RIP XIII #2: The White Devil

The White Devil, by John Webster

I'd been meaning to read this play for some time, for reasons which shall be explained hereafter.  Then I needed a classic with a color in the title for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and soon a really nice copy came across the donation table, and so I put it at the top of the pile.  Seemed appropriate for RIP...

This is a Jacobean revenge play, performed in 1612, and was a complete flop at the first performance.  Webster blamed this on the audience, which made me raise an eyebrow, but it did in fact do better in 1630.  I found it pretty difficult to read, though; Shakespeare is easier.  This may possibly be because Shakespeare is already familiar..but Webster is hard!  There are a zillion double entendres, the language is extremely tricky, and everybody has Italian names that are too similar.  Keeping everybody straight was part of the problem.

The story is based on an actual event in Italy that happened about thirty years before Webster wrote the play -- the life of Vittoria Accoramboni.  It was a very popular story to dramatize, so there are several versions floating around out there; Stendhal did a novella.

Vittoria is married to a husband she doesn't much like, and the Duke Orsini has fallen madly in love with her.  Vittoria's brother, Flamineo, is ambitious and figures he'll ride his sister's ascending star, so he coordinates the action: Orsini's wife, Isabella de Medici, is murdered, and so is Vittoria's husband.  Now the lovers are free to marry, but Vittoria is put on trial for her husband's murder, while Flamineo pretends madness.  She is not found guilty, but is forcibly put into a Magdalen house.  Orsini eventually gets her out and they marry, but Ludovico, who was in love with the murdered Isabella, is plotting revenge on everybody.  Pretty well everyone dies.

The play has a lot of spectacle in it; Webster was looking to please an audience that liked sensation.  Ghosts, madness, trials, murders, disguises, comic characters -- the play is stuffed with action, but the language is so difficult to follow that it isn't very fun after all.  An actual performance would probably be a lot better.

I was curious about The White Devil because of the title.  The 'devil' is Vittoria -- "a compellingly dangerous and fascinating woman" (back cover blurb) who is happy to let two people be murdered if it will get her what she wants.  She's beautiful, but no good -- 'white' in the sense of whited sepulcher, though it's also implied that the 'white' is sparkly, like diamonds.

Now, Diana Wynne Jones, in The Magicians of Caprona, has the White Devil as the secret villain of the story -- the traditional enemy of the city of Caprona, who has infiltrated the palace and ruled the Duke for years.  In this story, the White Devil is an evil -- enchantress?  witch?  demon? -- who also takes the form of a white rat.  I'd wondered if DWJ had used this play, or its title, as her springboard, and I would say yes, I bet she did.  That's not to say that there is similarity in the stories, but in both cases, the 'white devil' is a woman who works her way into marrying a duke.  DWJ would have known the play, and I'd bet that she found that title phrase inspiring somehow.


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