Thursday, June 28, 2012

Webster, the Comedian

Comedies and collaboration.  Alliterative, but do they indeed go together?

For John Webster, the answer seems to have been yes.  His various comedies, such as Anything for a Quiet Life, A Cure for a Cuckold, Northward Ho!, etc., are considered to have been co-written with fellow dramatists such as Middleton and Rowley.

Although I do, of course, most admire the Duchess, it's worth noting a few points that often are glossed over in discussions of Webster:

A considerable number of comedies have been attributed to the co-authorship of Webster.  Without getting into a discussion of attributing authorship in terms of "style" in a print text, I do think a comparison of Webster's genres (building on Jacqueline Pearson's work, including the comedies) might be valuable.

To some extent, a romantic concept of the author as a solitary/individual genius seems to drive the (practically nonexistent) critical conversation both on Webster's comedies and on Webster's adaptation history.  Thus, for example, Lewis Theobald is widely excoriated for his feminized and romanticized adaptation (1735) of Duchess.  (Theobald is also widely honored as the father of modern Shakespeare editors.  Contradictory?  Coincidental?  Ironic?  Necessary?)

If we return Webster's comedies to serious consideration, to say nothing of his pageant Monuments of Honour and elegy A Monumental Columne, or even to comparison with his tragedies, our present understanding of the "contemporary Jacobean" changes.  The Jacobeans (and Webster specifically) weren't exclusively or even primarily tragedians, and recent adaptors haven't all fallen into a strict genre classification, either.  I wouldn't call Hotel a tragedy.

Any discussion of the "contemporary Jacobean" has to be more nuanced than the Grand Guignol tradition that is supposed to have dawned again after World War I, certainly in the popular consciousness as much as in scholarly work (directed toward chaos, Tussaud laureate, plagued with hypochondria, Titus Andronicus fan, etc.).  

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