When The Duchess of Malfi opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London, on 18 April 1945, with leading British classical actors, it was the first major production since the nineteenth century. From about 1850 to 1875 the play had been a starring vehicle on both sides of the Atlantic for actresses playing the Duchess in a heavily cut and melodramatic adaptation that allowed her to display an acting range from aristocratic coquetry to grand tragedy. But since then it had dropped from the repertoire, apart from a few experimental and university productions. Furthermore, Webster’s critical reputation had been undermined by William Archer’s 1893 dismissal of him as ‘not … a great dramatist, but … a great poet who wrote haphazard dramatic or melodramatic romances for [a] semi-barbarous public’; by George Bernard Shaw’s pronouncement that he was the ‘Tussaud laureate’ (referring to the grisly waxworks at Madame Tussaud’s museum); and by T. S. Eliot’s similarly morbid dictum that Webster ‘saw the skull beneath the skin’ (see p. 133). The omens were not auspicious.
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