Friday, May 23, 2014

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Sejanus (1603), The Alchemist (1610), Catiline his Conspiracy (1611), Bartholomew Fair (1614)

Ben Jonson, portrait by Abraham van Blyenberch

[Image taken from the splendid website of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, . This is the painting in the National Portrait Gallery. Though unsigned, there's little doubt of the artist or the sitter; it was immediately much copied. It apparently belonged to George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, and it probably shows Jonson in about 1618.] 

Sejanus (1603) 

I have always favoured Ben Jonson’s writing - he is of course abundantly entertaining, but there is something else too, a sort of rugged justice in the grain of his writing, so it's a something I can also find in a poem, even in a panegyric addressed to some obscure noble. ("Favoured" means that I think I approve of Ben Jonson, rather aside from any particular thing that happens when I read him.) 

In spite of this I had never happened to read some of his masterpieces. Sejanus deserves to be called one of these, and is an astonishing play.

It begins in a way that is familiar from Shakespeare, with a discussion of “the times” by two minor characters. We hardly anticipate, however, that both these minor characters will meet their violent deaths during the course of the play; there is a sort of impersonal savagery about what we are to witness, which reaches its climax, perhaps, in the accounts of Sejanus’ and his family’s deaths (the daughter raped before execution).

In the first scene, too, the words have a restrained intensity that produces many powerful lines:

Like snails on painted walls

                                         sell to gaping suitors
The empty smoke, that flies about the palace

                               Alas! these things
Deserve no note, conferred with other vile
And filthier flatteries, that corrupt the times ...

Compared with the tedious bombast of contemporary satires, I appreciate Jonson’s reliance on syntax to suggest that he is never overstating his case, at the same time giving it full force.

The more significant difference from Shakespeare is that Jonson’s play never becomes a play of character. We aren't interested in Silius or Sabinus as personalities, only as mere humans inhabiting a world where power forces humans into desperate shapes.

The dialogue between Lepidus and Arruntius in Act IV Scene 6 is another instance of this characteristic strength; but the soliloquy of Arruntius that precedes it is weak. It is when people are quietly discussing, not emoting, that the play comes impressively to life.

When, in Shakespeare, the major character arrives on stage, we feel an intensification of drama. Not here. Sejanus is in fact uninteresting, except as a political fact (Jonson is driven to some weak expedients, such as vacuous vying with the gods, in order to give Sejanus anything sufficiently time-consuming to say). Macro is interesting for what others quite rightly fear about him. But the feeble comedy of Act V Scene 3 is wholly unfitting; Jonson is driven to it because Macro in private life is a cipher. When Macro and Sejanus are in camera (of course, covertly spied on) in Act V Scene 6, there is no revelation of character; Sejanus swallows Macro’s bait, and that’s that. 

Tiberius, it’s true, has a certain fascination - but on analysis this fascination refers to the play of his supreme power - and his eccentric but deadly way of exercising it. Accounts by others of his gross voluptuousness are persuasive, but Jonson makes no attempt to present this or any other personal trait to us in Tiberius’s own words. Those words are purely manipulative; they're weapons, self-revelation is the last thing they're intended for.

All of which might lead you to conclude that Sejanus is neither dramatic nor humane - in fact it is both. Act III Scene 1 - the accusation of Silius - is perhaps the greatest scene; Afer is repellently brilliant. The terror that ensues is a moving spectacle; so is the dreadful end of Sejanus, which seems in fact not a revenge for the terror but merely a continuation of it; this evil is not contained in an individual but in a social climate.

With the overall humanity goes a certain cool judgment - this no doubt is one effect of Jonson’s experiment in sticking accurately to history. Despite the somewhat over-insistent commentary of Arruntius and his anti-Sejanus colleagues, we are in fact fair-minded: we don’t altogether believe in Cordus’ innocence of intention, for example. We also reserve some of the warmth we might usually accord to unfortunate young nobles when their names happen to be Caligula and Nero. Given a free rein, they will be no different from their persecutors. 

The Shakespeare play that is most similar to Sejanus (and very likely influenced by it) is Coriolanus. But masterpiece as that is, I cannot feel that it vanquishes Sejanus in every particular. It dramatises, with marvellous insight, the interplay of political situations with an individual’s temperament. Jonson could not do anything requiring such sensibility. But Shakespeare’s Rome and its people are a sort of timeless Anyplace. The Rome of Sejanus has a specific condition - and it could conceivably be altered. In that respect Sejanus is the more truly political work.  


The Alchemist (1610)

Coleridge singled out the plot of The Alchemist as some kind of perfection. But if we are thinking of the plot of a Shakespeare play, then The Alchemist  has no plot at all; i.e. there seems to be no character-expressed-through-action and accordingly none of that particular kind of dramatic momentum. Lovewit’s arrival is in no respect a consequence of the first four acts, for example. Jonson really has too much else on his mind – and so does everyone else – to develop a story out of the threats (internal and external) to Face and Subtle’s establishment.


Face and Subtle are rogues of a common sort, and certainly not the worst of rogues, but they are shown in a very harsh light: in the scenes when they’re not performing a role for someone else they are concentrating solely on their business and their gains, as busy as market traders who, if they ever do get a breathing space, will use it first to tot up their winnings.

When Surly’s apparent ignorance of English presents them with an opportunity (like a psychoanalyst’s test) to verbalize without any immediate end in view, what they say turns out to be very coarse fare.

(Face)                                             Don,
Your scurvy, yellow, Madrid face is welcome.   (4.3.30-31)

But even in this scene they are hard at work trying to decide just how to make maximum capital from the Don, so they throw these witticisms out to each other with only half a mind on them.


Huge visions of the world’s learning pass through this nasty little shop: Classical, Christian, Arabic, Indian, Faerie, French and Spanish. All are thoroughly illusory, but the director has to make them do something to us, even while we can feel how irrelevant they really are to what we’re seeing. If the learning starts to sound like just rhubarb, the play stops working.


Lovewit’s age is important in re-establishing a sense of order and kindness in the final scenes of the play. Face claims (to Subtle) that he actually sent for Lovewit (5.4.129), but that’s untrue (see 5.4.89-90, as well as Face’s manifest confusion when Dol announces Lovewit’s arrival). Subtle and Dol probably don’t believe Face’s claim either, but their position is now untenable; if they remain to bring down Face, they must give up their chance of escape. (It’s important to Face that Lovewit does not meet the other older personage in the play, Subtle – if he did, he might have a rather less rosy idea of his amusing servant.)


The action of The Alchemist takes place on 1st November 1610, presumably more or less exactly when it was first performed. This can be worked out from Ananias’ time references and from Dame Pliant’s age (for details, see Ian Donaldson’s interesting essay "Clockwork Comedy: Time and The Alchemist").  


One of the things that Face and Subtle are talking about in front of the Spanish gentleman is Dame Pliant. From the moment that Drugger mentions the “rich young widow” (2.6.30) – and adds promisingly, “but nineteen at the most”, Face and Subtle evince the usual behaviour of men at work; they think about sex every six minutes.

At the end of this scene they agree to draw lots to decide which of them will have the widow. Dol must be kept out of it, they both agree.

They repeat the terms of the agreement in 4.2.3ff, just before Dame Pliant first appears. Face is very taken with her, and tries to get Subtle to give up his claim (for a consideration). Subtle rejects his suggestion and threatens to tell Dol if Face goes it alone. It would be a clear breach of their “venter tripartite” (1.1.135), which requires them to share all things in common, apparently including Dol herself.

But, confronted with the disguised Surly, Face has a new idea (4.3.63ff.); why not give Dame Pliant to the Spanish gentleman? As he pragmatically observes, she’s not a virgin anyway and it’s only one man the more, whichever of them draws her in the end. Subtle, apparently somewhat repulsed by the thought of damaged goods, re-opens the question of giving her up to Face for a consideration, but Face rejects the proposal and bullyingly threatens to tell Dol himself. Subtle seems to be scared of this, but a moment later Face changes his mind and agrees to take the widow anyway, and they shake on it. Face’s bullying still rankles, though, and at the end of the scene Subtle takes pleasure in creating the opportunity to “make the widow a punk, so much the sooner, / To be reveng’d on this impetuous Face” (4.3.102-03).

Later, when it turns out that Dame Pliant has not been debauched by Surly after all, Subtle tries to renege on this (4.7.102ff) and to put himself in the frame again. Again (though the situation is now precisely opposite), Face threatens Subtle with Dol and seems to get his own way. But in the event it’s Subtle who tells all to Dol, in order to turn her against Face (see 5.4.70). By that time, however, Face is already employing Subtle to assist unwittingly in the marriage of Lovewit to Dame Pliant, and he will very shortly be bringing the curtain down on the triple alliance.

It’s unclear to me why Face feels he can threaten Subtle with Dol on two separate occasions when in both cases he is at least as likely, or more likely, to earn Dol’s enmity. Presumably the general idea is that Subtle is afraid of making trouble with Dol while Face establishes his dominance by seeming not to care. But exactly how seriously the two are discussing all this is open to question; they may be merely passing the time with agreeably squalid chatter.

[Pinter includes a similar discussion towards the end of The Homecoming, with the dim young Joey playing Subtle to Lenny's Face.]


One of Jonson’s editors, in the early nineteenth century, was William Gifford, the violently partial editor of the Anti-Jacobin and the Quarterly Review, notorious to admirers of Wordsworth or Keats. Championing Jonson, against the insinuations of the bardolators who considered Jonson an enemy of their hero and an author to be depreciated at every opportunity, momentarily takes on a political dimension: it meant standing up for conservative common sense in the face of liberal enthusiasm. Gifford is naturally a diligent seeker-out of prejudice in others and is an entertaining editor. His best insight is that Surly’s “this ferret” (2.3.80) alludes to Face’s red eyes (this is Face in his guise as Lungs, who has bleared eyes from all the smoke).


Catiline his Conspiracy (1611)

If Gifford is correctly informed, then Catiline, though not well-thought of when first staged in 1611, was played frequently in the years following, and was successfully revived after the Restoration.

But Catiline now is a play that’s dead in the water. It is modestly rewarding when read, and especially when all hope of dramatic interest has been surrendered, but it compares badly with Sejanus (which has much more interesting power shifts) and its stagecraft is to our eyes unspeakably crude by comparison with Shakespeare’s Roman plays. I suppose, though this is probably fantasy, that Jonson’s apparent inability to learn from Shakespeare’s triumphs must be deliberate and pointed. What’s certain is that Jonson had utterly different ends in view.

Jonson found in his books that Catiline conspired evilly, but he never thought it necessary to think of Catiline’s motives: an insane lust for power, or for evil itself, was sufficient. And all the conspirators are differentiated only by their strength of commitment. Cethegus, disagreeably reminiscent of Corporal Jones, is probably meant to be terrifying when he says:

Slaughter bestrid the streets, and stretched himself
To seem more huge; whilst to his stained thighs
The gore he drew flowed up, and carried down
Whole heaps of limbs and bodies through his arch.  (1.1)

But it’s soon apparent that Cethegus is such a one-dimensional character (and so utterly null in effect) that he is at best comic; but in as much as he is funny, the impact of the conspiracy is weakened. His bluster eventually ends with:

(Cicero) –Take him to the due
Death that he hath deserved, and let it be
Said, he was once.

Cethegus. A beast, or what is worse,
A slave, Cethegus. Let that be the name
For all that’s base hereafter; that would let
This worm pronounce on him, and not have trampled
His body into – Ha! art thou not moved?

Cicero. Justice is never angry. (5.6)

We are made to feel that the conspirators are not only evil but ridiculous, that they presented no threat. This isn't so much history written by the victors as history written by the press office of a police state, i.e. indifferent to whether anyone believes it. Cicero’s spy network is held up for particular praise, and his triumph is recognition on the civil list.

For the most part Catiline consists of impressive rhetoric, which such poor attempts at other entertainment as are supplied by Fulvia and Cethegus tend to get in the way of. Cicero’s rhetoric is reportage from his own works and is unshakably principled. Catiline’s (in default of motive or the documentation of victory) is blustering invocation of sheer evil. Catiline is admitted as dying heroically, but Jonson hasn’t supplied us with anything in his character to base this heroism on, so the praise of his opponents looks merely polite. Catiline is indeed ambitious, as Macbeth is, but his ambition has no other emotions to contend with, and we haven’t even a very concrete idea of what he is ambitious for (as e.g. Sir Epicure).

What Jonson’s intentions really were, I’m still not sure. James’ government must have highly approved the sentiments of the piece. Jonson seems to have become thoroughly interested in producing an exhaustive and accurate account from his sources – this accuracy, of course, being a matter of representing details rather than of the critical interpretation those sources so patently require. But it seems bizarre to suppose that so great an author, at the very apogee of his career, aimed at nothing more than propaganda or edification.


Bartholomew Fair (1614)

This is another play I have spent 25 years not reading. Comparing my long-held idea of the play with what I have now read, there is no great disparity. It is a comfortable play, popular in the eighteenth century and probably in the nineteenth too, at least among readers. But although in many useful senses a “sheer entertainment” (it is also a play about an entertainment), one can’t help reflecting on its date – it comes just after the last of Shakespeare’s plays, and is possibly Jonson’s last great play. The influence of Act IV of the Winter’s Tale is discernible. Bartholomew Fair is so good-natured that even its Puritans, not to speak of its pimps and cutpurses, are not villains. Zeal-of-the-Land Busy is granted a gluttonous energy that Jonson must have enjoyed. From the author of Volpone this is a little disquieting. One senses a grateful slackening of the moral reins; a subsidence into the easy conclusion that human life in general is a joyous, bustling, well-meaning thing. This is of course consonant with Jonson’s values elsewhere, but it presents those values in their least confrontational form. 

The Induction to the play bears reading only once; it shows Jonson’s intention of embodying the vastness of the Fair’s riches, by first amazing us with a list of everything he has missed out.

The First Act supplies us with a long, finely choreographed, sequence that introduces the major characters. The conversation of Jonson’s gallants, Quarlous and Winwife, deserves praise. This is reminiscent of Epicoene and anticipates the interest of Restoration drama - Jonson avoids the tiresomeness of “straight” characters - their wit and cynicism keep them lively.
Nothing is monstrous. Waspe’s furious tetchiness leads no-one to doubt his essential normality (humanity? fitness for business? reasonableness?) - and Waspe can be other than mere bad-temper. When he slips out of the stocks and departs “For this once, sir”, we recognize a normal sense of humour. Busy, as suggested above, is sufficiently humanized by being discovered “fast by the teeth in the cold turkey-pie in the cupboard, with a great white loaf on his left hand, and a glass of malmsey on his right”. 

Adam Overdo, who begins Act 2, is a more literary creation. His unworldly mildness, oddly linked to a love of Horace with which Jonson must have identified, is nevertheless a significant clue to the galaxy in which the author’s imagination now moves.

From this point the pace of the play more or less matches the real time of its events - two hours, say, to cover a visit to the fair which might in reality be supposed to take four or five. This has the effect of identifying the play with the fair, and our entertainment with the characters’ entertainment. (Indeed, Mrs Littlewit’s retirement in search of a toilet - in fact, a empty bottle - lasts for some seventeen pages, which might be thought rather lengthy.) The slow-paced dramatic time allows for some interesting effects. For example, people can be shown waiting for time to pass, as when Winwife and Quarlous arrive early, or Edgeworth and Quarlous sit through a nonsensical drunken quarrel for the chance to rob Waspe of the license. Quarlous and the Littlewits, at different times, can show themselves uneasy about time passing. A similar impatience gathers in the preparations for the puppet show, which in turn proceeds with none of the abbreviation that we sense in The Mousetrap or Pyramus and Thisbe. In short, Jonson interests himself in the process of time moving at sixty minutes an hour.  (The puppet show proves quite capable of accommodating a real dispute with Busy. Its chief business is to tell the tale of Hero and Leander in the unlikely mode represented by exchanges such as:

You whoremaster knave. [They fight].

Thou art a whoremaster.

Whoremasters all. etc

A fair is licensed time for dawdling - and both licenses and dawdling are significant themes of the play. The Watch are embodiments of both, in marked contrast to police in other situations. They have little knowledge of clocktime, and though they are loving subjects, they take exception to being called obedient. They enforce placing people in the stocks, but are uncertain if their authority really extends to this. The word “discretion” inevitably arises. Perhaps the malefactors should remain in the stocks for an hour or so. In truth the Watch’s main object is to enjoy the fair themselves and allow it to proceed, as far as possible, without the disturbance of real action (each action that they do being itself an action within the fair, an entertainment rather than a stubborn deed). The “enormities” detected - in many cases all too “justly” - by Adam Overdo are, we are persuaded, insignificant. The apparatus of law and order is comically present but operates in a displaced manner, finding nothing unpardonable to operate upon.

It would be heavy-handed to describe Cokes as incapable of distinguishing the world of the Fair from reality, when all give themselves up to a certain (licensed) lack of distinction. It is axiomatic that goods sold at a fair are all trash (“stale bread, rotten eggs, musty ginger and dead honey”). But as Cokes says sadly of Waspe, “He does not understand”. Cokes’ credulity at any rate allows him to enter into the puppet show with envious fullness (“Well, we have seen it, and thou hast felt it, whatsoever thou sayest.”)

For us, the concept of a Fair is incomplete without children. It is pleasing that the Boys of the Fair at least make one brief appearance, mischievously trailing Cokes around. It’s clear from Waspe’s remarks that some of Coke’s purchases (his “toys”) are primarily suited to children. Perhaps Jonson intended that some of the unspecified crowds of people crossing the stage should also be children. 




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