Sunday, May 1, 2011

Excerpt from my new chapter


Bowman, Elizabeth. “Gender Memory in the Adaptation History of The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy: Webster, Theobald, Figgis.”  Philological Research. Chapter 9. Ed. Almitra Medina and Gilda M. Socarras. Athens: ATINER, 2011.


"Monuments of memory, laurels of self-reflexive immortality, and other symbols of posterity display Webster’s ambitions for the future of his work but also his fundamental skepticism of any ability to control his posthumous reputation and work. As events have shown, that skepticism was valid. Webster himself, in memorializing the sensational death of an Italian duchess in 1518, had revised and updated his source material, most notably in giving his female protagonist both a Stoic strength of will and indomitable virtue, a combination almost unique in early modern drama. While the play [The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy] was performed and admired at intervals for the next century, attended by Charles II and Samuel Pepys, the next major staging was a version written and directed in 1733 by Lewis Theobald, known for his meticulous 1726 edition of Shakespeare. His Dutchesse, however, did not so closely follow the original Webster text but was highly revised, even to impose a happy ending, and retitled The Fatal Secret. Its performance was a commercial and critical failure, although Theobald had done his best to appeal to the neoclassical mores of his age by imposing the Aristotelian unities on the structure of the play. For example, the events of The Fatal Secret all take place in one day. After that, Webster fell out of favor until, in 1850, the actress Isabella Glyn spearheaded a revival based not on the merits of the play, for critics denounced its graphic nature, but on her own personal popularity. In the twentieth century, the Modernist revival returned attention to Webster, and since the Second World War the play has been staged near-continuously across the globe, with a straitlaced fidelity to the original text that represents the long history of critical and commercial disdain for Theobald’s revisionist approach.

"In the twenty-first century, however, in 2001, Figgis produced a second major exception in the history of Webster performance: a star-studded adaptation called Hotel, featuring well-known American and European actors such as John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Salma Hayek, Lucy Liu, and David Schwimmer. Hotel focused on the experiences of a small group of actors shooting Dutchesse Dogme-style in Venice. Figgis’s film used improvisational acting and parodied Dogme tenets such as geographic and temporal consistency, which, similar to Theobald’s Aristotelian unities, required it to take place in the present day and on location in Venice. In attempting to illustrate a use of strict Dogme principles, as Theobald had attempted to impose his neoclassical unities, Figgis produced a deliberately fragmented collage of multiple plots converging into an elaborate conceit of violence and sexuality, death and resurrection. Although the scenes he filmed based on Dutchesse follow Webster’s play-text, in contrast to scenes from the other plots which were sometimes entirely improvised, Figgis’s characters often portray actions even more graphic and vicious than those there specified. For example, the duchess sodomizes her husband Antonio, revealing the protofeminist nature of the character with the explicit visual typical of Figgis’s interpretation. Furthermore, Figgis fractures the play-text, using only three major scenes and interweaving those with scenes from the film’s several other plots, including cannibalism, prostitution, assassination, and coma. Hotel, like its predecessor The Fatal Secret, was a commercial failure as audiences overwhelmingly considered it a confusing mess.

"These two adaptations, The Fatal Secret and Hotel, reveal crucial elements of the post-history of Webster’s text in cultural memory, especially gender memory. Dutchesse presents a possibly unique character in early modern drama, a female protagonist who is both powerful and morally immaculate, drawing on collective nostalgia for Elizabeth I and sympathy with women such as Lady Arbella Stuart, imprisoned daughter of James I. The Fatal Secret and Hotel complicate this gender directive according to the mores of their periods. Their commercial and critical failure charts literary and filmic paths not taken, abortive divergences that explicate the direction cultural memory of Webster has preferred. Each tried to appeal directly to the standards and tastes of their respective times, Theobald entirely revising the play along neoclassical lines and Figgis splicing a few major scenes from Webster’s text with a mélange of equally sensational plots."

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