I was asked to contribute to the #poemsfromlockdown series King’s is producing. The video is embedded below along with some words I might have said had there not been a time limit!
‘I’m Stephane Crayton, a composer and PhD candidate at King’s. Recently I’ve been thinking about The Alchemist, a play written by Ben Jonson first performed in London in 1610, a time when the city was only too familiar with the horrors of the sickness. Those with means left the hustle and bustle, leaving the city and its houses vacant and vulnerable. And here Jonson sets his scene, telling the story of three con-artists determined to outwit and exploit. Seeing the streets of Cambridge empty these last weeks I’ve been imagining what sorts of mischief is occurring behind its great walls.
But The Alchemist is more than this. For Jonson alchemy becomes a metaphor for affecting change, a metaphor he communicates in a masterclass of meta-theatre.
Here’s The Prologue:
Fortune, that favours fools, these two short hours,
We wish away, both for your sakes and ours,
Judging spectators; and desire, in place,
To the author justice, to ourselves but grace.
Our scene is London, ‘cause we would make known,
No country’s mirth is better than our own:
No clime breeds better matter for your whore,
Bawd, squire, imposter, many persons more,
Whose manners, now call’d humours, feed the stage;
And which have still been subject for the rage
Or spleen of comic writers. Though this pen
Did never aim to grieve, but better men;
Howe’er the age he lives in doth endure
The vices that she breeds, above their cure.
But when the wholesome remedies are sweet,
And in their working gain and profit meet,
He hopes to find no spirit so much diseased,
But will with such fair correctives be pleased:
For here he doth not fear who can apply.
If there be any that will sit so nigh
Unto the stream, to look what it doth run,
They shall find things, they’d think or wish were done;
They are so natural follies, but so shewn,
As even the doers may see, and yet not own.’
The principle character of the play is called Face, a butler looking after the house of his master, Lovewit. With two fellow con-artists Face sets up shop in Lovewit’s house. They draw all sorts of company. Each client to be cozened demands a different approach from our ‘venture tripartite’—new promises, new costumes, new pseudonyms. Inevitably things snowball out of control, and then there’s a knock on the door... The master has returned: fun’s over. Lovewit pockets the takings all for himself.
The setting and characters hold a mirror to the public: Ben Jonson isn’t simply labelling vices, he’s trying to alchemise his audience. In fact, they’re just another part of Face’s exploits, cozened into handing over their money for a ticket, a few short hours entertainment. Or how about Jonson himself who, like the character Face, has made all the arrangements—written the script, procured the costumes, rehearsed the action—only at the end of the play to have the owner of the theatre rock up, and pocket the evening’s takings. And who was the proprietor of Blackfriars Theatre in 1610? Why, London’s famous ‘lover-of-wit’, William Shakespeare.
T he sickness hot, a master quit, for fear,
H is house in town, and left one servant there;
E ase him corrupted, and gave means to know
A Cheater and his punk; who now brought low,
L eaving their narrow practice, were become
C oz’ era at large; and only wanting some
H ouse to set up, with him they here contract,
E ach for a share, and all begin to act.
M uch company they draw, and much abuse,
I n casting figures, telling fortunes, news,
S elling of flies, flat bawdy, with the stone,
T ill it, and they, and all in fume, are gone.