Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

The White Devil is one of the great plays of the Jacobean era. In this vibrant Handbook, Stephen Purcell offers an in-depth, performance-focused exploration of John Webster's thrilling, unsettling and darkly comic tragedy. The Handbook includes:
• a scene-by-scene commentary on the play as it unfolds on stage
• an overview of the play's cultural context
• excerpts from historical sources
• case studies of four modern productions, featuring interviews with directors
• an outline of key critical writings on the play, from the seventeenth century through to today.

Table of Contents

1. The Text and First Performances

Abstract
The White Devil was first performed in early 1612, and published shortly afterwards. Its first performances were at the open-air Red Bull playhouse, where it was not particularly well-received: Webster’s own preface to the play notes that it was ‘acted in so dull a time of winter, presented in so open and black a theatre, that it wanted & a full and understanding auditory’. The Red Bull had a reputation for being ‘mostly frequented by citizens, and the meaner sort of people’ (James Wright, Historia Histrionica, 1699), and its audience was often characterized as being uncomprehending: Thomas Tomkis’s 1615 play Albumazar, for example, depicts a rustic clown who regularly frequents the Red Bull, ‘where I learn all the words I speak and understand not’ (Gurr 2004: 301, 274). Indeed, Webster described his Red Bull audience as ‘ignorant asses’ and ‘uncapable’, and in 1617, his writing was satirized by Henry Fitzjeffrey for being ‘so obscure, / That none shall understand him’. Webster was, at least, satisfied with the actors’ performances, which he commends in the play’s Epilogue — drawing particular attention to the ‘well approved industry’ of the actor Richard Perkins, who probably played Flamineo.
Stephen Purcell

2. Commentary: the Play in Performance

Abstract
This chapter of the book offers a scene-by-scene, moment-by-moment commentary on the play as it might work in performance. Sometimes it explores the perspective of an audience seeing it for the first time, considering the play’s surprises, release of information and creation of tension. It frequently examines the play’s scope for choices by actors and directors, and weighs up potential staging or interpretative problems. It traces the development and interplay of the play’s themes. Elsewhere, it draws attention to some of the ways in which the play might have worked for its original audience. The commentary is designed to be read alongside the play itself, and is based on the Revels Student edition of the text (1996), edited by John Russell Brown.
Stephen Purcell

3. Intellectual and Cultural Context

Abstract
Little is known for certain of Webster’s life, though certain educated guesses can be made. He was born around 1579, to John and Elizabeth Webster of the London parish of St Sepulchre’s. His father was a prosperous coach-maker and a member of a prestigious guild, the Company of Merchant Taylors. This comfortable middle-class background meant that young Webster would have encountered a wide cross-section of Elizabethan society as he grew up: his father must have provided carts for the prisons as well as coaches for the aristocracy, and served customers of every social stratum in between. Later in his career, Webster’s class background would be referred to in a satirical poem by Henry Fitzjeffrey, in which he was (somewhat sneeringly) described as ‘Crabbed Websterio / The Playwright Cartwright’ (Satyres and Satyricall Epigrams, 1617).
Stephen Purcell

4. Key Performances and Productions

Abstract
Until Cambridge University’s Marlowe Dramatic Society staged The White Devil in 1920, there had been no productions of the play on record since the late seventeenth century. The 1920 production, performed by undergraduates, was enormously influential in re-igniting interest in the play as theatre; it was endorsed enthusiastically by both F. L. Lucas (later editor of Webster’s Complete Works) and the novelist E. M. Forster. Forster, comparing the production very favourably with the work of professional London actors, described it as ‘one of the best Elizabethan performances that we are likely to see for a long time’ (New Statesman, 20 March 1920).
Stephen Purcell

5. Critical Assessments

Abstract
The White Devil has inspired a wide range of commentary over the centuries since it was written. This chapter provides a highly selective overview of some of the key critical assessments. It is by no means exhaustive, and many excellent studies have been omitted. It is designed, however, to be representative of some of the key trends in Websterian criticism over history.
Stephen Purcell
Additional information