• Richard Allen Cave
Part of the Text and Performance book series (TEPE)


Webster has never lacked critical detractors since his first audience for The White Devil at the Red Bull in Clerkenwell. What is remarkable is how repetitive the criticisms are: that he is ‘a master of scenes rather than structure’, a view (first voiced by John Wilson in 1818) which, it is claimed, Webster’s confession of being a slow worker somehow supports; that he had ‘a wild and undigested’ genius (Theobald, 1733) which is often a polite way of saying he was a sensation-monger emulating Madame Tussaud and her chamber of horrors (G. H. Lewes, 1850 and Shaw); that his plays show the want of a developed moral sense, since being ‘much possessed by death’ (T. S. Eliot, 1920) he was clearly the victim of his own morbidity. All lines of attack question Webster’s artistic integrity and suggest a fundamental unease with his work: Shakespeare — invariably the detractors’ yardstick — is healthier by comparison. There is a risk any dramatist courts who chooses to explore the roots of violence in the human psyche: that he will be judged a purveyor rather than a portrayer of decadence, a man imaginatively obsessed rather than critically detached. (Edward Bond is such a figure in our own time.)

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© Richard Allen Cave 1988

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