Svengali (/svɛŋˈɡɑːli/) is a fictional character in George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby. Svengali is a man who seduces, dominates, and exploits Trilby, a young Irish girl, and makes her 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, a Svengali defence is a legal tactic that purports the defendant to be a pawn in the scheme of a greater and more influential, criminal mastermind.[2]


[Svengali] would either fawn or bully, and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humor 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 1895 stage play 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 1927 German silent film, by John Barrymore in 1931, by Donald Wolfit in 1954 (in Technicolor), by Peter O'Toole in a 1983 made-for-television modernised version co-starring Jodie Foster. In the 1983 movie, the names of the characters were changed. Derren Brown performed an Olivier Award–winning live show titled Svengali in 2012, in which he used an automaton called Svengali on stage that he claimed was made in the late 1700s.

See also


  1. Rosenberg, Edgar, "From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish stereotypes in English fiction". (Stanford University Press, 1960)
  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.
  • George Du Maurier (1894), Trilby (book)
  • Svengali (film), 1931, Director Archie Mayo
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