Actors' Renaissance Season 2015

When the spouses of Vittoria Corombona and the Duke of Brachiano discover their partners’ infidelities, revenge knows no bounds. Ambitious schemes, murderous plots, and devilish double-crosses run rampant in Rome as the lovers attempt to protect their affair. But, their safety is short-lived, and when the past finds them, it leaves a trail of bodies in its wake.

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens during the play
  • Count Lodovico discovers that he has been banished from Italy for murder. He vows to revenge himself on his enemies, particularly the hypocritical Duke of Brachiano. His friends, Antonelli and Gasparo, vow to get the banishment revoked.
  • In private, the love-struck Duke of Brachiano makes plans, with the help of his secretary Flamineo (also Vittoria’s brother), to woo the beautiful Vittoria Corombona away from her husband.
  • At Flamineo’s insistence, Bachiano hides and watches as Flamineo talks with Vittoria’s husband, Camillo, who confesses that he has not slept with his wife for some time, and that he fears she will make a cuckold out of him. Flamineo teases him for his jealousy and promises to make amends between husband and wife.
  • At Flamineo’s insistence, Camillo hides and watches as Flamineo loudly convinces Vittoria to sleep with her husband; but secretly, Flamineo tells Vittoria of Brachiano’s plans to meet with her later that night.
  • Flamineo insists that Camillo should postpone coming to his wife’s bed until tomorrow to teach her humility.
  • After Camillo goes to bed, Brachiano and Vittoria meet and profess their love for one another. Cornelia (Vittoria and Flamineo’s mother) overhears their exchange, appalled to see her son be the pander for his sister.
  • Vittoria tells Brachiano of a portent dream she had, and they make plans to kill their respective spouses so that they can be together. Cornelia makes herself known, and berates her children and Brachiano for their sins. She reveals that the Duke’s wife, Isabella, has come to Rome.
  • Brachiano arrives at his brother-in-law, the Duke of Florence’s house (where his wife Isabella is staying). The Duke and his friend, Cardinal Monticelso, accuse Brachiano of infidelity with Vittoria, and urge him to change his ways for the sake of his son, Giovanni.
  • Brachiano meets with Isabella, who attempts to make amends with him. He rebuffs her advances, accuses her of coming to Rome for an affair, and vows to never visit her bed again, claiming that htier divorce “shall be as truly kept as if the judge had doomed it.”
  • Broken-hearted, Isabella leaves for Padua.
  • Flamineo and Brachiano plot to kill Camillo and Isabella, hiring a Doctor to follow Isabella to Padua and poison her. Flamineo resolves to deal with Camillo’s death herself, making it look like an accident.
  • Camillo meets with the Duke of Florence, the Cardinal Monticelso, and Vittoria’s brother, Marcello, who informs him that he has been cuckolded. The Duke gives him a commission to go fight pirates on the coast, while the other men promise watch over his wife during his absence from Rome.
  • Dumbshows, murders, trials, familial strife, innuendo, double-crossing, revenge, and a papal election ensue.
Dr. Ralph's Brief

1. When was the play first performed?

2. Where was the play first performed?
At the Red Bull Theatre by the Queen’s Anne’s Men. According to its author, this performance was a failure because “it was acted, in so dull a time of winter, presented in so open and black a theatre [Blackfriars envy – RAC], that it wanted a full and understanding auditory.”

3. Who wrote it?
John Webster, the son of a coach maker, likely born in the late 1570s in or near London. His other great Jacobean revenge tragedy is The Duchess of Malfi, which the ASC has twice produced.

4. How is this playwright like Shakespeare?
Like Shakespeare, he creates female characters of power and complexity, whether they are mainly virtuous, as in the case of The Duchess of Malfi, or morally compromised, as in the case of Vittoria Corombona. Like Shakespeare’s, Webster’s plays suggest that character is implicated in the world of the play. Like Shakespeare’s Iago, Edmund, and Richard III, Webster’s vice figure (Flamineo) likes to manipulate the characters in the play who are trammeled by sentiment or morality.

5. How is this playwright unlike Shakespeare?
The film Shakespeare in Love (1998) perhaps sums it up the best when Shakespeare meets young Webster in a London alleyway.

BOY WEBSTER. When I write plays, they will be like Titus. I like it when they cut heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives.
WILL. Oh. What is your name?
BOY WEBSTER. John Webster. Here, kitty, kitty.
He passes a white mouse to the cat and watches the result with sober interest.
BOY WEBSTER. Plenty of blood. That is the only writing.
WILL backs away, unnerved by the boy.
BOY WEBSTER (CONT’D). Wait, you’ll see the cat bites his head off.

6. What do scholars think about this play?
Many scholars view Webster’s work as the darkest and most amoral vision of humanity in the early modern period. In T.S. Eliot’s words, “Webster sees the skull beneath the skin.” The violence and pessimism of Webster’s tragedies have seemed to some analysts close to modern sensibilities.”

7. Is there any controversy surrounding the work?
Not really. The recent production at the RSC’s Swan in Stratford re-gendered the play and made Flamineo, Vittoria’s brother, into Flamineo, her sister…to little effect.

8. What characters should I especially look for?
Flamineo: his glee in duping, double-crossing, and destroying those around him makes him a villain on par with some of Shakespeare’s best. (See #4 above.) If you are reading this before the show, then my advice is that you pay close attention to Francisco, the Duke of Florence; not because he stands out but because he doesn’t. Webster has made him one of those master politicians – a Medici – who work best behind the scenes, sometimes quite literally.

9. What scene should I especially look for?
Vittoria’s trial scene, in which she takes on a room full of powerful men – Dukes, Lawyers, Priests – and makes fools of them, should have every woman in the Blackfriars standing to cheer.

10. What is the language like?
Gnarly and delicious.