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The White Devil - Stage History

The first performance of Webster’s The White Devil, in 1612 by the Queen’s Men at the Red Bull in Clerkenwell, was not an obvious success. In the preface to the play’s text, published later the same year, Webster praised the acting of the Queen’s Men, particularly that of his friend Richard Perkins (specifying that ‘the worth of his action did crown both the beginning and end’), and yet damned the production’s audience, venue, and season (J. Russell Brown, 1996: 1). Whilst he labelled the 1612 audience ‘ignorant asses’, Webster condemned the Red Bull as too ‘open and black’ for his play, being performed at ‘so dull a time of winter’ (D. Gunby, 1995: 12).

Despite this unsatisfactory opening, however, later productions of The White Devil achieved considerable success. By 1631 it had been revived by Queen Henrietta’s Men at the Phoenix in Drury Lane, and by 1672 its text had been reprinted three times. A Restoration revival by the King’s Company under Killigrew in 1661 proved particularly successful. Whilst the diarist Samuel Pepys proclaimed, ‘Methinks a very poor play’, having seen it on the 2nd October that year, he went back to see it just two days later, and performances of the production continued at intervals until 1682 (J. Russell Brown, 1996: 24) . It was said at this time to be ‘acted but now and then; yet being well performed [was] very satisfactory to the Town’ (J. Russell Brown, 1996: 24).

The twentieth century saw numerous productions of the play. The White Devil reappeared in 1920, with a production by Cambridge University’s Marlowe Society, directed by J. T. Sheppard, later Provost of King’s College. It was then revived in a 1925 Renaissance Theatre Company production, performed at the New Scala in London on 11th October, and again on 27th March 1935 by The Phoenix Society at St Martin’s Theatre, London. The first purely commercial performance of the play since the seventeenth century, meanwhile, began on 6th March 1947 at London’s Duchess Theatre. This production, directed by Michael Benthall, with Margaret Rawlings as Vittoria and dancer Robert Helpmann as Flamineo, ran for four months. Numerous professional productions followed, including two productions by the National Theatre Company in 1969 and 1991, and by The Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996.

The White Devil continues to be revived in amateur productions despite financial difficulties (it being an expensive play to produce), particularly as the initiative of university dramatic societies (J. Russell Brown, 1996: 25). It has also, from 1948, been produced several times for radio.