Staging the World: The Devils as Theatrum Mundi

C.C.J. van Eecke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


When Ken Russell's film The Devils was released in 1971 it generated a tidal wave of adverse criticism. The film tells the story of a libertine priest, Grandier, who was burnt at the stake for witchcraft in the French city of Loudun in the early seventeenth century. Because of its extended scenes of sexual hysteria among cloistered nuns, the film soon acquired a reputation for scandal and outrage. This has obscured the very serious political issues that the film addresses. This article argues that The Devils should be read primarily as a political allegory. It shows that the film is structured as a theatrum mundi, which is the allegorical trope of the world as a stage. Rather than as a conventional recreation of historical events (in the tradition of the costume film), Russell treats the trial against Grandier as a comment on the nature of power and politics in general. This is not only reflected in the overall allegorical structure of the theatrum mundi, but also in the use of the film's highly modernist (and therefore timeless) sets, in Russell's use of the mise-en-abyme (a self-reflexive embedded play) and in the introduction of a number of burlesque sequences, all of which are geared towards achieving the film's allegorical import.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)496-514
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of British Cinema and Television
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2015


  • Derek Jarman
  • Ken Russell
  • The Devils
  • allegory
  • burlesque
  • historical film
  • mise-en-abyme
  • theatrum mundi

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