“The White Devil” by John Webster

Before engaging with the play itself, the reader of The White Devil would be well advised to read Webster’s preface to the first printed edition, especially if the reader likes, as I do, to get some impression of the authorial persona.  Here, Webster, still a relative novice in the craft of playwrighting – having at the time written plays only in collaboration – and following, as he himself acknowledges, in the immediate footsteps of some of the very finest practitioners of the art of drama (including Shakespeare), lays the blame for the failure of the production of The White Devil fairly and squarely on the audience, and the audience alone:

…since it was acted, in so dull a time of winter, that it wanted a full and understanding auditory: and since that time I have noted, most of the people that came to that playhouse, resemble those ignorant asses (who visiting stationers’ shops, their use is not to enquire for good books, but for new books) I present it to the general view…

It must surely have crossed Webster’s mind that the play he is now presenting to the reader is also a “new book”, but he seems to harbour not the slightest doubt that this new book of his is several cuts above those other new books that those “ignorant asses” so hanker after. For he is not finished with those “ignorant asses” yet, who dared dislike his work. He goes on to list the various qualities that pertains to a great tragic work, and then continues:

…yet after all this divine rapture … the breath that comes after the uncapable multitude is able to poison it …

I don’t think I have ever come across such unmitigated disdain on the part of an author for his public – or, at least, for a sizable section of his public; and neither have I come across a self-belief so extraordinary as to be virtually indistinguishable from megalomania. For which other author speaks of “divine rapture” in reference to his own work? Even Shaw at his most provocative never quite attained this level of self-regard. I can’t help wondering whether Webster actually meant this, or whether he was being tongue-in-cheek: either way, one gets the impression of an authorial presence that is colourful and tremendously flamboyant. And one starts the play hoping that after such a striking preface, the drama itself does not prove anti-climactic.

To anticipate my conclusion, it isn’t. It may not quite justify the epithet “divine rapture”, but it is nonetheless magnificent.

We are, from the start, in familiar territory – a Mediterranean court (Italian in this case: in a revenge tragedy, if it isn’t Spanish, it’s Italian), peopled with powerful and corrupt rulers and cardinals and, in this instance, even a Pope; there are political factions, lust in action, jealousy, Machiavellian unscrupulousness, amorality – all the necessary ingredients for a successful revenge tragedy are here, all present and correct. There is also, inevitably, murder in the air; indeed, it comes as a bit of a surprise that we are well into Act Two before the murders actually take place. But in these first two acts, it isn’t just a case of waiting for the killings: a very large cast of extremely colourful characters is presented with the utmost dramatic skill; even when reading rather than seeing the play, each of these characters is distinctly characterised, with no two in danger of being confused with each other; and the relationships between the characters too are presented with perfect clarity. I cannot frankly think of any other play in which so complex an exposition, both in terms of situation and of character, is achieved with such clarity and with such regard for dramatic flow. There is no long narrative speech explaining the necessary background facts for the benefit of the audience (Shakespeare was doing this even as late as The Tempest); there is no stock device such as a newcomer who needs things explained to him. This may have been Webster’s first play without a collaborator, but the stagecraft is as assured as I have encountered from anyone.

This level of technical skill is maintained throughout. One danger of introducing so large a cast of characters is that it becomes difficult to keep them all simultaneously at the centre of the action, and that, as a consequence, some who had been introduced as major characters end up falling, as it were, by the wayside, while others splinter off from the central action into subsidiary plotlines, which then need to be resolved separately from the principal action. But once again, such is the quality of Webster’s stagecraft, there is no danger of any of that happening here. The seamless incorporation of each of these characters into the central plot is achieved so unobtrusively, that playwrighting is made to appear quite easy, and one wonders why other dramatists seem to make such heavy weather of it all.

But of course, technical skill, even of this order, is not enough to create a work of art: there needs to be what I call, for want of a better term, an “artistic vision”, a view of human life that penetrates beyond the mere surface. The vision that Webster presents here is one of unmitigated human evil. The evil that men do – and women do as well, for that matter – is presented not merely to titillate, or to make our flesh crawl: the horrors are not piled on merely for effect. They are presented quickly, and then we move on: there is no extended dwelling on the horrors, because, despite Webster’s reputation as a purveyor merely of sensationalist and grisly effects (“Tussaud laureate”, Bernard Shaw called him), he seems uninterested in depicting horror for its own sake: his interest seems to be the murky human soul from which such evil arises.

All the traditional set-pieces of revenge tragedy are there, but, rather than being there for their own sake, they are integrated into the whole. Thus, for instance, when characters express loss and grief, and their determination to be revenged, they do not do so in long, extravagant rants: instead of the action pausing to accommodate, as it were, solo arias, here, each voice, whatever it expresses, is invariably integrated into a larger ensemble that is constantly moving forward in dramatic terms. Even when Cornelia is given her mad scene after one of her sons gratuitously murders the other, the scene is dealt with swiftly: Cornelia’s madness is but one of several other things happening at almost the same time. Throughout, there is a refusal to dwell, to linger, on scenes that, given the tastes of the time, were potential showstoppers.

Not that the plot is without sensation. Indeed, it is the very presence of sensational elements that makes Webster’s reluctance to milk them so remarkable. At the centre is an adulterous affair between the Duke of Brachaino, and Vittoria, originally from a somewhat lower rank of nobility, but now married to the foolish Camillo, nephew of a cardinal. And for this adulterous couple to come together, two murders need to be committed – that of Brachiano’s wife, and of Vittoria’s husband. Camillo’s murder is the more straight-forward of the two: while exercising on his vaulting horse, his neck is broken, and the killing made to appear an accident; but the murder of Brachiano’s wife, Isabella, is altogether more intricate, and – it has to be admitted – delightfully sensational: the painting of her husband that she kisses every night – the very husband who murders her – is coated with a deadly poison. The two murders are presented in a single scene in a superb coup de theatre, as a conjurer allows Brachiano, not present at the scene of either murder, to see both in a vision.

Of course, it would have been easy to have enlisted audience sympathy on behalf of the murdered pair, but Webster is careful not to do that – at least, not in the case of Camillo, who is presented as something of a fool: one can even, up to an extent, at least, sympathise with Vittoria for being married to him. As for the grievously wronged Isabella, Brachiano’s wife, it would once again have been very easy to have presented her merely as a passive victim, but Webster is having none of that: he endows her with as intense a passion as that of the guilty lovers. Her fury on discovering her husband’s adultery is quite magnificent:

Isabella: O that I were a man, or that I had power
To execute my apprehended wishes!
I would whip some with scorpions.

Francisco: What! turn’d fury!

Isabella: To dig that strumpet’s eyes out; let her lie
Some twenty months a-dying; to cut off
Her nose and lips, pull out her rotten teeth;
Preserve her flesh like mummia, for trophies
Of my just anger! Hell, to my affliction,
Is mere snow-water. By your favour, sir;—
Brother, draw near, and my lord cardinal;—
Sir, let me borrow of you but one kiss;
Henceforth I ‘ll never lie with you, by this,
This wedding-ring.

It is indeed a shame that so magnificently spirited a character plays no further part in the drama, but one feels the loss of this character to a greater extent than one would, I think, have done had she been depicted but as a stock pallid sufferer and passive victim.

The movement to the double murder takes up the first two acts; the elaborate revenge, the last two. In the third act, bridging these two dramatic movements, is a magnificent court scene, in which Vittoria is put on trial for having instigated the murder of her husband.  Once again, Webster refuses to guide the reader’s (or the audience’s) sympathy: her accusers and judges are themselves corrupt, and, despite the lack of any evidence against her, she is found guilty and sentenced:

Monticelso: … Hear your sentence: you are confin’d
Unto a house of convertites, and your bawd——

Vittoria: A house of convertites! what ‘s that?

Monticelso: A house of penitent whores.

Vittoria’s defiance is splendid:

Vittoria: Die with those pills in your most cursed maw,
Should bring you health! or while you sit o’ th’ bench,
Let your own spittle choke you!

Monticelso: She ‘s turned fury.

Vittoria: That the last day of judgment may so find you,
And leave you the same devil you were before!

Vittoria is soon out of the “house of penitent whores”, and lodged in Brachiano’s court; and then, starts the second arc of dramatic action – the Revenge. Except that, in Webster’s vision, the revengers are as morally corrupt and as evil as those they seek to destroy. The evil in this play seems all-encompassing.

Over the course of this long play, a picture emerges of passions that are neither controllable nor sought to be controlled; of remorse disjoined from power; of humanity ruled merely by lust and depravity and cruelty. This picture is painted on a large and immensely colourful but poison-coated canvas; and so oppressive is this image of evil, that the effect, despite the largeness of the canvas, is claustrophobic: it is a human inferno with no hint in sight even of a purgatory in which sins may be suffered away. Were it not for the tremendous theatrical vigour and exuberant energy with which this vision is presented, the whole thing would be a deadeningly depressing affair – a picture of life enmeshed in darkness only. Nihilism is not a way of looking at the world that I find myself attracted to, but I do find it hard, at least while experiencing the work, not to be drawn into Webster’s nihilistic vision.

One cannot help feeling, perhaps, that Shakespeare’s vision of evil, at least in his greatest plays, was even deeper, and even more terrifying. In Webster’s play, evil is something done by evil people, and this leads to a circular logic: why do people do such evil things? because they are evil; and why are they evil? because they do evil things. In Macbeth, the evil is not a monster that is out there, but, rather, a monster that lies latent within ourselves. But Webster’s vision of the monster out there is terrifying enough. From the preface, it is obvious that Webster knew full well he had written a masterpiece: he was not wrong. It is a tremendous achievement.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Wow, Webster is the best. Second-best. Third-best. Whatever. Best at what he does, which may be a narrow, but wow.

    I love the quotations. “for trophies.” I don’t think my copy has that amazing preface. I have no idea how to take it.


  2. Posted by alan on April 21, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    The internet being the marvelous resource that it is, it has become traditional at times like this to quote:
    Perhaps the Secretary of the East German Writers Union would have shared your admiration of John Webster.


    • Or there’s Coriolanus’ rsponse to the citizens of Rome when they banish him:

      You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
      As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
      As the dead carcasses of unburied men
      That do corrupt my air, I banish you!


  3. I saw a gripping production of this play at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark a few years back. I remember that some of the reviews criticized the show’s pace, saying that it moved too quickly and brought the action close to pantomime. I didn’t think this was fair. It would be fatal, I think, to play Webster (whether The White Devil or The Duchess of Malfi) too slowly, too solemnly. It is close to pantomime – close, without quite crossing the line. A very mordant, disdainful cousin of pantomime, which doesn’t reduce the sense of horror.

    Webster’s really only about two plays, isn’t he? The Devil’s Law-Case is supposedly not without its qualities, but Appius and Virginia, which I read as a student, is very ho-hum.


    • Hello, and welcome. To be honest, I have never seen any of Webster’s lays in production. The White Devil struck me on reading as a play with a great vigour and dramatic momentum, so a fairly fast tempo is perhaps a reasonable approach to it. But I don’t think it should be close to pantomime, I can’t of course comment on the production you saw, and I am sure that there are a variety of approaches that may work on stage. But for all the overt theatricality of it all, I think Webster’s purpose – the depiction of unredeemed and unredeemable human evil – is serious enough not to be played for laughs.
      The Duchess of Malfi, which I just finished reading (post to follow shortly!) can, I think, sustain a slower tempo, as the action is not as frenetic, thus allowing consequently a greater scope for contemplation. (This is especially the case in the wonderful fourth act.) There is a curious lyricism about it all – curious because it is so morbidly obsessed throughout with death, and with thoughts of death. There are strong elements in it of pure Gothic horror, but Webster finds a strange but compelling poetry in that. Anyway – it’s all still settling in my mind right now.
      Cheers for now, Himadri


  4. I don’t think, though, that a proximity to pantomime is necessarily antithetical to a seriousness of purpose or a dark moral vision. You can see that in The Duchess of Malfi, which, though it has, as you say, a slower tempo than The White Devil, has some rather pantomimic elements. I’m thinking chiefly of the Cardinal’s death. I suspect it would be disastrous for any production not to tip the wink to the audience to some degree when the Cardinal orders that he and his brother not be disturbed, even if he cries out that he is being attacked; when he says that he will have Bosola killed when he has ceased to be useful, only for Bosola to overhear this, unknown to the Cardinal; when the Cardinal calls out desperately for help, only for the courtiers to dismiss his pleas. There’s also Julia’s death by kissing a poisoned bible; Ferdinand’s presentation to his sister of a severed hand, and the further tortures (models of her secret family, as if dead; the madmen) he inflicts on her. Played completely straight, these scenes would be ridiculous; the trick is to make them intentionally ridiculous – but without, of course, overdoing it.

    I look forward to your next Webster post; what a marvellous play Malfi is.


    • Yes, you’re right: pantomime is not necessarily antithetical to a serious purpose, although, of course, it can be. Certainly, when I was reading the plays, the production going on in my head was a very serious one, but perhaps I should not comment on this aspect without having seen at least a few productions.

      I’ll try to get round to writing a post on Malfi this weekend. Writing a proper post on a serious work of literature inevitably takes up more time than writing an intemperate rant about something or other (see latest post)!

      All the best, Himadri


  5. I haven’t yet read The White Devil, but a lot of your comments on Webster’s artistic vision and style remind me of The Duchess of Malfi. I’d just add one point – Webster is great at characterisation and movement, as you’ve mentioned, but he’s also a great stylist. He has an ear for the rhythm of the sentence, as well as for the turn of phrase. I remember a particularly striking one from Malfi: “We are the stars’ tennis balls…” Immediately reminded of Shakespeare’s “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods/ they kill us for their sport.”


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