Plays

A Doll's House (trans. Stephens)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The slamming of the front door at the end of Ibsen’s delicate and electrifying play shatters the romantic masquerade of the Nora and Torvald’s marriage. In their stultifying and infantilised relationship, they have deceived themselves and each other into thinking they are happy. But Nora’s concealment of a loan she had to take out for her husband’s sake forces their frivolous conversation to an irrevocable crisis, until Nora claims her right to individual freedom.

Ibsen’s 1879 play shocked its first audiences with its radical insights into the social roles of husband and wife. His portrayal of his flawed heroine, Nora, remains one of the most striking dramatic depictions of late-nineteenth century woman.

This version is translated by Olivier Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, and was first performed at the Young Vic, London on 29 June 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (adapt. Brecht and Hays)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Written in collaboration with H. R. Hays and intended for performance by Elisabeth Bergner, (described by the editors of the Collected Works as ‘the most famous of all the exiled German actresses’), Brecht and Hays’s adaptation of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was born of a tortuous set of drafts, redrafts and recriminations, which led to several versions of the script, including a Broadway staging of a version by W. H. Auden. H. R. Hays sets the scene:

‘Early in 1943 Brecht came to New York and broached the idea of The Duchess of Malfi to me as a vehicle for Elisabeth Bergner, who was currently playing on Broadway in a whodunit. Brecht and I were both fond of the Webster piece and both felt that it sprawled too much for a successful production. The idea was to eliminate the anticlimactic series of deaths at the end, tighten up the script and emphasize the implicit incest motivation of the duke . . . We began working in April 1943 . . . We had a meeting in my agent’s office, at which Mr Czinner [producer] announced that what the project needed was “a British poet”. I hit the roof and told them to take my name off the script. Needless to say, the poet was Auden, whose name they hoped would be success insurance. Brecht did not at first withdraw, but later, when he saw what was happening, he too removed his name . . .’

This version of the script, written directly in English by Hays, with Brecht advising on story and structure, reproduces a copy that was in the possession of Hays. It is complemented here by notes and letters by Brecht himself on how the play ought to be performed.

The Duchess (of Malfi)  (Adapt. Harris)

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

You should know: I sing at parties, I wear colourful dresses, I am headstrong, I won't wear my hair up because you say I should, or do this because you prefer it, in fact I might do the other just to be contrary, but I am utterly and always myself.

The Duchess is a young widow. And with money, sexual freedom and youth, she's a threat to the status quo; she could get to determine her own life.

Terrified by her sudden power and its implications, her brothers Ferdinand and The Cardinal seek to block The Duchess's desires and to dismantle her authority and spirit by any means at their disposal. The results are horrifying, with bloody vengeance from the most unexpected of sources.

The Duchess (of Malfi), Zinnie Harris's radical take on Webster's great revenge tragedy, premiered at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, in May 2019. 

The Duchess of Malfi (ed. Gibbons)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

One of the most haunting tragedies written in the Jacobean period, The Duchess of Malfi is a violent and macabre story of lust, madness, cruelty and revenge. First performed c. 1613-4 by the King’s Men, probably at the indoor Blackfriars theatre and later at the outdoor Globe playhouse, this text is based on the only authoritative extant edition, the first quarto of 1623.

Webster adapts the true story of a noble Italian widow, the eponymous Duchess, who secretly marries her steward, Antonio, and bears his children. Her two corrupt brothers, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal, enraged by this act of female self-determination across class boundaries, begin to spy on the family in a conspiracy against her happiness that ends in psychological torture, mutilation and murder.

While following many of the conventions of revenge tragedy (like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it employs a courtly setting, surveillance, a malcontent), The Duchess of Malfi affords its protagonists a psychological depth that has prompted discussions, amongst others, of incest and lycanthropy. Nevertheless, it also contains some of the most memorable props of the early modern stage, including the waxwork ‘bodies’ of the Duchess’ family, and a poisoned Bible.

Unlike his sources, Webster does not condemn the Duchess for lasciviousness – she remains one of the most fascinating and complex female characters of the early modern stage. She exercises power politically and domestically, and is sexually autonomous: she takes the active role in her wooing of Antonio, refusing to bow down to her brothers’ prescriptive demands of her heart and body. She has been regarded as an archetypal Protestant martyr against the tyranny of Catholic Europe, such as was celebrated in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563).

The Duchess of Malfi is one of the major tragedies of the period and continues to prompt both new adaptations and critical interpretations. It has had a long and successful stage history, and was played by candlelight as the inaugural production at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London (2014), an indoor playing space designed to replicate the early seventeenth-century Blackfriars theatre, a little way across the river from where the Globe now stands.

video The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen)

Stage on Screen
Type: Video

The Duchess of Malfi is a popular choice as a set text, despite (or perhaps because of) the violence and horror of its later scenes. Generally considered to be the masterpiece of Jacobean playwright John Webster, it was first produced in around 1613. It’s a macabre tragedy, based on actual events, and tends to be either loved or hated by critics – while consistently captivating audiences across the centuries.
Set in Italy in the early fifteenth century, it starts out as a love story, with the Duchess marrying beneath her class. However, her two brothers, one cool and corrupt, the other secretly violent and warped, have other ideas. With incredible plot twists along the way, the play ends as an utter tragedy, as the brothers take revenge on her, destroying themselves in the process.
Dark, complex…and feminist?
The main themes of The Duchess of Malfi include revenge and corruption. It also looks at the status of women in society - Webster’s use of a strong, virtuous woman as the central character was rare for the time.
The play was originally written for and performed by The King’s Men, the same company which Shakespeare belonged to. Indeed, this Jacobean classic makes an interesting text to study in comparison to many of Shakespeare’s works.
The language is poetic, and subtle at times, but infinitely rewarding. Its complex characters are also rewarding to watch, as the play develops towards the highly dramatic climax.
Director: Elizabeth Freestone.
Featuring: Peter Bankolé, Edmund Kingsley, Tim Treloar, Mark Hadfield, Tim Steed, Richard Bremmer, Conrad Westmaas, James Wallace, Aislín McGuckin, Harvey Virdi, Brigid Zengeni, Maxwell Hutcheon.

The Duchess of Padua

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Duchess of Padua is a tragic melodrama that centres around a young man named Guido Ferranti who has come to Padua to learn the secret of his birth. There he is told that his father's life was ruined by the current duke of Padua; Guido is convinced that he should revenge his father's life by murdering the duke. He agrees at first to undertake this mission, but later balks at the task, only for it to be carried out by his lover, Beatrice, the wife of the murdered Duke. The play ends in further bloodshed, with the double suicide of the lovers.

The Duchess of Padua, written in 1883, is Oscar Wilde's second play. Written for, but ultimately rejected by, the American actress Mary Anderson, it finally premiered anonymously at the Broadway Theatre in New York.

Edward II

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

When the courageous and impressive Edward I dies, his son, Edward II, is a disappointing successor. He prefers domestic tasks to waging wars, and he prefers men to women. However, Edward I’s death is good news for Piers Gaveston, who has been exiled and is now allowed to return to England under the young Edward’s wishes. The new King bestows extravagant favours upon Gaveston, including the protection of his life, while his sovereign duties are neglected. Not everyone is as smitten with Gaveston as the King, however, and the King’s nobles pressure Edward to banish the favourite to Ireland. It is Edward’s Queen, Isabella of France, who will only be satisfied with Gaveston’s murder.

Based on Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and set in early fourteenth century England, Marlowe’s play is a portrait of a flawed monarch, driven by his animal passions and by an overwhelming romantic obsession.

Copyright © 1997 A & C Black Publishers Limited

Electra (Sophocles)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Electra is a story of revenge, of children on their mother, and the grief and fury of a woman when her filial duties are split down the middle.

When the victorious King Agamemnon returns from Troy, carting his new mistress Cassandra in tow, his wife Clytemnestra murders him. This initial act of revenge sparks off a long held grudge, kindled in the exiled and presumed dead Orestes, twin brother of Electra.

In his introduction, J. Michael Walton writes that 'Electra has fed on her hate, absorbing humiliation almost with relish. As the play progresses, so her passion is revealed as having dimensions.' It is these dimensions, rather than the moral conundrum of matricide, which Sophocles brings to life so starkly in his version of the well-known Greek myth.

Elektra (Euripides)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Elektra is a story of revenge, of children on their mother, and the grief and fury of a woman when her filial duties are split down the middle.

When the victorious King Agamemnon returns from Troy, carting his new mistress Cassandra in tow, his wife Clytemnestra murders him. This initial act of revenge sparks off a long held grudge, kindled in the exiled and presumed dead Orestes, twin brother of Elektra.

Just like Sophocles, Euripides was inspired by Aeschylus's great tragic cycle, the Oresteia. Unlike Sophocles (whose focus was a battered and vilified victim of circumstance, fully justified in seeking revenge), Euripides paints a character with a more confused mindset, one who cannot be fully trusted, not even by her returning twin and brother-in-arms. Euripides allows no easy judgement, forcing his audience to pick over the bones of a moral dilemma, as bloody as it is tragic.

Eumenides (Play Three from The Oresteia)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Aeschylus’ The Oresteia is a trilogy of Greek tragedies concerning the murder of King Agamemnon of Argos, together with its aftermath. The name derives from the character Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who sets out to avenge his father's murder. The three plays – Agamemnon, Choephori (Libation-Bearers) and Eumenides (The Furies) – were originally accompanied in performance by a satyr play, Proteus, now lost. The Oresteia, which won first prize at the Dionysia festival in 458 BC, is the only surviving example of an ancient Greek theatre trilogy.

This translation by Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton is based on the Oxford text (to which the line numbers refer). It follows a distinction in the original text between the lines spoken by the characters (which are mostly composed in iambics), and those spoken by the Chorus (which adopt a much freer lyric verse); here, the lyric passages belonging to the Chorus are identified by the use of initial capital letters for each new line. In addition, various expressions such as io, pheu, oimoi and others have been left transliterated from the original Greek, being (in the words of the translators) 'indications of grief rather than actual words'.

The first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, details the homecoming of Agamemnon, King of Argos, from the Trojan War. Waiting at home for him is his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been planning his murder, partly as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, and partly because in the ten years of Agamemnon's absence Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin and the sole survivor of a dispossessed branch of the family (Agamemnon's father, Atreus, killed and fed Aegisthus's brothers to Aegisthus's father, Thyestes, when he took power from him), who is determined to regain the throne he believes should rightfully belong to him.

The second play, Choephori, deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, and their revenge. Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father.

In the final part, Eumenides, Orestes, Apollo, and the Erinyes go before Athena and eleven other judges chosen by her from the Athenian citizenry to decide whether Orestes' killing of Clytemnestra makes him guilty of the crime of murder.

A tragedy is a serious play with an unhappy ending. The word is often said to mean ‘goatsong’ (Greek: tragos, goat; ode, song), although modern etymologists have disputed this. It was Aristotle who provided the classic definition of tragedy, stating (in his Poetics) that tragedy should move one “by pity and terror” at the fall of a great person: the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.

The genre developed in ancient Greece, where tragedies were expected to follow a fairly strict form. Tragic protagonists were drawn only from deities, royalty, and the upper classes, and their inevitable suffering and downfall was brought about by a combination of fate and their own hubris. The three great authors of classical tragedy were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, all of whom wrote in the 5th century BC. The rules of classical tragedy were rediscovered at the Renaissance, as were many of the Greek and Roman texts. The gory tragedies of the Roman Seneca proved particularly influential on the playwrights of the time.

Typically, the tragedies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras combined violent and sensational action with acute psychological insight and intense poetry. The great tragedies of Shakespeare are usually considered the pinnacle of world drama. In the 17th century the Frenchmen Corneille and Racine led a return to the stricter Greek forms of tragedy. Thereafter the tradition of serious tragic writing declined, being largely displaced by sentiment and melodrama.

It did not revive until the late 19th century, when such writers as Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov managed to combine the sombre themes and moral seriousness of tragedy with a realistic depiction of contemporary life. Perhaps the only modern writer to attempt the classic tragic form was the US dramatist Eugene O’Neill.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011)