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the white devil
28 february 2015
One of my favorite parts of Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, at least in my sophomoric college days, was an imaginary synopsis of a Jacobean revenge tragedy. It was a pastiche, of course, but when reading a real play like Webster's White Devil, a lot of the fun lies in imagining it summarized by Thomas Pynchon.
OK, I'm not really going to do that here, but it's tempting. The White Devil consists of five acts of people behaving very badly, in can-you-top-this fashion, all the while rubbing salt in wounds they've just opened up.
Webster's play suffers, at least in the reading, from the too-many-Antonios problem common to a lot of early English plays. There are about six relatively indistinguishable and intricately interrelated Italian noblemen in the play, all of them incipiently about to poison or poignard one or more of the others. Obviously on stage the confusion is no big deal: cast actors who are taller or shorter or of different hair or skin color, and dress them in contrasting doublets. And give one a hat. But for the reader, telling Marcello from Monticelso from Lodovico is a challenge.
Flamineo, the best role for an actor, stands out even on the page, however. Like Lucio in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Flamineo constantly thinks the worst of everyone around him, and mocks everybody's motives and rationalizations. He also kills his own brother, I think, though as I said, the characters are a bit hard to distinguish and arranges some other murders and at one point even arranges his own, though it turns out to be phony. In the end he gets murdered anyway.
J.R. Mulryne's introduction to the 1969 Nebraska Regents edition of the play stresses Flamineo as both commentator to the audience and the play's disturbing conscience of sorts. Mulryne also notes that The White Devil has attracted a lot of disparagement in its long history, being much out of favor with neoclassical, Victorian, and latter-day moralists. Modernists admired it, though: it was a favorite of T.S. Eliot, who quoted it often. and Margaret Drabble took an early novel title from Webster, A Summer Bird-Cage.
It is quotable, though many of its more pyrotechnic speeches have only a tacked-on relation to its plot. "Hell to my affliction / Is mere snow-water," says the title character Vittoria Corombona (Flamineo's sister, in Act 2, Scene 2). If you want to say something bad about government, the rich, lawyers, aristocrats, diplomats, foreigners of all nations, or women – especially women – The White Devil is like a Big Book of Insults.
But Webster's play seems hip as ever, 403 years after its first publication. TV and movies of the early 21st century delight in giving us anti-heroes at the very best, and downright awful people most of the time, as protagonists. We are more the heirs of Webster than of his relatively sanguine and judgmental contemporary Shakespeare – even if everybody's heard of Shakespeare and practically nobody has heard of John Webster.
Webster, John. The White Devil. 1612. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.