Jane Austen’s writing desk

This is the house in the small Hampshire village of Chawton into which Jane Austen moved with her mother and sisters in 1809.

Jane Austen's house in Chawton

Jane Austen’s house in Chawton


And this very small desk is the one on which Austen used to write. It was on this desk that she revised Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility; and on which she wrote Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion.

Jane Austen's writing desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk


The village of Chawton itself is idyllic. There’s everything you’d expect from a traditional English village – a pub serving good English ale, a village church, …

The village church in Chawton

The village church in Chawton


…and even cricket on the village green.

Cricket on the village green

Cricket on the village green

Lear eviscerated: Jonathan Miller’s latest production of “King Lear”

Although it’s often quoted as if it were a profound piece of wisdom, I have never really understood what Wilde meant by the line “Each man kills the thing he loves”. I suspect that, as with most other Wildean epigrams, he was more concerned with sound than with sense. But I couldn’t help thinking of that line on seeing the Northern Broadsides touring production of King Lear, featuring Barrie Rutter in the title role, and directed – for the eighth time, I believe – by Jonathan Miller.

This is a production I very much wanted to like. Regional theatre companies are amongst the most important aspect of our artistic life here in Britain, and the standard of Shakespearean production in this country – despite some ill-considered sniping to the contrary – remains very high. Putting on such a colossal masterpiece such as King Lear is precisely what a company such as Northern Broadsides should be doing. And there can be no doubt that Jonathan Miller loves this play: he would hardly have directed it eight times if he didn’t. In the programme notes of this production, he is quoted as saying that this is the play he “knows best”. His production of King Lear for the BBC Shakespeare series in the early 80s struck me as, in many ways, quite outstanding: it would certainly be my top recommendation for anyone wanting a performance of this play for home viewing. And yet, this latest production, which is likely, given Jonathan Miller is now 80, to be his last of the work, never springs to life. I do not think this is a fault of the cast, who were hardly given the opportunity to make the most of their parts: no – it is Jonathan Miller himself who, for reasons I cannot fathom, appears to have killed the thing he so obviously loves.

Of course, Jonathan Miller has long held views on this play that may be described as idiosyncratic. Perhaps uniquely amongst major theatre directors, he does not see King Lear as an epic play; he does not see Lear himself as a towering figure, larger than life; he does not see the drama as a work of cosmic significance: the characters in this play, he insists, are contending not against cosmic forces, but against each other. This is not, I admit, my own view of the work, but I am always happy to have my views challenged, especially by someone who has thought as long and hard about the work as Miller has obviously done. But he has a strange way of making his point: to demonstrate that the play is not epic or cosmic, he simply removes from it all passages that suggest the epic or the cosmic. If, say, a pianist is convinced that Beethoven’s piano sonatas contain no slow music, and tries to demonstrate this by omitting all the slow movements in performance, I doubt anyone would be taking that pianist too seriously; yet, I do not see that Miller’s approach is any different.

It is not that I insist on a full presentation of the text. In the first place, what is generally regarded as a “full text” is really a conflation of two quite separate texts; and, in general, most Shakespeare plays can, in performance, take a bit of judicious cutting. But here, the text wasn’t so much cut as eviscerated. In scene after scene, some of the most affecting, extraordinary, and – dare I say it – epic and cosmic of passages were simply cut away.  Of course, in saying this I realise I lay myself open to the charge of being a mere Shakespearean tourist, as it were, wanting merely to savour the famous highlights, like those who step off the tour bus for a few minutes to take a snap of the Eiffel Tower before being whisked on to the next famous landmark. But I plead “not guilty” to that. The cuts imposed by Miller were so ruinous that they seemed to take the very heart out of the play. I understood how Miller doesn’t see the play, I got no sense of how he does.

For instance, I can understand – though not necessarily agree with – the excision of the passage depicting the mock-trial in III,vi: if the Folio text is regarded as Shakespeare’s own revision of the earlier Quarto text, Shakespeare made the cut himself. But if the reason for this excision is textual, it is hard to account for the excision of the lines Shakespeare had added in the Folio text: Lear’s last line, for instance, which, at the very point of extinction, seems to hint at a transcending vision. Perhaps Shakespeare was being too “cosmic” here for Jonathan Miller – I don’t know.

The famous storm scenes too had their dark heart removed. In other productions I have seen, and even in my readings of play, the combination of Lear’s ragings, the Fool’s increasingly irrelevant gibberings, Poor Tom’s utter gibberish – in which the very structure of language seems to break down – and, of course, the elemental nature of the storm itself, transports me into a world of apocalyptic terror. But here, Lear does not rage – so when the French doctor later says his “great rage … is killed”, one can but wonder what he is on about; and much of the Fool’s part, and virtually all of Poor Tom’s are cut. After the Fool speaks a prophecy (mainly nonsense: Shakespeare has taken us into a world here that has stopped making sense), he speaks the very strange line “This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time”, and suddenly, we realise that the Fool is actually prophesying a prophecy, and chasms open at our feet; the very structure of time itself seems to have collapsed. In this production, the prophecy is retained, but not the line that follows, and, as a consequence, nothing very much is communicated to the audience at all. (This entire passage appears only in the Folio text, not in the Quarto, but since only part of it is retained, I doubt that the reasons for the cut had anything to do with textual considerations.) And while there is, as I said, some textual argument to support the excision of the mock-trial (which appears only in the Quarto text), one wonders what could have prompted Miller to cut the entire scene in which it appears.

And so it continues. The scene where the mad Lear meets the blind Gloucester – which projects the most terrible of tragic visions more powerfully than just about any other scene in drama that I can think of – is cut to shreds; and even at the end – where, in this production, Lear, instead of entering with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms, totters in weakly after her body – the chilling animal-like cries of “Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!” are cut. And, of course, Lear’s final line, which really does hint at the cosmic dimension that Miller insists isn’t there, is also cut. All that is grand; all that is magnificent, colossal, epic; all that is visionary; is cut away.

One does not, I agree, need to be epic to communicate artistic visions of passion and of intensity: to consider an example from a rather different medium, Rafael Kubelik’s recording of Mahler’s mighty 6th symphony is conceived on a much smaller scale than the grand, epic readings of Barbirolli, Bernstein, Solti or Karajan, but is nonetheless overwhelming on its own terms. But that is not so here: there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to compensate for all that was missing. At times, it seemed no more than a perfunctory run-through of selected scenes from the play. Indeed, I can think of no better argument to counter the “Meant-to-be-seen-not-read” contingent: any reading of this play yields greater dividends than seeing a production as limp as this; and anyone whose sole acquaintance with this towering masterpiece is this production will come away with a very distorted and diminished view of Shakespeare’s work.


Normally, I try not to write on this blog about what I don’t like, and I feel a bit bad, I must admit, about writing this particular post: the tradition of Shakespearean performance remains very strong in Britain, and I have no wish to join the ranks of trendy detractors who seem hostile to the very idea of “tradition”. But I do have a genuine respect for Jonathan Miller, admire much of his work as director, and really was looking forward to a production that I was hoping would open up, for me at any rate, new ways of looking at this endlessly fascinating play. But in the event, for reasons best known to himself, Jonathan Miller really has killed the thing he loves. He has killed it stone dead, and I don’t have the faintest idea why.

“On the Eve” by Ivan Turgenev

“On the Eve” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Gilbert Gardiner, Penguin Classics


I wonder to what extent Turgenev was interested in plot. Not a lot, I’d guess, judging from his first three novels, since the central plotline in all three of them is more or less the same – a young girl with a sheltered upbringing in a provincial town awakens emotionally, and falls in love with a newcomer into the closed society she inhabits, but it all ends sadly. However, what is of interest is not so much the plot but what the author makes of it, and in these three novels, Turgenev uses this basic plotline to make quite different things. In his first full-length novel, Rudin, he had explored the character of the “superfluous man” – a man who is intelligent, articulate, and capable, but who is, nonetheless, curiously ineffective; his next novel, Home of the Gentry, is more a “pure” love story, for the most part, as far as I could see, unadulterated with political and social concerns: I got the impression reading that novel that had these concerns not been so pressing, and so weighing so heavily on Turgenev’s mind, this is the kind of novel he would have preferred to write. But these concerns could not be dismissed: in his next novel, On the Eve, the very title vibrating with social and political resonance, these issues return, as it were, with a vengeance. The dreamy melancholy of balmy evenings and singing nightingales has not gone away, but there are other matters simmering furiously below the surface.

The principal character here, Elena, is, like Liza in Home of the Gentry, pure-hearted and loving, recently grown into adulthood; but unlike Liza, hers is a restless soul, not at peace either with those around her, or, indeed, with herself. The older generation, once again, has little to offer, but where Liza’s mother had merely been foolish, Elena’s father is immoral, openly keeping a mistress while at the same time demanding respect for himself and deference to his social standing. The future this father demands for his daughter is one of unaspiring mediocrity and moral corruption, and the husband he proposes for her is every bit as uninspiring and as mediocre as himself; Elena, a somewhat less gentle soul, perhaps, than Liza in the previous novel, cannot even begin to take him seriously.

It is easy to see why Elena falls instead for Insarov, the newcomer into her society, and, to a far greater extent than the corresponding figures in the previous two novels, very much an outsider. He is not even Russian: he is a Bulgarian, committed to the cause of his country’s freedom. He is quietly heroic, undemonstrative, but of firm integrity and of unwavering principles, and it is easy to see why Elena falls for such a man: she finds in him a moral seriousness that she longs for, but which she has been starved of.

It is this sense of moral seriousness, or the lack thereof, that marks out the difference between the older generation and the newer. Turgenev was to return to this theme with quite explosive effect in his next novel, Fathers and Sons, which, in its nuanced depiction and its even-handedness managed on publication to alienate both fathers and sons, but here the depiction is more schematic. It’s not that the younger generation are all necessarily admirable: there is, after all, Elena’s proposed husband who appears to have taken on willingly all the shortcomings and absurdities of the older generation (and who is, incidentally, one of Turgenev’s rare forays into caricature, although it is perhaps fair to say that it is not in caricature that his gift primarily lies). But despite the presence of this unpleasant young suitor, all that is genuinely admirable in this novel comes from the young. There’s the talented young sculptor, Shubin, who sees through the hypocrisies of Elena’s father (although he is more amused than outraged by it all); there’s Bersyenev, the student of philosophy, who is himself in love with Elena, but, Sidney-Carton-like (though not in quite so spectacular a manner), forgoes his own happiness for hers; there’s Insarov himself, whose undemonstrative heroism and tenderness for Elena were such that I couldn’t help picturing him as the Paul Henreid character (Victor Laszlo) in Casablanca; and, of course, there’s Elena herself, determined that her own life would be free from the moral turpitude of her father’s, or the submissive acquiescence of her mother’s. The scope for action was far more limited for women than it was for men, but, given this, Elena’s determination not to succumb to what is expected of her, and her actions both before and after tragedy strikes, are every bit as heroic as Insarov’s.

(Chekhov, curiously, picked up this theme in one of his finest short stories that is variously translated as “A Marriageable Girl”, “The Fiancee”, “The Betrothed”, and “The Bride”: in this story, a young woman, in order to give herself the education that she had been denied, walks out of an engagement that promises a future merely of comfortable mediocrity.)

The story itself is simply told, with all Turgenev’s gift for gentle lyricism. Admittedly, there are fewer balmy evenings and singing nightingales here than in his previous novel: the political and social tensions simmering under the surface don’t allow too much room for that kind of thing, but, as with Home of the Gentry (although to a somewhat lesser extent), it is hard to read this without feeling that one is in the hands of a consummate lyric poet. The characterisation is deft, particularly of the minor, incidental characters: I couldn’t help feeling that the lovelorn but self-sacrificing Bersenyev would have made an interesting protagonist in his own right in another novel. And once again, Turgenev knew better than to overload so short a narrative and so slender a plotline with too many characters: the errors of judgement in Rudin are not here repeated.

It is towards the end of the novel that Turgenev offers us a major surprise: having set it all up as another novel of love in a provincial town, he suddenly switches the scene to Venice, a sophisticated European city, and, in every way, as far as can be imagined from the setting of the rest of the novel. A writer of Turgenev’s lyrical gifts could easily have given us page upon page of the most exquisite description, but the novelist takes precedence here over the lyrical poet: he gives us only as little as is required to convey a sense of changed locality – albeit a locality very dramatically changed. And here he develops a theme that had only been hinted at earlier: death. I am not sure what it is about the city of Venice that seems to suggest forebodings of mortality, but Turgenev certainly got there long before The Wings of the Dove, or Death in Venice. There is a sense here of decay and of death, but even in this there seems to be a curious beauty:

“Venice is dying, Venice is deserted” – so her inhabitants will tell you; but it may be in the past she lacked such charm as this, the charm of a city fading in the very culmination and flowing of its beauty.

Here, in the city in whose very decay is its beauty, Elena and Insarov attend a performance of Verdi’s recently composed opera, La Traviata – a work Turgenev describes (rather disconcertingly for those of us who love the work) as “in truth rather a commonplace piece”*. But whatever Turgenev may have thought of its artistic worth, he had certainly been struck by its death-haunted quality: it, too, like Venice, fades in “the very culmination and flowing of its beauty”. He gives us a fascinating account of the performance of this “commonplace piece”, and the tragedy is foreshadowed: it is no great surprise when it comes.

But tragic though the plot is, thematically, it is the quiet and undemonstrative heroism both of Insarov and of Elena that seems to me to be at the centre of the novel, and this heroism suffuses the entire work with a radiant, optimistic glow: one is left feeling that where the older generation had failed – where, indeed, they had scarcely even tried – the younger may perhaps succeed. And even if they don’t, their effort to progress morally from the state they have been left in by their fathers has about it an innate nobility. Such sense of optimism and belief in the essential nobility of humans are perhaps somewhat alien to modern sensibilities, and Turgenev himself was to revisit them; but if, indeed, such ideals are out of phase with the modern mind, a novel such as this serves to remind us of what we have lost.



* According to volume 2 of Julian Budden’s invaluable The Operas of Verdi, La Traviata was given its first performance in Venice in 1853, and, for various reasons, it was not a particular success, although Verdi may have exaggerated the extent of its failure. The performance attended by Elena and by Insarov would have been the revival in in 1854, when its qualities became more apparent, although, presumably, Turgenev remained unimpressed.

“Home of the Gentry” by Ivan Turgenev

“Home of the Gentry” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Richard Freeborn, Penguin Classics


I wonder if it’s the general case that we respond more keenly to tender love stories in advancing middle age than we do in our younger years. Or whether I am merely projecting my own reactions on to others, mistaking what is specific in my case for what is general. Certainly when I first read Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry as a seventeen-year-old, I thought it, to be frank, a bit soppy and sentimental, but excused it on the grounds that the author had gone on to write Fathers and Sons, which dealt with matters that were, as I then thought, of far more serious import. But reading Home of the Gentry again after a gap of nearly forty years, I found myself not merely enjoying the story, but being affected by it. Now, either I have become more soppy and romantic (with a small “r”) with advancing years; or I have become more aware of the importance of private emotions, even when these emotions are not of the kind that are expressed in anguished raging on stormy heaths, but are, rather, quiet, subdued, and gentle – or, as I’d have put it in my teenage years, “soppy”.

The setting is familiar: Russian Provincial – but very different from the nightmare vision of Russian Provincial that Gogol gave us in Dead Souls and in The Government Inspector: Turgenev’s imagination was as far from the Gogolian as may be imagined. The very first sentence sets the tone:

A bright spring day was drawing towards evening; small pink clouds stood high in a clear sky and seemed not so much to float pat as to recede into the very depths of the blue. (Translated by Richard Freeborn)

We are in a world that is gentle and lyrical. There are, it is true, still people in this world who can be foolish and thoughtless and even malicious, and their foolishness and thoughtlessness and malice can certainly create pain and unhappiness; but, in this fictional environment, there is nothing even remotely close to a Gogolian inferno.

Turgenev, having had one full length novel (Rudin) behind him, now knew better than to introduce too many characters too quickly, and expect the reader to remember who they all are and how they are related to each other: he is careful also not to overload so short a novel with too many characters. Here, he introduces the characters one by one, and adopts the simple and nonetheless effective scheme of giving us a couple of pages or so on each character as they are introduced. This certainly slows down the pace, but there is no need to push the pace in this opening section, especially in a novel such as this where the overall tempo, in keeping with the content, is gentle and relaxed; and it means also that the characters are all firmly registered in the reader’s mind: in the first few chapters of Rudin, I had to keep referring to the list of characters to remind myself who was who: here, such a list is not supplied, and is not needed.

The last character to be introduced here is Lavretsky, who, alongside Liza, is the principal protagonist of the novel; and, in Lavretsky’s case, instead of a few pages of background information, we are given a few chapters that contain enough material for a whole series of novels. We are told not only of Lavretsky’s past, but of his family – of his overbearing grandfather; his father, who had defied parental authority by marrying a peasant woman, but who had subsequently lived most of his life in Europe, leaving his wife at home; of the growing and unexpected affection the grandfather develops for his peasant daughter-in-law; and so on. And surprisingly, even amidst all this personal history, a political theme of sorts emerges, though it is not one I had expected from the notoriously Westernised Turgenev: there is a clear contrast between, on the one hand, the traditional Russian values of gentleness and of quiet, uncomplaining fortitude, as exemplified by Lavretsky’s mother; and, on the other hand, the glittering but shallow European values, as exemplified by the dissipated lifestyle led in Europe by Lavretsky’s father. Of course, Turgenev was too fine a novelist to make this dichotomy over-schematic: the grandfather, Russian to his soul, is hardly a pleasant person, despite his growing affection for his daughter-in-law; and his daughter, Lavretsky’s aunt, is presented as a bitter and twisted soul; and, of course, there is still serfdom, which is, in effect, slavery. But the dichotomy is there all the same, and is reinforced in other aspects of the novel. Lavretsky’s father, for instance, when he returns, comes armed with half-digested European ideas, and imposes upon his boy a system of education based on the writings of the European writer Rousseau; as a consequence, Lavretsky’s childhood becomes a living hell. Later on,  Lavretsky’s wife,  shallow, pleasure-seeking, and mendacious, finds her natural element in the bright lights and glitter of Parisian life. Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, we have Liza, a product of the Russian provinces, sincere, loving, and honest, and capable of great depths of feeling. In short, like Tatyana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, who is an obvious model, she has Russian soul.

Lavretsky’s turning away from Paris in disappointment after being deceived by his frivolous wife, and finding himself back home and attracted to Liza, a flower of Russian womanhood, clearly has political implications. Lavretsky’s homecoming is more than merely literal: it is also a sort of spiritual homecoming – a homecoming to traditional and unspoilt Russian values. This doesn’t mean that Turgenev was a Salvophile underneath all his well-publicised Western leanings, but it does indicate that, despite everything, he had a profound sentimental attachment to his homeland. If in other works he had expressed his horror for the various monstrous injustices and cruelties practised in Mother Russia, he gives expression here to his sentiment, and both are valid: our attachments are, after all, more complex than we imagine.

This contrast between imported European fripperies and the true depths of the Russian soul seems to be everywhere in Russian literature, once one starts looking for it. Its seeds are clearly present in Eugene Onegin, where Onegin, the restless Byronic hero, fails to recognise the worth of the Russian Tatyana until it is too late. It is clearly present in War and Peace, where the Pierre-Hélène-Natasha triangle (note the French name!) clearly reprises the Lavretsky-Varvara-Liza triangle of this novel. And there is another homecoming, both literal and spiritual, from the bright lights of Paris to Russian Provincial in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, although here Madame Ranevsky is unable either to reject the Parisian fripperies that had ensnared her, or, come to terms with the changing face of the home to which she has returned. But by the time Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard, this theme had undergone many transformations: Home of the Gentry, written nearly fifty or so years earlier in the mid nineteenth century, presents this theme in, as it were, a purer form.

The glittering frivolities of Europe and the true soul of Mother Russia; the return from one to the other, and recognition of deeper values; all these themes are here, but Turgenev, in this novel at least, does not seem very interested in exploring their political implications. This in itself is surprising: at a time when the conflict between Western-looking modernisers and traditional Slavophiles was very marked and very bitter, to introduce such themes without delving into their political implications does seem a trifle odd. It is hard not to get the feeling that Turgenev, whose commitment to Western liberal and democratic values was later to make him so controversial, was drawn into political themes only unwillingly – that, had he had the choice, he would have preferred to have focussed not on big political themes at all, but, rather, on personal emotions; that he would have preferred, in short, to have continued to write delicate and melancholy love stories. Commentators impatient with such matters may focus on those themes that hint at least at a political dimension, but this is not – much to the disappointment of my teenage self – what Turgenev himself seems particularly interested in.

And what he focuses on instead I did not, this time round, find trivial: it is after all the accumulation of all our personal joys and sorrows that make up the full teeming canvas of human life, and to concentrate on one particular corner of that canvas, and depict it with such loving tenderness, does not seem to me an unworthy task even for a great novelist. Well, perhaps not a great novelist quite yet: Fathers and Sons was still to come; but nonetheless, a novelist who, after the partial success of Rudin, now had greater control over his technique, who could create both mood and explore psychological depth, and who could, above all, convey as few other novelists could the sheer sadness of our disappointed and disappointing lives.

In his next novels – On the Eve, and, especially, Fathers and Sons – the political aspects of his themes become more apparent: but the quietly elegiac tone of Home of the Gentry demands to be taken on its own terms. Ad on its own terms, it is as touching and as affecting a love story I think I have encountered. Turgenev was particularly good, I think, at communicating what it feels like to be in love, and, slight though some readers may think it, I found it an unmitigated delight from beginning to end. Turgenev’s authorial presence, civilised and refined, was one I found particularly congenial to my temperament. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, translator Richard Freeborn writes of the novel:

To present-day tastes its treatment of love may seem low-toned, even a trifle mawkish; perhaps the nightingales have a way of singing a little too appropriately and the stars shine just a little too sweetly for our neon-dazzled eyes.

Perhaps I find myself welcoming the soft, gentle light of Turgenev’s novel precisely because I am tired of the incessant neon-dazzling. But this is not, I think, to imply that that this novel is a sort of escapism, a refuge from an unattractive reality: rather, it depicts, with consummate delicacy of feeling and a mastery of craft, those regions of our human experience that we are perhaps a bit too quick to dismiss as “mawkish”, but which are nonetheless as real as anything lit garishly in neon.

“The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster

Webster was much possessed by death,
And saw the skull beneath the skin,
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

– from “Whispers of Immortality” by T. S. Eliot  

The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, the twin pillars on which Webster’s reputation primarily stands, make for a fascinating comparison. They are both clearly products of a dramatist in full control of the craft of playwrighting; they are also, equally clearly, the products of an author who did not see much in humanity to inspire confidence in its essential goodness or nobility – who, indeed, could not even see the possibility of redemption. But while The White Devil is a flamboyant work of bold, vigorous and colourful strokes, sweeping the audience along in its seemingly irresistible torrents, The Duchess of Malfi looks inwards, finding as often as not a stillness, and room for contemplation. It finds also a curious lyricism, dark and death-possessed; and also a rather strange beauty. Those daffodil bulbs that appear for eyes are given, in Webster’s hands, a peculiar fascination.

We are, once again, in an Italian court, but the cast of characters is smaller than it had been in The White Devil, and the plot simpler and more concentrated. The action here belongs, effectively, to the world of what we now regard as Gothic horror – demonic villains, sadism, terror, madness, death. In such stories, there are, in general, two types of villain – the unstable psychopath on the one hand, and the cool, calculating type on the other: here, Webster gives us both, and they both happen to be brothers of the Duchess of Malfi. There’s the Duke, Ferdinand, whose lust for his own sister is barely concealed, and who, after having had his sister and her children murdered, goes quite spectacularly mad:  

PESCARA.          Pray thee, what ‘s his disease?
DOCTOR.  A very pestilent disease, my lord,
They call lycanthropia.
PESCARA.                 What ‘s that?
I need a dictionary to’t.
DOCTOR.                     I’ll tell you.
In those that are possess’d with’t there o’erflows
Such melancholy humour they imagine
Themselves to be transformed into wolves;
Steal forth to church-yards in the dead of night,
And dig dead bodies up:  as two nights since
One met the duke ’bout midnight in a lane
Behind Saint Mark’s church, with the leg of a man
Upon his shoulder; and he howl’d fearfully…

The other villain, the other brother, is the Cardinal. Not for him lusting after his sister, and walking the streets with limbs of dead men on his shoulders; however –

The spring in his face is nothing but the engendering of toads.

In The White Devil, Isabella was murdered by coating with poison a picture she was known regularly to kiss; and here, Webster gives this already bizarre plot device an extra twist: the Cardinal murders his mistress by making her kiss a poisoned Bible. That’s right: a poisoned Bible. In such a world, in which God’s own word is poisoned and becomes an instrument of death, there seems little room for anything but the most crudely and ingeniously horrific and sensational; but Webster surprises us. In the first place, he is not particularly interested in plot, and thins out its elements: compared to The White Devil, the plotline presented here is very straight-forward, and is easily summarised in a few sentences. As a consequence of this reduced emphasis on the action, not much time need be spent explaining to the audience the mere mechanics of the plot; and this leaves room for other, more important matters. Even towards the end, as the action is approaching its denouement, Webster is happy to hold up the action to give us a scene which advances the plot not a whit, but which adds significantly to the darkly poetic atmosphere: Antonio, not yet knowing that his wife, the Duchess, and their children, have been murdered, is in the ruins of an abbey, and an echo in the voice of his dead wife eerily tells him of the doom that envelops him:   

ANTONIO.  Echo, I will not talk with thee,
For thou art a dead thing.
ECHO.                       Thou art a dead thing.
ANTONIO.  My duchess is asleep now,
And her little ones, I hope sweetly.  O heaven,
Shall I never see her more?
ECHO.                        Never see her more.

Such a scene would have been very much out of place amidst the more frenetic action of The White Devil, but it is perfectly in place in this play with its more measured pacing, and its atmosphere of intense private grief.

The plot, such as it is, is simple enough: the still young and recently widowed Duchess of Malfi, against the express instructions of her two villainous brothers, secretly marries a social inferior, Antonio; and, when her two brothers find out, they visit upon herterrible punishment. Such a plotline doesn’t really leave much room for the revenge – for, after all, who is to be the revenger? The obvious candidate is the Duchess’ husband, Antonio, but he is relatively weak, and is more easily cast as victim rather than avenger. The avenger turns out, in what may be, I think, a twist to the usual formula, an instrument of the original crime – Bosola, who, in service of the villainous brothers, murders both the Duchess and her children. His reasons for his turning against his employers after the murders are not obvious: it is true that despite the appalling nature of the crimes he has committed, he is not entirely without scruples: he even comforts the Duchess in her last moments; but one suspects that the key factor here is the lack of gratitude on the part of his employers.

Such ambiguity of character could easily be either a dramatic weakness, leading merely to lack of clarity; or it could be quite the opposite – a dramatic strength, leading the author to examine the ambiguous nature of human motivation itself. But here, it is neither, for it is not the revenge that is at the centre of the drama: rather, we have at the centre human evil and human suffering, and the vexed question of whether, in the midst of such unmitigated horrors that make up so much of life, where even the divine word of God is coated with poison, there can be any such thing as a higher order.  

DUCHESS. What are you?
SERVANT.       One that wishes you long life.
DUCHESS.  I would thou wert hang’d for the horrible curse
Thou hast given me:  I shall shortly grow one
Of the miracles of pity.  I ‘ll go pray;       [Exit Servant.]
No, I’ll go curse.
BOSOLA.              O, fie!
DUCHESS.                      I could curse the stars.
BOSOLA.                                        O, fearful!
DUCHESS.  And those three smiling seasons of the year
Into a Russian winter; nay, the world
To its first chaos.
BOSOLA.              Look you, the stars shine still.

Bosola’s response to the Duchess – “look you, the stars shine still” – denotes, at one level, the insignificance of human agency: the Duchess can curse the stars – those manifestations of a higher order – as much as she wishes, but they shine still. But equally, Bosola’s response may betoken the existence of a higher order that the Duchess in her suffering denies. His words are as ambiguous and as double-edged as is his role in the drama.

But it is on the suffering that most of the dramatic focus falls, and on human life lived in the close proximity of death. There is, throughout, as Eliot put it, an awareness of “the skull beneath the skin”. And from this awareness there emerges a strange and eerie poetry. The long scene in the fourth act in which the Duchess and her children are murdered is, at the same time, the most horrific and yet the most poetic of scenes. To see horror presented in so poetic a manner is rather unnerving: I do not think I have encountered elsewhere such an unlikely fusion. And the poetry is, of course, the poetry of death.

It is a long and carefully paced scene, and seems to contain in it the very kernel of Webster’s strange vision. First, Bosola brings in, seemingly for the Duchess’ entertainment, a troupe of madmen, whose lunatic singing and dancing and meaningless gibberish create a quite extraordinary atmosphere: one gets the impression that reality is somehow suspended, and that we have entered a world that occupies some vague borderland between sanity and insanity, between life and death – a world that is not quite our own. Bosola, still the loyal servant, is soon to kill the Duchess, but he tries before doing so to comfort her, to bring her to terms with the inevitability of death:

Thou art a box of worm-seed, at best but a salvatory  of green mummy. What’s this flesh? a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste. Our bodies are weaker than those paper-prisons boys use to keep flies in; more contemptible, since ours is to preserve earth-worms.  Didst thou ever see a lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body:  this world is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven o’er our heads like her looking-glass, only  gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison. 

By the time the Duchess is strangled onstage, she is reconciled to her fate, but that does not make the fate any less horrific. Her waiting-woman Cariola is also strangled onstage, and then the bodies of the strangled children are brought in. Ferdinand then enters to see the corpse of the sister he had sexually desired:  

FERDINAND.            Is she dead?
BOSOLA.                             She is what
You ‘d have her.  But here begin your pity:       [Shows the Children strangled.]
Alas, how have these offended?
FERDINAND.                      The death
Of young wolves is never to be pitied.
BOSOLA.  Fix your eye here.
FERDINAND.                   Constantly.
BOSOLA.                                   Do you not weep?
Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out.
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens.
FERDINAND. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young.

Anyone can depict a succession of gruesome savageries, but it requires a poet, I think, to pen that line of Ferdinand’s – so apparently simple, and yet so haunting and resonant. A poet, yes, but a damn strange one.

I am not quite sure, to be honest, quite what to make of Webster’s poetic sensibility. It had seemed relatively straight-forward in The White Devil: there, life is but a teeming pit of human evil, a mere succession of horrors, and the humans occupying this pit utterly irredeemable. But here, Webster seems to add a quite different dimension: even in his contemplation of the skull beneath the skin he seems to find an eldritch yet hauntingly beautiful music. It is a sensibility unlike any other I think I have encountered, and occupies regions of the mind that I don’t think I have ever till now been led into. I ended The White Devil repelled by the horror, and yet invigorated by the sheer dramatic energy of it all; but The Duchess of Malfi took me on a quite different journey, and led me into regions of human experience that, though astonishingly vivid, seems impervious to any rational analysis.

“Meant to be seen, not read”

Yesterday, as well as being St George’s Day, was Shakespeare’s birthday. There were celebrations a-plenty, and quite rightly so: but what was very conspicuous by its absence – at least, if it was there, I missed it – was any encouragement actually to read his plays. One might have thought that the best way to honour any writer is to read what that writer has written, but somehow, when it comes to the writer widely claimed to be “our greatest”, reading does not seem very high on the agenda. Even otherwise well-read people appear not to have read much, if any, of his writing. And the unthinking mantra “Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read” seems to be commonplace. Here, for instance, is Mark Rylance, one of our foremost Shakespearean actors, on the matter:

Shakespeare’s plays were supposed to be performed and reading them was “the last thing the author intended,” [Rylance] said.

There’s no point overwhelming this post with further links to illustrate my point: that these plays “were meant to be seen, not read” has now become, more or less, accepted wisdom, as even the most cursory Google search will testify.

There are, of course, several arguments to be presented against this contention that these plays were not intended to be seen and not read. The most obvious is that it’s not a question of either one or the other – that one may do both, and that both are enriching in their different ways. One may point out that many good texts of these works – the Good Quartos – were published in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, and that it is unlikely that such publications could have appeared without the author’s own authorisation; and that if Shakespeare did indeed authorise these publications, as seems likely, then he clearly intended them to be read: after all, we know for a fact that a great many major dramatists in future eras (Ibsen, Shaw, etc.), and at least one dramatist from Shakespeare’s own time, certainly wanted their plays to be read as well as seen.

One may point out also that Shakespeare’s writing is rich and multi-layered – as one would expect from “our greatest writer” – and that the riches on offer are better absorbed when read and meditated upon in one’s own time in the study, rather than heard in the theatre at the speed of sound. One may question also how well one may get to know the plays if one were to rely only on performance: after all, how many Shakespeare plays do most of us get to see in performance? How often? Are they all good productions, that do justice to the plays? Further, is each performance not necessarily an interpretation, which, fine though it may be, highlights inevitably only certain aspects of the work at the expense of others? That only when one encounters these works oneself, free of the interpretations of others, can one appreciate its multi-facetedness, and arrive, as one does with other major works of literature, at one’s own interpretations?

One may go further, and argue that if reading these plays is an enriching experience – and I can personally vouch for it that it is – then it really doesn’t matter what the author had intended. The author had also intended Rosalind and Cleopatra to be played by boys, but we don’t, thankfully, turn our backs on actresses playing these roles.

I have put forward these arguments and others many a time, but I don’t think they have made much impact: at least, I don’t think I have encouraged many people, if indeed any at all, to read these plays. And that’s a shame. People need no encouragement to see the plays, after all: both the Globe Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre get huge audiences: indeed, it is often quite difficult getting tickets for the latter, unless one books well in advance. It is the reading, not the seeing, that requires encouragement. And that mantra “meant to be seen, not read” is hardly conducive to encouraging anyone to read. Quite the contrary, I’d have thought.

So the next time I hear that mantra repeated, I think I will dispense with all my usual arguments, and merely counter with “How do you know?” That really is the only answer necessary. Whenever someone says that reading these plays was “the last thing the author intended”, the obvious riposte is surely: “How the hell do you know what went on in Shakespeare’s mind?”

In the meantime, we go on celebrating Shakespeare as “our greatest writer”, while even people who are otherwise well-read do not consider reading him. I must say I find that rather sad. For unless we read Shakespeare, celebrating him as “our greatest writer” is no more than lip service.

“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 practioners of the art of drama (including Shakespeare), lays the blame of 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, were, 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 an intense a passion as that of the guilty lovers. Her fury on discovering her husband’s adutery 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 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.


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