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the alchemist

5 april 2015

The Alchemist is one of the great plays in the English language, different from anything Shakespeare ever wrote, better in some ways, colder and more limited and more cynical in others.

I have never seen the play, though it has worked well at several junctures in theater history (notably for David Garrick in the 18th century), and I've heard about good productions. There's never been one near me that I remember, though; productions surface every few years in New York or London, but I've missed them, and it's much rarer regionally. In fact Ben Jonson isn't easy to see at all, The Alchemist and Volpone being the only two with much currency. His plays have dense verbal textures and are stuffed with topical allusions.

Yet it's fascinating, while reading, how enjoyable you can find The Alchemist without having to have imbibed every aspect of Jacobean London life, or the finer points of religious controversy, or the endless details of alchemy which pervade the play (and are apparently pretty genuine, that is if you can be genuine about total fakery).

The Alchemist offers a beautifully-oiled farce plot played in a farrago of different dialects, jargons, registers, and even entirely separate languages. In a recent essay, Michael Saenger argues that

Jonson's conclusion is that the friction between languages offers opportunities for cheats to thrive onstage and off, and that the predominant language of this world is sin, from which only lucid repentance can 'translate' us.1
I'm no more sure about Saenger's overall argument than I was about a similar recent take on The Comedy of Errors, but it's true that Jonson's characters talk rapidly, incessantly, at cross purposes, and sometimes straight over one another's heads and those of the audience as well.

Much of the mumbo-jumbo in the play is just as entertaining if you understand none of it as it is if you read every footnote and try to follow Jonson's detailed use of alchemical sources. The whole point of the constant narration of the process of the sublimation of the philosopher's stone, or whatever it is they're on about, is that the con men of the play, Face and Subtle, are making up bullshit, and have an endless supply of raw materials. The same goes for their crony Dol Common's ability to break out into religious ravings, and Sir Epicure Mammon's Martha-Stewart-like enumeration of the fabric of the good life, and the puritan Ananias's quibbles on godly behavior.

One of the funniest scenes in the play involves the skeptic Pertinax Surly dressing for some reason as a Spaniard, and then pretending he knows no English while Subtle and Face launch into a barrage of insults that has continued to inspire English comedy writers down to the days of Fawlty Towers and Blackadder. Weirdly enough, Surly somehow speaks serviceable Spanish, which the alchemists sort of understand, so we're treated to the now-classic scene of competing tricksters understanding all too well how they're being tricked, but not really able to get an advantage on either side.

Saenger concludes that "Spanish offers no cure to the diseased language of the play, in short, because the world cannot cure itself; only Jesus can do that" (192). Or perhaps nobody can do that, Jesus being ultimately well outside the play's action. The play is resolved by Face's absent boss Love-Wit coming home unexpectedly and cheating the cheaters (and in the process grabbing the only desirable woman among them). This could be typological; after all, we know neither the day nor the hour wherein He cometh, and any He can be a type of any other. But Love-Wit is a pretty venal type of Christ, and Jonson doesn't give us anyone else to tie up loose ends.

Meanwhile, we left Surly speaking Spanish, and it occurs to me that in pre-supertitle days, some people could understand him and some couldn't. An audience with no Spanish is as much taken in by Surly as the alchemists think they're taking Surly in; he could be saying anything. One needs to be as multilingual and learned as Ben Jonson to read the whole play transparently, but I think the point is that nobody is. Jonson gets to show off, and gets to show us a raft of fools all too ready to believe in things they don't understand precisely because they don't understand them … which is uncomfortably like the situation of his audience, or of literary critics for that matter.

Jonson, Ben. The Alchemist. 1612. Edited by S. Musgrove. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

1 "Interlinguicity and The Alchemist," English Text Construction 6:1 (2013), 176.