Family Hour

In the interest of broadening my horizons, I’ve spent Oscar month away from movies and reading classic plays, instead. I’m not sure that the experience has been enlightening.

Today I wrapped up with “The Duchess of Malfi”, by English playwright John Webster (written circa 1613). I’m not quite sure what to think. During the course of the play we experience:

  • Four stranglings (the Duchess, her servant, and her two youngest children);
  • Four fatal stabbings (the Duchess’ two brothers, her lover, and her murderer);
  • One case of lycanthrophy (the Duchess’ brother);
  • One poisoning, the result of kissing a specially treated Bible (the mistress of the Duchess’ non-werewolf brother, a Cardinal);
  • A waxwork representation of the Duchess’ lover and children, posed as though murdered (used to torment the Duchess, by her brother);
  • A entire palace full of madmen (also brought there to torment the Duchess, again by her brother); and
  • One ghost.

Every death takes place, not discreetly offstage, illuminated only by a few distant groans, and a subsequent hand-washing scene, but smack in the middle of the action. The Duchess even revives briefly, before dying a second time a minute or so later, for an unprecedented death-scene double-play. The women are lustful, and not to be trusted; the men are greedy, not to be trusted, and sometimes insane. The children are only there to further the plot.

Oh, and to be murdered, of course.

And the most shocking thing of all? Roger Corman never made a movie out of it. The whole time I was reading the damned thing I was picturing Hazel Court as the Duchess and Vincent Price as her brother Ferdinand. Family entertainment just isn’t what it used to be.

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3 thoughts on “Family Hour

    1. This one’s something of a classic of Elizabethan theater. We tend to be so involved with Shakespeare that we forget about the other writers like Webster and Marlowe who were prominent at the time. “The Duchess of Malfi”, I suspect, was the seventeenth century equivalent of a slasher flick, with political undertones.

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