The Duchess of Malfi

Actors Elizabeth Rich and James Meredith describe some of the challenges they faced in creating the pivotal love scene in The Duchess of Malfi, currently playing at Writers Theatre.

Making a Scene:  Elizabeth and James

In the first scene of The Duchess of Malfi, the recently-widowed Duchess promises her brothers that she will never remarry.  In the very next scene, she declares love to her steward, a commoner named Antonio, and marries him on the spot.  From that action follows all the ensuing violence and horror of the play. 

Because the love scene between the Duchess and Antonio is pivotal to the plot, it carries a great deal of weight.  Elizabeth Rich  -- who plays the Duchess in the current Writers’ Theatre production -- puts it this way:  “You have to nail the love scene.  You have to care about the Duchess and Antonio as a couple, or nothing that follows matters as much and then it’s not as exciting a journey.”   James Meredith, who plays the Duchess’ lover, Antonio, echoes her sentiment.   “The audience must believe that these two people really love each other.  And more so because of the class differences that divide them.  I think when you get into relationships between different classes or religions or races, sometimes the love between those people has to be stronger than the love between two people who are of the same background because they have to fight harder through society’s obstacles to make their relationship last.”   As a black man married to a white woman, Meredith speaks from the heart. 

The first love scene between the Duchess and Antonio requires both actors to explore important flaws in their characters.  During the rehearsal period, both Rich and Meredith are struggling against an impulse to fix these flaws.  As Rich puts it, “We want to make our characters make sense, we want to make them good and to make their choices for the right reasons.  But they’re three-dimensional people.  They’re incredibly intelligent and they also make really stupid decisions.  They’re beautifully well-adjusted and they make really dysfunctional choices.  They may be completely prudent all the way around but when it comes to sex they don’t know what they’re doing.  We’re all like that, we’re all contradictions to ourselves.”

For Rich, it is the Duchess’ heedless pursuit of what she wants that gives pause.  “She is outright lying to her brothers.  She’s a very powerful woman, she’s deceptive, she’s full of hubris that she’s going to get away with this.  By proposing to Antonio, she’s risking her life and his.  And she’s also putting her State at risk. The Duchess is clearly a good ruler, she is loved by her people.  But she’s going to put everything at risk to act on her love for Antonio.

For James Meredith, the tricky aspect of Antonio is his passivity. “There is a part of him that is so noble.  He’s a strong fellow and good man.  He has no equal as far as how he does his job, as far as his horsemanship, his ability in the field.  He’s a man’s man.  But then there’s another side of him that is very meek, very fearful, very slow to take action.  He has a passivity that allows him to be guided through events rather than pointing the rudder where he wants to go.  And so that’s interesting - that yin and yang.” 

It is these very characteristics that raise the stakes in the pivotal love scene, in which the Duchess first hints at and ultimately declares her love.  Despite the fact that Antonio, too, is very much in love -- in a prior scene, he described the Duchess in the most glowing of terms to his oldest friend, Delio --  when the Duchess begins to court him, he pretends not to understand, he seeks an excuse to leave the room, he does everything he can to avoid the situation.  As Meredith puts it, “For Antonio, the Duchess’ declaration is a big shock.  There’s definite sexual attraction at that point between the characters but it’s like you’re working in a company, you’re attracted to your boss, you’re exchanging glances but nothing can happen, you know she’s your boss.  Not a good idea.  In fact, you haven’t even let yourself consider it because there’s just no way.”   (Again, Meredith knows what he’s talking about from personal experience:  when he first met his wife, she was his boss.) 

The result of Antonio’s passive resistance is that the Duchess must go further and further out on a limb in declaring her love.  At one point she exclaims in exasperation and pain, “Oh, the pity of us that are born great --/ we are forced to woo, because none dare woo us.”  That aspect of the scene forced Rich herself to go further and further out on a limb as an actor.  “I wanted something back from him.  But instead I had to go to keep going, keep exposing myself more and more. That’s what you do when you’re in love, you just go for it.  You’re naked emotionally.”  Meredith knew that it was hard on her.  “She’s being very active to try to get me to do something, and I -- I’m not pushing her away, I’m just refusing to act.  Antonio is simply retreating so as not to get embroiled in this possibly deadly situation.  Sometimes I worry that I’m not giving Elizabeth enough to respond to as a result.  It’s almost as if she’s acting with a blue screen or something.  She has to do a lot of heavy lifting in the scene, she has to cajole and push me and pull me and use all these different tactics.”    But Antonio’s fearful resistance to the Duchess’ advances, and to his own attraction, is what ultimately makes the scene moving.    As Meredith says, “We have to resist that desire to make them heroic.  Our job is not to fix their flaws, it’s to let those aspects of their personalities show and be present.”  

Plainly, by opening night, the actors have succeeded in conveying the love between their flawed and human characters.  As Hedy Weiss notes in her review in the Sun-Times, “ a beautifully played seduction scene, remarkable for its delicacy -- and for its awareness of how a woman of high rank is at a disadvantage in love -- is a highlight.” 

Read Part I of the series about The Duchess of Malfi

Read Part II of the series about The Duchess of Malfi

Anne Nicholson Weber
Theatre In Chicago News Contributor Anne Nicholson Weber saw "Jack and the Beanstalk" at the Goodman Children's Theater and has loved the theatre ever since.  She is a Chicago writer and the author of Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age