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Detlef Sierck Presents: The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson

January 29, 2020 Leave a comment

subtle

 

I first got into roleplaying games through amateur theatre. I was a member of a couple of different local groups in the 70s and 80s, and while I was working at Games Workshop I joined Nottingham’s Lace Market Theatre and got a part in this play. I don’t think it inspired “A Rough Night at the Three Feathers” directly, but it is certainly similar in that it features a single location – in this case, a London town house – in which multiple plots collide over a short period of time.

The house’s owner, Mr. Lovewit, has gone to the country to escape an outbreak of plague, leaving his servant Jeremy to look after the place in his absence. Jeremy has plans of his own, though, and joins forces with two confederates to cook up a number of schemes. One is a con man named Subtle, and the other is a prostitute named Doll Common. Jeremy himself adopts the persona of Captain Face, with the social acceptability that brings, and lures prospective marks to the house.

Dapper is a lawyer’s clerk who wants better luck at the gaming tables. Subtle convinces him to seek the favor of the Queen of the Fairies (played by Doll) and the two subject him to various “fairy” tricks and humiliations while relieving him of all his valuables.

Abel Drugger is a tobacconist who wants his newly-opened shop to succeed. Under the guise of advising him on the luckiest stock and furnishings, the trio robs him of a lot of valuable tobacco.

Drugger introduces them to two acquaintances recently arrived from the country. Kastril is a quarrelsome young gentleman who wants to learn how to argue in the sophisticated manner of the town. His sister, Dame Pliant, is wealthy and recently widowed. The three smell profit in both of them.

Sir Epicure Mammon is rich, and would like to be richer – and younger, and more sexually vital. He is quickly convinced that Subtle is close to perfecting the Philosopher’s Stone that can turn all things into gold and is a key ingredient in the Elixir of Youth. Mammon hands over a fortune in household goods to pay for Subtle’s experiments. He also falls in love (or more likely, in lust) with Doll after catching an unintended glimpse of her. He is accompanied by Sir Pertinax Surly, a skeptical friend who tries without success to expose the con, dressing up as a Spanish nobleman at one point and allowing himself to be led towards a marriage with Dame Pliant.

Tribulation Wholesome and his sidekick Ananias are Anabaptists, members of a strict Protestant church with puritanical leanings. Despite this, though, they are intent on perpetrating a con of their own: using Subtle’s gold-making prowess to counterfeit Dutch money in order to advance their sect’s position there – increasing their own wealth and influence in the process.

Needless to say, the various plots collide horribly over the course of the play. The three con artists quarrel endlessly, refusing to trust each other because they are all liars and cheats. Subtle’s lab explodes at a critical moment. People from one plot arrive unexpectedly to interrupt the progress of another. In other words, farce ensues.

At the height of the chaos, the householder Lovewit returns unexpectedly. Despite his servant’s best efforts, the various plots are exposed one by one as things come undone. Subtle and Doll flee empty-handed rather than face the wrath of the law. Face – now Jeremy again – placates his master by offering him marriage to the wealthy Dame Pliant. The remaining plots are quickly wrapped up and the play ends with Lovewit triumphant and Jeremy chastened.


 

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch, circa 1617

Ben Jonson was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and this play was first performed in 1610. His language is similar to Shakespeare’s, but includes more contemporary London slang. Don’t be put off by that, though. Any edition worth its salt will come with explanations and footnotes. If you can find a stage production, you will find that the frantic pace pulls everything together beautifully. I would recommend a film or TV adaptation, but there don’t seem to be any, which is a pity.

Alchemist cover

 

So there you have it. A town setting, multiple plots, colorful characters, greed, lust, chicanery – it’s all very WFRP, even though it’s not fantasy.

Watch out for more #DetlefSierckPresents posts, and I’ll share more of the things I was watching and reading when I worked on WFRP. Perhaps they will inspire you, too.