Webster's Immortal Duchess

gnoring the prohibition of her two brothers, a young widow remarries, in secret. When her condition is discovered (three babies later), the brothers visit upon her the torments of the damned. By the time the tragedy is played out, not only has the duchess met a hideous death, so have her brothers, her blameless husband, and the spy who has been the couple’s undoing. If tidiness of dramatic construction were all, The Duchess of Maifi would lie buried in oblivion along with many of the other plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. As it is, the extravagance of John Webster’s characters and the sul-

phurous splendor of his language have won the play a sort of immortality. The duchess’s truth to her own nature, one brother’s self-lacerating obsession with her chastity, the other’s glacial lust for power, not to mention the spy’s melancholia, with its gravity of an imploding star: these are dramatic inventions of a high order, and their clash is awesome. Beginning this month, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, one of the country’s leading custodians of the world’s classic drama, gives Webster’s nightmare masterpiece a rare revival (at the Marines Memorial Theatre). —A.B.