By James Nelson
For a theatre lover, getting to see a production of The Duchess of Malfi is a rare treat. For a scholar and theatre historian, even more so. “I love the play,” said Ron Wainscott, professor of theatre history, theory, and literature and head of the graduate studies here at IU. I sat down with Ron for a few minutes in his office to get his insight on the Jacobean tragedy currently running in the Wells-Metz theatre. Wainscott’s personal connection to the piece started early. “I performed in the play… forty years ago, or something… and played Ferdinand, and it was an incredible experience,” he recounted.
The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster around 1612, falls roughly in the middle of the Jacobean era and fell chronologically amidst Shakespeare’s final plays. It’s no understatement that the play is intense: it has a body count rivaling any of Shakespeare’s bloodbaths and plot points involving incest, adultery, murder up the wazoo, and even lycanthropy (really!). But Wainscott stressed that there is a certain amount of fun to be had in the play despite its sadistic tendencies. “There’s an awful lot of dark Jacobean tragedy, but dark doesn’t necessarily mean the plays are just intense or grotesque…there’s a lot of things for the audience to laugh at. (Duchess of Malfi) has a lot of laughter in it, but not everyone finds it – or audiences don’t expect it. They’re just expecting it to be intense or sad or awful.” Which, to be fair, it is – but it’s also got a sense of humor, and it’s okay to laugh when you’re watching the play!
Wainscott added that for the audience 400 years ago would have been expecting a certain amount of lightness. “Their audience had all those groundlings [spectators that stood in a pit below the stage], and they’re going to be there for the violence and the laughs. So were the upper class people too, although they’re also there to revel in the language.”
One further contribution from Professor Wainscott is that Duchess of Malfi was not first performed by Shakespeare’s theatre group, The King’s Men, as commonly thought – it started, in fact, as… (ready for this?) children’s theatre. “It was first done by children!” said Wainscott with amusement. “A children’s company did Malfi first, which is almost impossible to imagine. But they did a lot of dark tragedies and audiences got into it, and I cannot even begin to understand why. A lot of the heavy duty stuff was done by children, especially in the Jacobean era. They were professional theatres, although the kids were not professionals. I’ll never understand exactly how that was supposed to work.” Afterward, The King’s Men mounted their famous production, in which Richard Burbage (who originated Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello amongst others) played the role of Ferdinand.
Wainscott, like many of us, is genuinely excited to get to see a production of this rarely-produced classic. “In some ways it’s atypical, which is why I think it’s pulled out and still done with some frequency,” he remarked. Wainscott noted that Webster frequently features characters “who are put in an oppressed position, and his central character is often female, which is a risky thing to do – not because it’s a female, but because it would be played by a boy, and the boys have to be highly trained.” Even though the titular role would have been played by a prepubescent child in the original production, in a modern production there’s great potential for a strong female lead. “Webster creates intelligent women,” said Wainscott. For the IU production, that aspect has become the centerpiece of director Katie Horwitz’s vision.
There are so many reasons to check out this show, but the fact that it’s being produced in the first place is cause for excitement. It may be many years before you have another chance to check out a production of this dark, funny, historical classic.
James Nelson is the 1st year M.F.A. director at IU, and will direct on the IU mainstage in the 2017-2018 season. Before joining the program, he worked as a freelance theatre director in the San Francisco Bay Area, and served as the former artistic director for the Anglo-Irish Theatre in Tübingen, Germany. James is originally from Kansas City, MO.