Ben Jonson's The Alchemist: Art as Consensual Deception
For years, people have been telling me not to read the Elizabethan playwrights other than Shakespeare, because "they're all hacks but the Bard." To dispute this, I offer Exhibit A: Ben Jonson's The Alchemist.

Jonson's 1610 farce is a take on alchemical study with the ultimate goal in mind: physical transmutation of base materials to gold. As a predecessor of modern chemistry, alchemy has fascinated scholars that would never otherwise be grouped together. For instance, Isaac Newton, Thomas Aquinas, and Carl Jung probably wouldn't get along too well at a party, but they all considered the art one of the greatest human endeavors. Unfortunately, none of the alchemists were able to achieve the goal of the Arcanum Arcanorum, or at least they were damn good at keeping it a secret. Otherwise, the entire world would be gilded and we would be stuck trying to figure out anti-alchemy, turning all of this gold shit back to what it was in the first place.

A quick plot summary of the play for reference: Face, a servant during the Black Plague, is housesitting for his boss Lovewit. As an ever-responsible housekeeper, Face decides to invite his insane friends Subtle and his punk girlfriend (yes, Jonson uses the word punk throughout the play) Dol Common over to his boss' house to make some money by scamming the townspeople. Subtle plays the gifted alchemist/magician, elaborate robe and all, while Face lures unsuspecting people into the trap. The scheme is hectic but seems to work out fine, just as in all farces, until the end when shit hits the fan. They manage to hustle a few hilarious characters, including Sir Epicure Mammon, a foppish and gullible dreamer who throws around his money in search of the Philosopher's Stone. They also run into a tobacconist named Drugger, a skeptic named Surly, and an even more foppish fop named Dapper. There is a character in this play named Tribulation Wholesome, an over-the-top Anabaptist parody. How awesome is that?

Even if you're not interested in over-the-top Anabaptist parodies or any Anabaptists at all, you should read or see this play. The deft touch of Jonson's language is extraordinary, and the plot is well-constructed. While reading, I was able to get past even my obsessive love of obscure and obtuse alchemical texts enough to notice similarities between how Face and Subtle manipulated their customers and how artists manipulate their audience through their work. The play itself is a metaexample of this leitmotif.

The audience of the play watches or reads about these two characters continually tricking the customers through lies and deception. But as we watch the play unfold, Ben Jonson himself is tricking us, the members of the audience. Face and Subtle attempt to fool their customers into paying them with with elaborate plays where they assume roles (i.e. Dol Common, a prostitute, playing an aristocrat or Subtle's last and greatest performance) to convince their alchemical customers to forget about their money and the rest of their lives to focus on the great task of transmutation. Jonson does the same, asking that we willfully suspend our disbelief in order to transmutate our souls through artistic escape.

Virtually everyone is searching for the Midas touch, some way to make things more beautiful, more luxurious, and more desirable to live in than they are. Jonson and his characters play artistic deceivers, and in doing so, they showcase the possibilities of become both a storyteller and a story listener in life.

If you like The Alchemist, check out Jonson's companion alchemy masque, Mercury, Vindicated.

Posted by kevin on Thu, 06 Mar 2008 13:48:50 -0500 -- permanent link

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