Season 09-10 Season
Ben Jonson’s Urban Comedy
AKIVA FOX, LITERARY ASSOCIATE
An eager audience streamed into the Blackfriars Theatre on that cold day in 1610. London’s playhouses had been shut down for fear of the plague for nearly a year and a half, and so its citizens were starved for entertainment. They looked to the King’s Men, the company of the well-known playwright and actor William Shakespeare, then beginning its first season at its new indoor home. Drawn in by the promise of a new comedy by the popular and controversial satirist Ben Jonson, they came in from the streets of the upscale Blackfriars neighborhood to see The Alchemist.
If they expected a dry play about a medieval scientist, they were mistaken. Instead, they saw themselves on stage. The theatre became a house in Blackfriars, full of the kinds of people who frequented the neighborhood (and its playhouse): knights and clerks, Puritans and shopkeepers, gentlemen and heiresses. Jonson mocked them all, revealing them as greedy, hypocritical, and all too easily taken in by con-artists. He even borrowed real-life cases of fraud for his plot, bringing up-to-the-minute headlines into the theatre.
Jonson knew the residents of the Blackfriars so well because he was one of them. He had lived in the neighborhood since 1607, watching the daily routines and interactions of its residents. And, unlike the country boy Shakespeare, Jonson was a Londoner through and through. As a child, he had walked to school through one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, a nest for thieves, gamblers, and prostitutes – people not unlike the con-artists of The Alchemist. After studying at one of the city’s best schools, he had served as a bricklayer, an actor and a soldier. By 1610, he had been to prison several times, once for killing a man in a street brawl. He had written plays for kings and commoners.
This quintessential London playwright lived through an exciting and tumultuous time in his city’s history. After hovering around 50,000 for centuries, London’s population had jumped over 200,000 by 1610. “In every street, carts and coaches make such a thundering as if the world ran upon wheels,” wrote the playwright Thomas Dekker in 1606. “At every corner, men, women and children meet in such shoals that posts are set up of purpose to strengthen the houses, lest with jostling one another they should shoulder them down.” As rich and poor alike settled in London, retail and entertainment industries sprang up to accommodate them; at the same time, overcrowding and poverty led to more outbreaks of plague and crime than ever before.
This was the world Ben Jonson sought to put on stage in The Alchemist. Lively, dangerous, and above all breathlessly current, the play brought contemporary rhythms into the theatre. Jonson gave his audience a mirror, a chance to laugh (and cringe) at the ways they and their neighbors behaved behind closed doors. As a great city play, The Alchemist never goes out of style, whether the city in question is 1610 London or 2009 Washington.
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