The Alchemist Dramatist

Ben Jonson, dramatist

by Anne Barton
Cambridge University Press, 370 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson; drawing by David Levine

The circumstance of having been preceded by Shakespeare was an inhibition, at least as much as an inspiration, to writers who came afterward, as some of them—like Goethe—have acknowledged. The situation must have been even more daunting for Ben Jonson, since he happened to be the most ambitious, articulate, strong-minded, and arguably the most talented, among Shakespeare’s immediate contemporaries. They cannot quite spontaneously have conceded Shakespeare’s hegemony, though Jonson finally did in a generous eulogy. To chart the rivalry of the two in other terms than Jonson’s is to come up against Shakespeare’s personal elusiveness. “Gentle” is the one adjective we can extract from firsthand witnesses; and that sets up another opposition with Jonson’s aggressiveness.

The latter’s name and work have been handed down to us as a clear-cut personification of the rules that Shakespeare flouted, the limits he transcends. It might almost be said, if we accept Peter Shaffer’s theatrical reductions, that literary history cast Jonson as the Salieri to Shakespeare’s Amadeus. One of the many merits of Anne Barton’s book is her stress on the qualities that Shakespeare and Jonson shared.

Jonson was respectfully neglected by criticism for 250 years. Nothing very significant was written about him between John Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668) and T.S. Eliot’s review of the competent but conventional volume by Gregory Smith in the English Men of Letters series (1919).1 Eliot predicted that Jonson would prove more sympathetic to twentieth-century intellectuals, who would admire him for “a brutality, a lack of sentiment, a polished surface, a handling of large bold designs in brilliant colors.” Meanwhile—and not inappropriately, given a playwright who was ridiculed for publishing his mere plays as Works in folio—it was taking all of fifty years for the most monumental of all the great Oxford editions to lumber into existence.2 Numerous modernized texts of the best-known dramas have been reedited over the past generation: especially useful is The Yale Ben Jonson.3 Jonson has also been a happy hunting ground for Anglo-American scholarship. For a critical suggestiveness that extends far beyond its monographic subject, one of the landmarks is Jonas Barish’s study, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy.4

It could hardly be claimed that Jonson’s plays have been performed continuously on the stage. Among his “four central masterpieces,” Epicoene, or the Silent Woman was much admired and imitated during the Restoration; but, after heroines ceased to be acted by boys, it was bound to miss its biggest trick. David Garrick, carving up The Alchemist in order to fatten his own part, carried it into the eighteenth-century repertory. Possibly the brilliant colors had become too local; yet Bartholomew Fair, which is even more steeped in cockney atmosphere, has been successfully revived by the Edinburgh Festival. And Volpone, or the Fox with its Italianate locale, has attracted such continental adapters as Stefan Zweig and Jules Romains. Its sinister…

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