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

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


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 one such legal tactic, that presents 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, all titled Svengali: by Paul Wegener in the German 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 one modernised version made for television, which co starred Jodie Foster. In the movie of 1983, however, the names of the characters were changed.

See also[edit]


  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).

External links[edit]

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