Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Webster was much posessed by death..."

"John Webster was
one of the best there was.
He was the author of
two major tragedies."
--Echo and the Bunnymen, "My White Devil"

Let me apologize up-front for the lack of posts lately. I've been jetting around the state, visiting family and friends and trying desperately to get a job, preferably one where I don't end up feeling that the last four years of school were an absolute waste (does anyone out there need someone to hang around and be condescending?), and so I haven't gotten around to some of the writing I've been meaning to.

But I've wanted to do this post for a while. And trust me, your world will be a little better for having read it. I hope. I'm about to introduce you to a wonderful and terrifying man and the bloody world he ruled.
Pretty much me. But less tweedy and smug.
First things first-- careful historical research suggests that there may, in fact, have been other people writing in late 16th/ early 17th-century England besides Shakespeare. I know it seems crazy, but there were some fairly well-supported sightings of Marlowe and we're all but convinced that John Donne existed in some form. And then there's the stories-- dark, bloody, gruesome stories --of Webster.

Okay, I'm being an ass here. But the fact remains that it's pretty hard to look at that era without the Bard's shadow. Algernon Swinburne's The Age of Shakespeare, published in 1926, has the following to say of Webster:
"Webster, it may be said, was but as it were a limb of Shakespeare: but that limb, it might be replied, was the right arm. 'The kingly-crownèd head, the vigilant eye,' whose empire of thought and whose reach of vision no other man's faculty has ever been found competent to match, are Shakespeare's alone for ever: but the force of hand, the fire of heart, the fervour of pity, the sympathy of passion, not poetic or theatric merely, but actual and immediate, are qualities in which the lesser poet is not less certainly or less unmistakably pre-eminent than the greater."
 Essentially, the basic viewpoint seems to be that Webster's alright, but he's no Will; Webster may be the Raekwon of the Jacobian stage, but when Voltron formed in 1605 like 90% of it was Shakespeare. Not even the Genius got to be the head.
I have a degree, and I chose to do this.
Bullshit, says I. Yes, Webster's no Shakespeare, but pretty much nobody is. Let's not do Webster a disservice by assuming that just because he wrote at the same time as Shakespeare he should have had his talent, that he's not worth paying attention to because one of his contemporaries happened to be the most influential writer in human history. Instead, let's look at what makes Webster so goddamn great in his own right.

Webster is dark and brutal and incredibly perceptive about human evil. Eliot-- a man perhaps more keenly aware of the tenuousness of light and life than any other artist --praised Webster for his incredible grasp on humanity's frailty and mortality (moments and images from Webster's The White Devil  are scattered throughout The Waste Land). His work is bloody in ways that few other artists of his day were. When someone dies in Shakespeare, there's a purpose and a cause; there is a natural order and violence arises as a consequence of godless chaos. Webster's world rejects this: the notion of divine punishment still implies the too-comforting existence of some kind of natural order and authority, whereas Webster's plays see the world as a realm without government or reason, driven only by the base needs and frantic scrabblings of humanity.

Like I said: dark, dark stuff, but incredible. When you pick up The Duchess of Malfi there's this terrible momentum to the work: whereas in most other tragedies the heroes are noble and the bloodshed dignified, Malfi begins by demonstrating that the noble court-- and all of humanity --are selfish, petty, and grotesque. Then it gets worse. Mankind, at least to the eloquently cynical Bosola, are filth, worse than the lowest animal because we have reason and intelligence and choose to be bestial, with souls as rotten as the corpses we walk around in.
"I do wonder you do not loathe yourselves.
Observe my meditation now:
What thing is in this outward form of man
To be belov'd? We account it ominous,
If nature do produce a colt, or lamb,
A fawn, or goat, in any limb resembling
A man, and fly from't as a prodigy.
Man stands amaz'd to see his deformity
In any other creature but himself.
But in our own flesh, though we bear diseases
Which have their true names only ta'en from beasts,
As the most ulcerous wolf and swinish measle;
Though we are eaten up of lice and worms,
And though continually we bear about us
A rotten and dead body, we delight
To hide it in rich tissue; all our fear,
Nay all our terror, is, lest our physician
Should put us in the ground, to be made sweet."
 Malfi is like The Departed of the Elizabethan stage-- bloody, chaotic, this swirling cycle of pain and retribution and petty, human, evil. It's also really hard to follow and has a lot of similar characters, but that's just an expansion of the chaos inside the play itself; Webster forces you to be lost, confused, and afraid in his world.
"Your brother and yourself are worthy men:
You have a pair of hearts are hollow graves,
Rotten, and rotting others."
What makes Webster so astonishing is that he was writing his characters as lost souls in a broken world centuries before Modernism made that the popular viewpoint of literature. He paints the nobility as corrupt, restrictive sexual "morality" as a perverse obsession with purity, God as nonexistent and justice as a joke. In 1612-- when just saying that maybe God didn't directly appoint King James to rule over the British Empire for the good of all its subjects and as a defense against the Papacy was treasonous.

It's not all dark and gloom and sinister, though-- well, it mostly is, but it's not brutal for brutality's sake. Webster's aim isn't to shock his audience, but to remind them of their own frailty, of their own base humanity. One of his best moments--one of the best moments of Elizabethan drama--is the final scene of Malfi, by which point every major character is dead, except for the two who are bleeding to death as the play closes. Ferdinand, the villain of the piece, remarks that mankind is not brought down by devils (as was the case in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 30 years earlier), or by karmic retribution for transgressions against order (as in Macbeth, c.1605), but instead says that
"I do account this world but a dog-kennel...
Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust."
There's some stranglin' about to happen.
The play's ending is Godfather levels of dark: the one innocent, the Duchess's child son who stands a chance at escaping the den of killers and traitors that is the noble court, is instead guaranteed a position of high stature in the wake of everyone else's death. There's no redemption, no hero to come in and impose justice as there is in Macbeth, no ironic retribution for the nobility's sin as in Coriolanus.

Webster refuses to offer the audience an out. He refuses to let us make exceptions or walk away with a lesson learned and a comfortable resolution. Instead there's just everything wrong with the rich and powerful, and the silent promise that nothing about that is going to change.
"Now my revenge is perfect. Sink, thou main cause
Of my undoing. The last part of my life
Hath done me best service."

Webster's work is unique in its time-- ugly, crude, inordinately bloody, chaotic, rejecting any claims to moral authority and divine order. Reading it, one is reminded of J.G. Ballard's comment on his novel Crash, when he said that "I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror." Although he never lacks for beautiful language, and can even rival Will himself at his brightest moments, Webster never thinks for a moment that the beauty of his words can mask the evil that humanity is capable of, or that eloquence, money, or a fancy uniform somehow transforms someone into a moral person.

Pick him up, essentially. It's the most anti-authority British writing you're going to get until Milton comes along, and it's fascinating to see this kind of blood, hate, and anger in an era of drama that we associate almost solely with Shakespeare.

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