From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Svengali as a spider in his web. Illustration by George du Maurier (1895).

Svengali (/svɛŋˈɡɑːli/) is a character in the novel Trilby which was first published in 1894 by George du Maurier. Svengali is a man who seduces, dominates and exploits Trilby, a young Irish girl, and makes her into a famous singer.[1]


After the book’s publication in 1894, the word “svengali” has come to refer to a person who, with evil intent, dominates, manipulates and controls another.

In court, the Svengali Defence is a legal tactic that portrays the defendant as a pawn in the scheme of a greater, and more influential, criminal mastermind.[2]


Wilton Lackaye as Svengali (1905)

(Svengali) would either fawn or bully, and could be grossly impertinent. He had one kind of cynical humour, which was more offensive than amusing, and always laughed at the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and his laughter was always derisive, and full of malice.[3]

In the novel, Svengali transforms Trilby into a great singer by using hypnosis. Unable to perform without Svengali’s help, Trilby becomes entranced.


Svengali was first portrayed by the English actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree in London and by the actor Wilton Lackaye in the United States in the stage play of 1895, Trilby. The story has also been used in several movies.

The character was portrayed in the following films which were all titled Svengali: by Ferdinand Bonn in the silent film of 1914,[4] by Paul Wegener in the silent film of 1927, by John Barrymore in 1931, by Donald Wolfit in 1954 (in Technicolor), and by Peter O'Toole in the film of 1983, which was a modernised version made for television and co starred Jodie Foster. In the movie of March 1983 however, the names of the characters were changed.

The character “Levi Svengali” was portrayed by actor and director Ash Avildsen in the television series Paradise City released by Amazon Prime Video in March 2021.[5]


  1. ^ Rosenberg, Edgar (1960). From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction. Stanford University Press.
  2. ^ Seelymarch, Katharine Q. (March 13, 2015). "Defense in Marathon Bombing Has Echo of Clarence Darrow". The New York Times. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
  3. ^ Du Maurier, George. Trilby. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Volume 88, number 525. February 1894. ( p. 329).
  4. ^ ""Svengali" mit Ferdinand Bonn in der Titelrolle". Neue Freie Presse. 3 April 1914. p. 22. Retrieved 8 January 2022.
  5. ^ "Paradise City series to premiere on Amazon Prime: Watch the official trailer now". 11 December 2020. Retrieved 24 May 2021.

External links[edit]

  • George Du Maurier (1894), Trilby (book)
  • Svengali (film), 1931, Director Archie Mayo