PhD Researcher Neil Vallelly compares scenes from The Duchess of Malfi and ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore in preparation for the new season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse…
Crown him a poet whom nor Rome nor Greece
Transcend in all theirs for a masterpiece;
In which, whiles words and matter change, and men
Act one another, he, from whose clear pen
They all took life, to memory hath lent
A lasting fame to raise his monument.
These words are John Ford’s, and they appear in the earliest printed edition of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623). Ford and Webster were contemporaries, and both collaborated with Dekker and Rowley on a lost play entitled Keep the Widow Waking (1624), and again in Massinger’s revival of Fletcher’s The Fair Maid of the Inn (1626). Almost 400 years later, Webster and Ford are contemporaries once more. Malfi opened the inaugural season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in January 2014, and later this month (23 October), Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore opens the second season at the indoor theatre.
The plays have similar motifs of deception, jealousy, sibling relationships, and murder, with ’Tis Pity treading into more controversial waters with its portrayal of incest and mutilation. Yet, it is not so much the generic similarities that interest me with regards to these plays. Rather, it is two cases of inadvertent murder (one from each play) which raise questions about the capacity (and perhaps, incapacity) of creating darkness in the Jacobean indoor playhouses and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
In the penultimate scene of The Duchess of Malfi (5.4), the fictional space is obviously dark, as the Cardinal makes several references to nighttime, and Bosola manages to sneak onstage without being seen. Moreover, after Antonio enters, his servant tells him: “Here stay, sir, and be confident, I pray. / I’ll fetch you a dark lantern” (41-42). Bosola mistakes Antonio’s entrance for the re-entrance of the Cardinal and fatally stabs him: “Fall right, my sword! [stabs Antonio] / I’ll not give thee so much leisure as to pray” (44-45). When Antonio exclaims in pain, Bosola tentatively asks: “What art thou?” (47)—potentially realising his mistake. Yet, it is only when the servant re-enters with a lantern and moves towards Antonio’s cries that Bosola is fully aware that he has killed Antonio: “Smother thy pity; thou art dead else. Antonio? / The man I would have saved ‘bove mine own life? (51-52).
Alex Waldmann as Antonio, Sean Gilder as Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi
2014 © Mark Douet