Thursday, July 22, 2021

Webster's Siblings

John Webster loved portraying disturbing sibling relationships in his plays. His first tragedy, The White Devil, is notable in that the beautiful adulteress Vittoria (the titular White Devil of the piece) is aided in her crimes by her brother Flamineo.

When all their plans go sour, Flamineo even proposes a suicide pact with his sister, suggesting she shoot him with a pistol and then kill herself. Vittoria dutifully shoots her brother, but not herself, only to be surprised when Flamineo rises from the ground, announcing he had not loaded the pistols he gave her.
This darkly comic twist turns tragic, though, when the enemies of the sister and brother arrive to dispatch them. Vittoria goes bravely to her death, and Flamineo quickly forgives her betrayal of him, remarking “Thou’rt a noble sister: / I love thee now.” United in life by their sinful actions, they unite in death, as Vittoria’s stoic resolve helps reconcile Flamineo to his fate.
The siblings in Webster’s next play, TheDuchess of Malfi, instead are at odds from the very beginning. In the first scene, the title character’s twin brother Ferdinand places a spy in the duchess’s household. He also sternly warns his sister, who is recently widowed, that she shouldn’t remarry. “They are most luxurious / Will wed twice,” he tells her, though he appears to be most concerned with losing her inheritance should she have children with a second husband.

Ferdinand schemes together with his elder brother, the Cardinal of Aragon, who also seeks to prevent their sister from marrying. The cardinal’s moralizing about the lusts of women is contradicted by the fact that he keeps a mistress himself. When the still youthful countess arranges a secret marriage to her steward, the play portrays it as the most natural thing in the world, and the murderous obsessions of the brothers with their sister’s sex life appear sick and perhaps even quasi-incestuous.

After completing The Duchess of Malfi, Webster wrote a third tragedy, The Guise, which sadly has been lost. Presumably, the play was about recent French history, so it might have resembled Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris. Fashions were changing, though, and tragicomedy was on the rise. Webster’s fourth and final solo play (he also had written and would continue to write numerous collaborative works) was one such tragicomedy, The Devil’s Law Case.

Like The White Devil and the Duchess of Malfi, the tragicomedy The Devil’s Law Case features siblings with a problematic relationship. Romelio, the villain of the piece, might have a name that resembles Romeo, but unlike Shakespeare’s hero, Romelio simply wants to use love and marriage to advance his own material ends. His sister Jolenta (whose name echoes Juliet) is courted by two different men, the noble Contarino and the valiant Ercole. However, Romelio can’t even fathom that they could be interested in her for love.

Romelio disparages Contarino in the opening scene, declaring: “He makes his colour / Of visiting us so often, to sell land, / And thinks, if he can gain my sister’s love, / To recover the treble value.” Other characters can recognize Contarino’s honest motives, but being a villain himself, Romelio can only see villainy in other men. He arranges for Jolenta to marry Ercole instead, though she clearly returns Contarino’s affections.

In the second act, the two rivals for Jolenta’s love quarrel and fight a duel, both receiving grievous injuries. Ercole appears to die, and Contarino, on the verge of death, writes his will, naming Jolenta his heir. Learning this, Romelio resolves to kill Contarino before he can recover, hoping to secure the inheritance for himself. As in The Duchess of Malfi, a scheming brother is more concerned with his sister’s property than her happiness.
Romelio’s villainy goes even further though, since he has gotten a nun pregnant, and is hoping to pass off his bastard as Jolenta’s child by Ercole. That way, Jolenta will receive not just Contarino’s estate, but through her child, Ercole’s estate as well. Though he badgers Jolenta into cooperating at first, she ultimately flees from him, attempting to escape to Rome together with the poor nun her brother got knocked up.
Because this is a tragicomedy, Ercole turns out to still be alive, and Contarino recovers from his wounds (ironically, because of Romelio’s assassination attempt). Romelio’s villainy is so great, though, that his own mother files a law suit claiming (falsely) that she cheated on her husband. This could get Romelio declared a bastard, ensuring that all inheritances stay with Jolenta.

That isn’t necessary in the end, and order and justice are restored in the fifth act. Still, if this is how Webster portrays siblings in his plays, one hopes he was an only child!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Disciple

I just got back from seeing The Disciple, Rachel Carey's bold new play about novelist and philosophical provocateur Ayn Rand and her follower and much younger lover, Nathaniel Branden.

Maja Wampuszyc is chillingly perfect as the domineering Rand. I first got to know Wampuszyc's work when she appeared in my play Foggy Bottom at the Abingdon Theatre Company, but she went on to premiere on Broadway in Irena's Vow and more recently was in James Gray's film The Immigrant.

Cameron Darwin Bossert plays Branden, the devoted acolyte of Rand who went on to make a name for himself as a psychologist and self-help guru. We see him in 1979, leading a self-esteem retreat, and in flashback as a young man manipulated and used by Rand for her own purposes.

The show is playing at the Wild Project until July 25th, and if you join theatre company Thirdwing for a monthly fee, it's ridiculously cheap. Check it out!

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Devil's in the Details

Today I presented my paper "Comic and Tragic Adultery in Shaw and O'Neill" at the Shaw Summer Symposium online.

The talk was inspired by the fact that the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake is this season producing both Bernard Shaw's comedy The Devil's Disciple and Eugene O'Neill's tragedy Desire Under the Elms, which both ask if an illicit relationship could be more authentic than a legal marriage.

Alas, the border with Canada remains closed, and the festival advised the International Shaw Society that they would not be able to host their annual conference this year. Instead, the symposium went virtual for the second time in a row. I was happy to speak, though, as part of a panel that included both Ellen Dolgin and Brigitte Bogar, two of my favorite people in the Shaw world.

After a lunch break, there was another panel, in which Mary Christian drew links between Shaw's Major Barbara and George Eliot's novel Romola. She was joined by Oscar Giner, who talked about devil figures and rebellion in both The Devil’s Disciple and Lope de Vega's Fuenteovejuna. The final speaker on the panel was Jean Reynolds, who discussed language issues in Shaw's Pygmalion.

Brad Kent gave a brief presentation on the Oxford World's Classics Shaw volumes, and then there was a roundtable discussion on editing and publishing scholarship on Shaw in academic journals. We were fortunate enough to have the editors of Shaw: The Journal of Bernard Shaw Studies, Modern Drama, and Victorian Studies. The day concluded with a reading of the play Pygmalion Continued, by John McInerney.

Tomorrow, there will be panels on Shaw and Ireland and Shaw's international reception. The conference is free, but you do have to register if you want to attend any of the events.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

A Certain Club

Tomorrow, the International Shaw Society begins its virtual conference. Attendance is free, but you do have to register.

I will be speaking on Saturday about links between Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple and Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms. Both of them portray potentially adulterous relationships, but in radically different ways.

As part of my preparation for the talk, I went to the Players Club, which houses the Hampden-Booth Theatre Library. archives. They had a great deal of information, including a mammoth scrapbook dedicated to the 1950 Broadway revival of The Devil's Disciple starring Maurice Evans.

The collection also has correspondence from Charles Rann Kennedy to Walter Hampden. Kennedy played Anthony Anderson in the 1907 London production of The Devil's Disciple, though he's probably better known today as a playwright. His first big success didn't come until the following year with The Servant in the House. He went on to write such plays as The Winter Feast, The Necessary Evil, and The Rib of Man. Walter Hampden is probably best known for playing the Archdeacon in the 1939 film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Going into the research at the Players Club, I wasn't quite sure what I would find, but the archivist was wonderfully helpful, and it's fun just to be able to go into the club. There's so much history there, and now that I know how friendly they are to researchers, I'll definitely be back in the future.

This evening, I also got to see some live theatre. Greenhouse Ensemble is doing an outdoor production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in Central Park. I got there a few minutes late, so I missed the beginning, but the show's a great deal of fun. If you have a chance, make sure to see it!

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Cataracts and Hurricanoes!

Tuesday, I was supposed to see New York Classical Theatre Company's production of King Lear in Central Park. I was particularly excited because rather than doing the classic version by William Shakespeare, they promised they would be performing the happy ending by Nahum Tate!

Well, unfortunately, they called off the show due to weather. I had already walked down to the park, so I ended up getting drenched on the way home. Fortunately, the company offered to reschedule my reservation for a different date. I asked them to rebook me for Saturday, tonight.

Well, they got through quite a bit of the play this time, bur as Lear was calling out "You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!" the audience was feeling drops of rain start to come down on us. It wasn't too much, so the actors soldiered on. Gloucester got his eyes gouged out, and then the director made an announcement: The show was canceled. As I walked home, I got drenched yet again.

Is the third time a charm? Well, Lear didn't have much luck with his first two daughters, and then along came Cordelia... so... maybe?

I've made a reservation to see the show when it will be playing in Castle Clinton later this month. Come to think of it, the last time I saw New York Classical perform King Lear, it was also at Castle Clinton, but that was with the original ending. I want the happy ending, dang it!

New York Classical isn't the only company performing free Shakespeare in the parks this summer. Classical Theatre of Harlem is doing an adaptation of Richard III by Will Power called Seize the King, Greenhouse Ensemble is doing a production of Twelfth Night, and the Public Theater is doing Jocelyn Bioh's adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor. In addition, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot is doing Shakespeare's collaboration with John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Outdoor theatre is always a challenge, but I'm hoping the rains let up so I can see at least some of these upcoming shows!

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Wolves of Kean

The actor Edmund Kean was notoriously associated with wolves, and in fact presided over a social group known as the "Wolves Club" that drank heavily and mocked the pretensions of the aristocracy.

Kean's infamous Wolves Club allegedly met at a pub known as the Coal Hole, which I visited in London back when the United Kingdom was still open to foreigners. In 1815, members of the club gave Kean a gold medal featuring an image of a lone wolf.

The Wolves Club had stopped meeting by 1817 when Junius Booth tried to star in a production of Richard III at Covent Garden. Unfortunately, a few nights earlier, Booth had disappointed a packed audience at Drury Lane, where he had been scheduled to act opposite Kean in Othello. Kean's fans took this as a slight, especially since Richard was a role associated with their hero, so they all showed up at Covent Garden, less than pleased.

Apparently, Booth couldn't even be heard amid all the uproar. He tried to apologize to the audience, but they refused to be quiet long enough for him to do so. Eventually, he came out wearing a placard stating "I have acted wrong..." The disaster was the talk of the theatre world, and a great embarrassment for Thomas Harris, the manager of Covent Garden. The artist George Cruikshank created a satirical print making fun of the whole affair, showing the theatre fans as well-dressed wolves.

Two years later, another satirical print came out making fun of a dispute Kean and Drury Lane's manager, Alexander Rae, had with the playwright Charles Bucke. Poor Bucke's tragedy The Judgement of Brutus had been a failure, but then Kean starred in a suspiciously similar piece by John Howard Payne called Brutus; or, The Fall of Tarquin. Bucke kept at it, and submitted a play called The Italians which had a role explicitly written for Kean. While the play was in rehearsal, however, Kean refused to proceed, stating he would rather pay a thousand pounds than have to perform the role. Three wolves guard Kean in a rather funny cartoon on the matter.

Later, when Kean got embroiled in a lawsuit over his affair with Charlotte Cox, Cruikshank's brother Isaac Robert created a print showing a whole audience full of wolves watching Kean perform on stage. As you can see, wolf imagery was frequently associated with Kean and his fans.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Alcestiad

Yesterday, I saw Thornton Wilder's rather wild play The Alcestiad on Roosevelt Island. The outdoor production by Magis Theatre Company is just what New York needs as we head towards the end of a long plague.

A plague, in fact does figure prominently in the work, though it doesn't make a appearance until the third part. The first act shows the princess Alcestis (played beautifully by Mae Roney) decide ultimately to marry young King Admetus, in spite of the fact that she feels called to something higher in life. We then flash forward in time, and a older Alcestis (now played by Margi Sharp Douglas), chooses to take her husband's place in death.

It is that second part that is famous to students of Greek drama, since Euripides dramatized it so effectively, but there was more to the myth, and Wilder wanted to explore what happened after the demigod Hercules brought the queen back from the realm of the dead. When a plague strikes, Alcestis is blamed, since her return from the underworld is the only rational cause people can see for the disaster. Characters stumble about the stage with their faces covered in cloth to protect them from disease. (Yup, been there, still doing that...) They also take any chance they can to blame the disease on some outside force that isn't their fault. (Also sounds familiar.)

Fortunately, the third part of The Alcestiad brings hope for those wearied by disease. A dying girl's call for help can be interpreted as an invitation to despair, but it can also be interpreted as a way forward, a plea to create a better world. All of this is aided by the production's setting, directly behind a decaying smallpox hospital in a park dedicated to the four freedoms heralded by FDR.

As the virus that has afflicted us for so long finally recedes, we begin to experience the first of these freedoms, the freedom of speech and expression, in the form of returning theatre. We can only hope that the other freedoms, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, will not be far behind.