Saturday, February 14, 2009

John Webster, You Are No William Shakespeare

Last month I went to see the Actors' Shakespeare Project's The Duchess of Malfi. This was the company's first production of a play by someone other than Shakespeare—in this case John Webster—and I was looking forward to seeing it. And I loved everything except . . . the play. The performances were outstanding, the production gorgeous and highly stylized, the staging innovative (a long narrow corridor with the audience on either side) and psychologically appropriate to this claustrophobic revenge tragedy. Absolutely everything was up to the ASP's usual high standards of excellence, but I found myself counting up the bodies in the last act to figure out how many more people still had to die before we could go home.

I had never read any of Shakespeare's contemporaries in college and always assumed that part of the reason that Shakespeare was produced today and most of them are not (outside of academia) is that we have made such a cultural fetish out of Shakespeare. But The Duchess of Malfi is reputed to be one of the masterpieces of early seventeenth century English theater, so I'm revising my opinion and now think it's because Shakespeare is just better.

Compare these famous lines from from King Lear:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.
with the expression of a similar sentiment from the final act of The Duchess of Malfi:
We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and bandied
Which way please them.
These words are uttered by the only remotely complex character in the play as he is dying, and I'm sorry to say I had to resist the urge to laugh.

I went with my friend Kevin who, I think, liked the play better than I did but acknowledged that he devoted some mental energy to trying to imagine how seventeenth-century English audiences would have reacted to the play (his conclusion: the depraved and outrageous doings of those crazy Italians always made for a good night of theater). I say that if you have to attempt time travel to enjoy a play then it may not have aged all that well.

I'm clearly in the minority on this. The reviews of the play were uniformly positive—and I am glad because I love the Actors' Shakespeare Project (I'm a subscriber) and want them to do well. But I will not be running out to buy The Works of John Webster any time soon.

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