Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Alchemist

Ben Jonson does it again! Writes a play as strange and unique as anything I've read . . . well, okay, maybe not as ANYTHING I've read. Really, Bartholomew Fair was pretty weird. But this was still pretty different.

Three tricksters live in a house that's not theirs, conning people out of money and goods for alchemical and sexual services. Eventually, they are caught when the owner of the house comes back. Two run away, and one makes good by staying behind to help the owner with one last con that sets them both up pretty nicely.

This play really satirizes that old monkey, greed, with a healthy dose of Puritan satire and alchemical parody thrown in. The intro I read said that every victim of the conmen gets his or her moment of pity except for the two Puritans who are greedy, judgmental, and self-righteous to boot. There is some very funny business between Subtle and Ananias, as Ananias cannot resist correcting and chastising Subtle, who takes offense and threatens to undo the alchemical work at hand.

I worked on another alchemical parody once, Chaucer's "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" in which the Canon and his Yeoman attempt to pull alchemical cons, making people believe that they can make precious metals out of base, and failing. In that story, the canon possibly gets conned by another canon, and also runs away when he worries that the yeoman is going to turn him in and expose their tricks (which the yeoman does). The yeoman is the one who gets to stay behind and keep going on the pilgrimage with everyone, sort of the way Jeremy/Face gets to keep his position at the house instead of running away in shame like Subtle and Doll Common. I really enjoyed the way Jonson used alchemical terms in his play; the short dialogues between Subtle and Face as they were pretending to ready their "projection" were really great and convincing because they were so full of jargon that they sounded (as Surly notes) like "canting."

I guess if I had to compare this to anything else, it might be Volpone, which revolves around two tricksters and their greedy victims, all of whom get their comeuppance. That one seems less joyful, though, since this one has a sort of happy (and possibly redemptive) ending. Jeremy helps his employer and makes his apologies to the audience, while Volpone and Mosca never repent.

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