Offensive Odors in The Alchemist
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416
In the spat between Face and Subtle, The Alchemist, that opens Jonson's play, Subtle is described as having been very much down on his luck before Face met him:
Piteously costive, with your pinch'd-horn-nose,
And your complexion of the Roman wash,
Stuck full of black and melancholic worms,
Like powder-corns shot at th' artillery-yard (11.28-31)
Glossing "Roman wash," Brooke and Paradise suggest "a wash of alum water," that is, an emetic. Face apparently returns to this odious metaphor when he calls Subtle "The vomit of all prisons—." However, the phrase "Piteously costive" introduces the motif of constipation to the passage that seems to point to a conflation of sewer and stomach contents, such as occurs in the Curculio of Jonson's chief comedic model, Plautus.
In Curculio (corn-worm, weevil), Platus uses the word cloaca (a sewer, drain) to describe the stomach of a drunken woman.
Vomit and excrement may be equally offensive to one's "nose," and Face knows, in retrospect, that Subtle was a charlatan waiting to explode. In the spat, Subtle resorts to a kind of halo-effect defense/ attack, berating Face as a "scarab," that is, a dung beetle, and "[t]heheat of horse's dung." Jonson's irony here centers on the fact that the scarab held a privileged place in esoteric alchemy, signifying the survival of the stag (Christ) in a world the morality and thought processes of which amounted to little more than vomit and excrement.
In addition to being known as the dung beetle, the scarab is also known as the stag beetle because of the peculiarity of the structure of its antennae. Cervo volante, "the flying stag," is Italian for scarab. Whereas Christ's flying may be linked to resurrection and ascension, comparable to the ascension of the illuminated man in esoteric alchemy, Subtle's "flying" is a swindle, consisting in the "Selling of flies," that is, familiar spirits, to gullible clients. Consequently, Jonson's parodic irony is positively vitriolic when he has Face exclaim to Dapper, a mark, in reference to Subtle, "Hang him, proud stag, with his broad velvet head"—velvety like the dung beetle's antennae and broad with relatively enormous pincers.
The element of the cloaca is essential to Jonson's larger satirical meaning. In the passage cited above, it seems clear that Jonson is punningly acknowledging the Curculio (the corn-worm) as his contextual source: "worms" and "corns" point to Plautus. Clyster and emetic combine to produce Subtle's moral character.
Source: Nathan Cervo, "Jonson's The Alchemist" in the Explicator, Volume 55, no. 3, Spring, 1997, pp. 128-29
Sepulchral Odors at Lincoln Center
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1160
Jules Irving had two possible alternatives when he decided to stage Ben Jonson's The Alchemist— either to find some modern equivalent for the action which might point its relevance to contemporary America or to choose a more traditional mode of presentation and offer the work frankly as a revival. Irving made the latter option, setting the play near its own time (the seventeenth century) and adopting a style common on the English stage about fifteen years ago: measured pace, lots of props, elocutionary delivery. The initial decision was honorable enough— it is a pleasure to see a work as brilliantly conceived as The Alchemist either in a new framework or an old—but within that option, the production is not successful. For all the farcical frenzy and frenetic activity on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont, there is no real speed in the performance, with the result that some inner vitality has been lost and one of the fastest works in the English language now seems like one of the slowest.
It is difficult to account for the longueurs of the evening: certainly the playwright is not at fault. The con games Jonson provided for his three central characters are still as fresh and inventive as the day they were conceived, and if alchemy is no longer exactly a popular hipster racket, why then politics and advertising can easily be substituted. Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias, those fanatical Puritan elders, have been replaced by more glib but no less dubious personalities like Oral Roberts and Billy Graham; the gigantic hedonism of Sir Epicure Mammon is now being realized by the kick-seeking Hollywood and Bohemian aristocracy; and open-mouthed suckers—like Jonson's gullible Dapper— are still looking for shortcuts to fortune with the horses or the numbers. Kastril, the angry boy who lives to quarrel, is personified today by those who try to prove their manhood through persistent violent encounters, and Abel Drugger, who wants his tobacco shop blessed with magical charms, is no more absurd than those who put religious icons in their automobiles. As for Jonson's amiable con artists, Subtle and Face, they have become as indigenous to American life as Mom and apple pie— indeed, Melville took the confidence man to be an archetypal national figure. Perhaps the ideal actors in these roles would have been W. C. Fields and Groucho Marx, perhaps the ideal epigraph of the play a common Americanism: never give a sucker an even break.
Then, Jonson's manipulation of his complex action is absolutely masterly: Coleridge was correct to call this one of the three most perfect plays in literature. The author keeps at least six distinct plots bustling simultaneously, not to mention countless secondary plots, and enormous energy is unleashed through this method—none of the strands allowed to touch until the conclusion, when they are rolled into a tight ball with the appearance of Face's master, Lovewit, returning to London.
Why then does the Repertory Theatre production seem so dull? The company is considerably more accomplished than previous casts at Lincoln Center, James Hart Steam's setting captures the atmosphere of the Jacobean theatre without sacrificing the spaciousness or ingenuity of the modern one, and George Rochberg's brassy score has a fine dissonant, and occasionally electronic, raucousness. But the evening suffers from much too much production, as if the budget for the show were a large one and every penny had to be spent. Points which should be made through character are made through the use of expensive props; a huge steam-producing machine, with a female figurehead, is pumped for laughs whenever the action flags; the costumes, though handsome, do not look as if they had ever been worn by human beings; and none of the actors manages to make a vivid imprint on his part.
The failure of the actors to rise above the production is the most disappointing aspect of the evening, for most of these performers have been extremely impressive in previous roles. Perhaps they are hamstrung by the casting—I certainly found it strange. Epicure Mammon, for example, possibly the most extravagant and voluptuous figure in dramatic literature, is reduced, by George Voskovec, to a mincing courtier with nervous mannerisms and minor appetites. Mammon's desires are so immense that even his speech is a form of gorging: note how, in his description of the banquets and orgies he intends to give after achieving the philosopher's stone, the sibilant consonants make him sound as if he were slobbering over his words:
I myself will have
The beards of barbels served, instead of sallads:
Oil'd mushrooms, and the swelling unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off,
Drest with an exquisite, and poignant sauce ...
Mammon is a Marlovian figure who wishes not to conquer the world but to swallow it; Voskovec turns him into a hungry Middle European who would be perfectly satisfied with a few scraps in a restaurant not even endorsed by Michelin.
The actors playing Subtle and Face also seem to be miscast, since each would have been more effective in the other's role. Michael O'Sullivan—a galvanic actor with Beatle bangs and a marvelous dental smirk—is too light for the weighty Subtle, while Robert Symonds—a heavy presence with the sonorous chuckle of Frank Morgan—is too earthbound for the quicksilver Captain Face. Both Symonds and O'Sullivan are extremely inventive performers who are perfectly capable of managing the numerous impersonations called for by the text (The Alchemist is based on the varying of shapes), but since it is makeup and costume that is forced to do the job, one goes away remembering not so much alterations in character as changes in wigs, cloaks, and beards. Philip Bosco, an actor who looks like Redgrave and sounds like Gielgud, is solid and authoritative as Lovewit, and Nancy Marchand, as Dol Common, maintains a solid, vulgar, brawling quality which suggests more than anything the low-life character of the play. But the actors as a whole simply cannot hold one's attention for more than moments at a time, or wake one from a state of semi-somnambulism.
The production, finally, is without risk, and without the fine ensemble work that might divert attention from the lack of risk. Oh, there is one playful textual innovation—Tribulation Wholesome is played by a woman. Aline MacMahon, who plays the part, is a charming, warmhearted actress, but charm and warmth are hardly appropriate qualities for this smooth, unctuous hypocrite, and considering what the Puritans thought about the "monstruous regement of woman," it is not very likely that a female preacher would have been accepted into the ranks of the Anabaptists. Ultimately, then, the production is the result neither of good antiquarian research nor of a new vision, and that may be why, for all its intermittent moments of vitality, it gives the impression of having entombed the play.
Source: Robert Brustein, "Sepulchral Odors at Lincoln Center'' in his The Third Theatre, Knopf, 1969, pp. 173-77.