Twentieth century views

A better understanding of horror

Although not widely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many twentieth-century critics and theatregoers have responded much more favourably towards Webster's plays, re-discovering their vivid poetry and ideas, which have seemed to resonate with contemporary experience. One explanation for this change is that only after the violence of wars in the twentieth-century could they be understood again.

The violence and pessimism of Webster's tragedies are perhaps closer to modern attitudes. The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi retain a vitality that attracts actors, audiences and critics. Webster is still performed, read and debated, which demonstrates the esteem in which he is held as a playwright.

Early twentieth-century interpretations

The desolate world of The White Devil proved popular in the twentieth-century. There were over ten major productions, including one by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996. It has been of interest to many scholars. According to Don D. Moore in his book John Webster and His Critics: 1617–1964, T. E. Hulme, T. S. Eliot, and F. R. Leavis played a significant role in popularising study of Webster. Moore writes, ‘Almost all of the important later Webster criticism owes something to their doctrines.' In his Whispers of Immortality, T.S. Eliot famously wrote of the dramatist:

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

Eliot found inspiration in Webster and introduced elements of his appreciation into his famous work The Waste Land.

Recent critical explorations

In the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, new historicist (sometimes called cultural materialist) and feminist critics have been particularly interested in The White Devil.

Dympna Callaghan wrote about the relationship between white Vittoria and the black Zanche, the way in which they double each other and how they are punished for their sexuality.

Cultural materialist critic Jonathan Dollimore is interested in the power structures within The White Devil's society and the effect of this on individuals. He comments:

‘It is in the death scene that we see fully the play's sense of how individuals can actually be constituted by the destructive social forces working upon them.… Vittoria and Flamineo refuse subservience even as they serve and in so doing are destroyed as much by their rebellion as by that which they rebel against.

To summarise, before the twentieth-century critics were often concerned with the perceived structural weaknesses of the play. More recently critics have been interested in the world created by Webster, which seems to share some of the problems and uncertainties of the modern world.

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