23 February 2017
Out of the shadows
When called on to write about Catholic literature, I have never thought to include John Webster’s The White Devil. However, Annie Ryan’s sparky new staging shows it to be a text that teems with Catholicism: excommunication and extreme unction are both plot twists and, in a startling image, a suckling infant is reported to have reached out and snapped the crucifix that hung around his mother’s neck.
These details of faith are justified by the play’s Italian setting – four acts in Rome, one in Padua – but, first staged in 1612, in the England of James I, The White Devil is also, like much post-Reformation drama, implicitly anti-Catholic.
A central character is the slippery Cardinal Monticelso, who conducts an ecclesiastical trial of Vittoria, an Italian noblewoman charged with taking a lover and (on dubious evidence) murdering her husband. Exiled to a convent as her punishment, Vittoria takes advantage of confusion during the conclave that elects Monticelso Pope Paul IV to escape to Padua and marry her lover, Duke Brachiano.
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