Kate Stanley-Brennan and Joseph Timms in The White Devil. Photo: Marc Brennan

In a 1931 essay T. S. Eliot, comparing the English playwrights John Webster and Cyril Tourneur, designated Webster as “the last ripeness” of the followers of Shakespeare. Webster, Eliot wrote, is a “slow, deliberate, careful writer, very much the conscious artist.” He is “incapable of writing so badly or tastelessly as Tourneur sometimes did, but he is never quite as surprising as Tourneur sometimes is.” In Webster’s best tragedies, a “kind of pity for all of his characters” unifies the “Webster pattern.”

Revenge tragedy was performed rarely in Eliot’s day; its revival on stage derives in large part from his insistence on its merit. On the page, Webster’s The White Devil (playing October 26–April 22 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Shakespeare’s Globe, London) has the ripeness and tragic pity that Eliot detected. On stage, however, Webster is too often played for laughs. The language is too complex, the plotting too dense. It is easier to treat Webster’s violence as ironic—as though he wrote in the hope that one day a real master like Quentin Tarantino would acclaim him as the inventor of the Mexican Standoff.

This White Devil is less dumbed down than dumbed forward. The Wanamaker’s producer, Annie Ryan, admits that she and her dramaturg Michael West have made “some pretty big cuts” to Webster’s text—the jokes about the Irish, who had nothing to do with the courts of Italy and much to do with the politics of Jacobean England, are almost all deleted. Other lines are, as Ryan euphemistically puts it, “recast,” that is, simplified for the modern groundlings.

As usual, the recast lines stick out as crassly as the two men in modern suits who wander across the Roman forum in the opening credits of Kubrick’s Spartacus. But The White Devil is a long play, a “repetitious tale of vice,” as the wicked prelate Cardinal Monticelso says. It is no bad thing that Webster’s plot moves faster for the trimmed cuts.

The cast go at it with gusto, too. As the incestuous siblings Vittoria and Flamineo, Kate Stanley-Brennan and Joseph Timms are energetic yet balanced. While Timms plays Flamineo as a perverted wide boy, wheeling and dealing men into his sister’s bed, Stanley-Brennan paces Vittoria’s development from willing collaborator to unwilling victim, and always with fewer cards to play than the men. Fergal McElherron plays Lodovico the misunderstood pirate as an Irish rover, and Garry Cooper is convincingly monstrous as Monticelso, the dark prince of the Church who ascends on bloody slippers to the Papal throne.  

A revenge tragedy is part pantomime and part political philosophy. At times, Webster’s language gives unmerited depth to the daft plot, which includes monkish assassins, a poisoned portrait, and more knife play than a drunken cooking school. Yet the fast and furious treatment shoots past the political and philosophical questions that the language weaves into the action—questions which for Webster’s audience were also religious ones.

“The way ascends not straight, but imitates the subtle foldings of the snake,” says Flamineo the secretary as he ascends what Francis Bacon called the “winding stair” of ambition. “Amid the gore and farce, Webster touches the terrain of darkest Shakespeare—the crisis of political morality in Macbeth and Hamlet, the view into the abyss of nothingness in King Lear. Every character in The White Devil is, like Macbeth, “in blood stepped so far” that “returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

 “Let’s have no more atheists, for God’s sake,” Flamineo says, joking in deadly earnest. When all that matters is power, the result is a depraved utilitarianism—murder on stilts. To a Jacobean audience, this was not fantasy, in the way of Tarantino, but an exotic reality. Webster’s Vittoria is based on Vittoria Accoramboni, murdered in 1585 by a rival of her second husband, Paulo Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, who himself had murdered his first wife, Isabella de’ Medici.

This production entertains, but the “busy trade of life” on stage eclipses the politico-theological resonance which gives depth on the page. We see only the blood-smeared surface of the Webster pattern, unified by fast plotting and semi-comic sadism; the subtle foldings and snaking implications go unexamined. To be fair to the Globe’s cast, this weakness is baked into Webster’s poisoned cake. The White Devil foundered on its debut in 1612. Webster blamed the weather (“so dull a time of Winter”), the venue (“so open and blacke a Theater”), and the punters (“ignorant asses”). But the head and the tail of the play, its written and acted forms, were at variance then as they are now.

Yet no amount of clowning can mask the immoralism of The White Devil’s subject matter. “We endure the strokes like anvils or hard steel,” Flamineo says, “Til pain itself makes us no pain to feel.” As Cardinal Monticelso shows, in a world of unrestrained wickedness, it is possible to be holier than the Pope. But in a theatre of ironic cruelty, it is not possible to care more than the characters.