido) but rather “something past middle age, sober, sad, and of good wit” (Ibid.).

Webster further wrote The Duchess of Malfi at a time of changing ideas about the role of all women within their own engagement process. The increasingly prevalent Protestant ideal of companionate marriage, a marriage between spiritually compatible individuals, led to a parallel emphasis on female choice and consent. For at least one Puritan writer, speaking to his widowed sister, this appears to be particularly true of second marriage:

“As a well wishing brother [I] open my mouth and utter my mind unto you, not that I mind to persuade or dissuade marriage with you, for therein you may best be your own judge, for you know best where your show(?) wringeth you: neither need you any counselor to bid you cut where it wringeth you.” (A View of Mans Estate, Andrew Kingsmill, 1574)

So exactly what is the duchess’s crime in her remarriage? Disobedience? Lust? Socially transgressive behavior? How harshly would the play’s original audience have judged her? In this, as in so many things, Webster denies us easy answers.

– Megan Smith, dramaturg


The Duchess of Malfi: A real-life, historical soap opera

Once upon a time (1490), in a land far away (Amalfi, Italy), a young princess (only twelve years old!) married the heir apparent to the dukedom of Amalfi, Alfonso Piccolomini. Piccolomini, by then the duke, succumbed to gout in 1498, leaving behind his young widow, Giovanna d’Aragona, and an unborn son, their young daughter having died earlier that year. The young duchess assumed the duties of the regent for her infant son. In 1504, she invited Antonio Bologna, her late father’s major-domo in his exile, to come to Amalfi to serve her in the same capacity. The two quickly fell in love, and it is here that John Webster picks up their story.

Much debated portrait of Giovanna D'Aragona, attributed to the workshop of Raphael

The date of the lovers’ secret marriage has remained just that, secret, and could have taken place as late as 1506. By the birth of her second child, rumors had started to circulate, and the couple had attracted the unwelcome attention of her two brothers, the Cardinal of Aragon and the Marquis of Gerace. Antonio left his again-pregnant wife to take their two children to Ancona, and, on the pretext of a pilgrimage to Santa Maria of Loretto, the duchess followed shortly thereafter. The Cardinal of Aragon convinced first the Cardinal of Ancona and then the Signiory of Siena to expel the unhappy lovers. In 1511, the duchess and her two youngest were finally overtaken on the road to Venice and imprisoned in Amalfi, but Antonio and the older child managed to escape to Milan. The duchess, her children, and her waiting woman entered their prison in Amalfi, never to be seen again.

La Torre dello Ziro in Amalfi, where legend places the duchess at the time of her death. The locals tell of strange hauntings ever since.

Antonio was not left long a widower. In 1513, a Lombard captain named Daniele da Bozzolo and three accomplices murdered Antonio on a Milanese street. The murderers, likely hired by the Cardinal of Aragon, escaped.

– Megan Smith, dramaturg



Commonplacing The Duchess of Malfi: Sparknotes à la 1623

Long ago and far away, in a land without Kindles, wikiquotes, or even the common paperback, Renaissance readers would keep commonplace books, blank books into which they would transcribe notes, poems, recipes, sermons, quotations, and anything else that caught their fancy for later use. Theirs was a culture that prized a prettily or wittily turned phrase. Indeed, English Renaissance playgoers would speak not of “seeing” a play but of “hearing” one. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, printed books started to appear with commonplace markers, aids for the eager (but less apt) consumer. Commonplace markers look like modern quotation marks, but they mark lines that are quotable rather than lines taken from other sources; I suppose you could say that they’re quotation-marks-in-waiting.

Some of the “good bits” of The Duchess of Malfi (1623):

The great are like the base; nay, they are the same
When they seek shameful ways to avoid shame.

Though Lust do mask in ne’er so strange disguise,
She’s oft found witty but is never wise.

It is some mercy when men kill with speed.

There’s no deep valley but near some great hill.

Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright,
But looked to near have neither heat nor light.

Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like Diamonds we are cut with our own dust.


–Megan Smith, dramaturg


Christopher Plummer wants YOU…

…to help assure the survival of the appreciation of the written word…

Plummer quietly concludes his show with an ardent defense of our literary heritage: “We must implore, beseech, entice, cajole, persuade, induce the children to read everything of value, of beauty while they’re young or what’s a heaven for?”
He then quotes Emily Dickinson, a fitting thing to do for a performer whose art has been galvanized by poetry.

(from the LA Times)

…and what better way to affirm your commitment to doing so than…

Webster’s English is some of the best on offer anywhere, bar none. Become a part of this incredible adventure in logophilia.


meet the designers: Pablo Santiago (lighting)

I am very pleased to have Pablo Santiago designing the lights for this show. Like Eun Nym Cho, the set and costume designer for The Duchess of Malfi, Pablo is a graduate of the MFA program in design at UCLA.

Pablo is the winner of the Cirque Du Soleil Scholarship Award, James Pendleton Foundation Prize, Kovler Foundation Award and the Executive Board Award. In 2013 he designed “Spring Awakening”, “Il Segreto di Susanna”, L’Enfant et Les Sortileges for Peter Kazaras and the Opera School, in addition to Set and Lights for “Strip Tease” and “The Killing Game”. Last summer Pablo lit “Empanada For A Dream” and “The Psychic Life of Savages” at LATC and “Year of The Rabbit” and “The Belle of Belfast” at EST; He has also designed: “RENT”, “Erendira”, “Adding Machine”, “A Dark Sun”, “The Ginger Man” and “Exploding Lear” at UCLA-TFT. Pablo has also done extensive work in Dance his credits include: “Laudromatinee”, “Catch Your Breath”, by Heidi Duckler, “Mother F*cker” by Christine Suarez and “Surveillance Solos” by Rebecca Alson-Milkman, WAC-MFA concerts at UCLA, “Back Flash Forward”, HiT tHe GrOund/RuNniNG and Exit Strategy; Other credits include: A shared evening by Rande Dorn “As We Grow Down” and Arianne MacBean “People Go Where The Chairs Are,” ”Commuter Festival and Westwaves dance festival (Randé), the AWARDS show LA at REDCAT (Randé and Arianne), and the AWARDS show San Francisco at ODC (choreographer: Manuelto Biag), String Theory at the Broad Theater SM, “H2Eau” for choreographer: Paula Present at Fais Do Do. In addition to “Little Shop of Horrors” and Bugsy, (Director: Nancy Fraciolla).


meet the designers: Eunnym Cho (set and costumes)

Eunnym Cho is a scenic and costume designer. She discovered her extraordinary passion for theater when she participated in a backstage workshop at the age of 16. Since then, she has been actively involved in theater as a creative and enthusiastic scenic, costume, and prop designer. Recent scenic design credits include Spring Awakening, directed by Nicholas Gunn, and Antwone Fisher: A Play directed by Antwone Fisher. Recent costume design credits include Time Stands Still, directed by Marya Mazor, and Hay Fever, directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Visit her website for more information at eunnymcho.com.


meet the designers: Jeff Gardner, sound

I am very pleased to be working again with Jeff Gardener, who designed the sound for our inaugural production, Conversation Storm/The House of Cards. Jeff is an “actor/sound designer”, and will be doing both in The Duchess of Malfi. He’ll be playing the role of Antonio, as well as designing the sound.

Jeff is an actor/sound designer born and raised in Los Angeles. He has performed with The Shakespeare Theatre, DC, The Studio Theatre, A Noise Within, The Kennedy Center, Williamstown Theatre Festival and is a member of The Antaeus Company in North Hollywood. Jeff has toured with his award-winning solo show, KILL YOUR TELEVISION, can be seen at LA Theatre Works where he regularly performs live sound effects and is resident sound designer for the Westridge School in Pasadena. Acting credits include MACBETH, KING LEAR (The Antaeus Company); HAMLET (The Globe Playhouse); THE TEMPEST (A Noise Within); LITTLE WOMEN (Kennedy Center, National Tour); SKYLIGHT (The Studio Theatre); HENRY V w/ Harry Hamlin, MEASURE FOR MEASURE w/ Kelly McGillis (The Shakespeare Theatre, DC); Other regional credits include OUR TOWN w/ James Whitmore and THE SEAGULL w/ Christopher Walken (Williamstown Theatre Festival).

So glad to be working with Jeff again!