The Plague and Social Dysfunction in The Alchemist

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In 1610, London suffered another bad plague year. Those who could, left their city homes and fled to the clean air and relative safety of country life. It is this partial desertion of London that provides the time and setting for The Alchemist. Unlike his friend and contemporary, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson incorporated topical locations and issues into his plays. When Lovewit leaves his home in the care of his butler, Jeremy, and flees to the country, thus setting up the action of the play, the master's actions are similar to those that were occurring in London at the time.

The importance of setting is the focus of Cheryl Lynn Ross's examination of The Alchemist in Renaissance Quarterly. Ross explained that "the world of Ben Jonson's Alchemist—its setting, its rogues and their victims, the structure of the play, and the moral judgments both inherent in the text and on its margins—is the world of London during a plague." The plague grants Jeremy a freedom he would not otherwise enjoy. Ross argued that it is this freedom, common enough during a plague year, that provides Jeremy with the unstructured time to assume other identities. He is free to roam the city as Face, to go into taverns and seek out victims, and to transform himself into Lungs, the alchemist's assistant.

The plague also provides an empty house in which the three knaves can centralize their plot and the action. Victims can be invited back to the house to be conned at the thieves' leisure. This is another glimpse of the plague than that traditionally offered in historical accounts. The increase in crime due to increased opportunity is clearly established in Jonson's comedy and is just one element of the connection between Jonson's location and his theme. The observation that crime in The Alchemist is an opportunistic disease is only one small part of the satire that Jonson employs to provide laughs at the expense of his victims: the clergy, scientists, philosophers, and merchants of London.

One important element of satire is its ability to poke fun at institutions and ideas rather than individuals. This occurs in The Alchemist when the plague that visits the city becomes a part of Lovewit's house. As sickness envelops the real London, Jonson uses the symbols of sickness to illustrate the infection (in the form of con games and dishonesty) that threatens London. During the height of the plague, men abandoned their wives, mothers, and children, and neighbors became enemies. Fear became a motivating force in the destruction of social relationships.

Ross concluded that this betrayal of humanity is another part of the sickness that accompanies the plague. Jonson illuminates the problem by transforming it into a plot about three scheming knaves who try to bilk other Londoners out of their money. Of these characters, Ross stated that "from Drugger to Mammon, the characters represent a society suffering a thoroughgoing contagion of immorality." It is not the plague that makes them sick; it is their lack of morality. Ross continued with "[these characters] absolute selfishness is a symptom of moral sickness that the plague characteristically and unerringly uncovered, tearing away at relationships of love and trust, pitting neighbor against neighbor, parent against child, subject against ruler."

Indeed, The Alchemist exemplifies the moral rottenness of London. It is little wonder that Jonson was unpopular with his audience. His picture of London society was not a flattering one. Ross insisted that to cure the city of its moral plague, Jonson subverts the usual ending of the plague— the return to the city of those who had fled to the safety of the country. Rather than have Lovewit return to the house and restore order to the play, and by representation, to London, Jonson uses Lovewit to illustrate a different ending. Ross noted that "with Lovewit's entrance, the play changes its appearance.... For Lovewit does not return London to its original, pre-plague state; he does not restore Subtle's booty to its rightful owners. Instead, he appropriates it himself, turning Subtle's productive efforts to his own advantage."

Jonson's ending denies his audience the tidy resolution they expect. The moral ambiguity of a master who seizes the victims' property and who forgives his butler for such acts of deception raises some questions. Ross would argue that Jonson is only illuminating the moral decay of London society. But that interpretation is dependent on a close reading of the final act.

It is this interpretation of the final act that interested G. D. Monsarrat, who argued in Cahiers Elisabethans that an understanding of Lovewit is completely dependent on how the last three scenes are read. Monsarrat provided a close reading of the final scenes and concluded that Lovewit is not a dishonest rogue as is his butler; instead, Lovewit is provided only the briefest information that Jeremy has confessed to his master. Traditional readings of the last act assume that Jeremy confesses everything to Lovewit offstage. On-stage, the audience learns only that Jeremy asks that Lovewit "pardon me th' abuse of your house.''

To help make this forgiveness easier, Jeremy offers his master the Widow Pliant as an incentive. When Jeremy tells Dol and Subtle that Lovewit knows all, the audience assumes that the butler has confessed everything offstage. But it is also possible that Jeremy offers Lovewit's knowledge and forgiveness as a means of convincing Subtle and Dol that the master of the house is in control, and with him lies the authority of the law. Monsarrat pointed out that "even if Lovewit does not know everything Jeremy must make them believe that he does, otherwise they themselves might reveal all to Lovewit. Thus, Jeremy has a lot at stake if he cannot convince Dol and Subtle to leave quickly and quietly."

Although the audience knows that Jeremy is a liar, Monsarrat noted that Jeremy does not have an opportunity to meet Lovewit offstage, and accordingly, the audience should not believe Jeremy's warning to Subtle and Dol.

Lovewit is further absolved of complicity, according to Monsarrat, when he fails to ask Jeremy whether he has gotten rid of Subtle and Dol. The critic argued that "if Jeremy and Lovewit were partners the natural thing for Lovewit to do would be to inquire whether Jeremy has got rid of Subtle and Doll. But Lovewit does not ask any questions, and Jeremy volunteers no information, precisely because they are not partners."Lovewit's failure to question Jeremy about his partners indicates that the master has no knowledge of them. When Lovewit invites the officers to search the house, it is because he has no reason not to.

As Monsarrat pointed out, Lovewit says that butler has "let out my house /... To a Doctor and a Captain: who, what they are, / Or where they be, he knows not." On stage, Jeremy has only confessed to the abuse of the house, and yet Lovewit states that the house was let to a doctor and captain. This information is not provided on stage and appears to contradict Monsarrat's argument, since Lovewit is either embellishing Jeremy's story to protect his butler or Jeremy has talked to Lovewit offstage. Monsarrat assumed that Jeremy has told his master this information, but it creates a loose end that weakens the argument.

In his discussion of the disposition of the goods, though, Monsarrat does offer some interesting observations that help diminish Lovewit's appearance of guilt. Mammon claims the goods as his. But Subtle has sold them to Ananias and Tribulation, who also claim the goods as theirs. Lovewit does what any good magistrate might: he asks Mammon to prove his ownership. Monsarrat argued that "whatever Lovewit's personal motives, it seems evident that he also fulfills a judicial function ... the officers never intervene, and therefore do not object to Lovewit's behaviour."

Mammon appears to accept Lovewit's judgment, since he acknowledges that the loss of his dreams is a greater disaster than the loss of his household goods. The goods do not represent great wealth. They are the pewter and tin that Mammon has sent to be changed into gold. The wealth lies with the widow. In marrying her, Lovewit acquires more wealth, but he also acquires a younger wife who will help keep him young. She is the real prize. Monsarrat made one last point that is an important observation about Jonson's use of language in naming his characters. Lovewit's name does not suggest deception, as does Subtle or Face. In a play, such as The Alchemist, where the character's name reveals his or her personality and temperament, Lovewit's name reveals only innocent traits, not deceptive ones.

Monsarrat's argument provided a very different glimpse of Lovewit than the one offered by Ross. Ultimately, only the reader's close examination of the text will reveal the Lovewit each reader believes Jonson intended.

Source: Sheri Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Offensive Odors in The Alchemist

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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

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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.

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