Ben Jonson’s 1610 play The Alchemist was playing in Stratford-upon-Avon this summer (until 6 August) before transferring to The Barbican from September.
Set against the backdrop of a great plague epidemic which has seen the wealthy abandon London for the cleaner country air, the play is a rare chance for those us interested in the history of medicine to see a seventeenth century doctor on centre stage – although this doctor in the stereotype of the alchemist is more interested in dark arts than straightforward medicine. (The topic of the plague in London is covered very well by Rebecca Rideal in the programme for those who want to be brought up to speed on the background of this disease.) Find Rebecca on twitter @RebeccaRideal and check out her new book!
The basic plot is that Lovewit has left his home in the care of his servant, Jeremy (the con-man Face). Face then enters into a partnership with Subtle and Dol Common to make the most of the empty premises by making money from setting up a fake alchemical doctor’s practice. Face is charged with procuring clients and Subtle will act the role of the doctor. Like all the best farces the key to the action is having several clients on the go at once who must never be allowed to meet in case they compare notes and realise they are being scammed. Clients are ripe for gulling as they want the doctor to help out by supernatural means too, such as the first client Dapper, a lawyer’s clerk, who wants the doctor to summon a ‘familiar spirit’ to help him win at gambling. The wealthiest client is Sir Epicure Mammon who funds experiments into the alchemy of turning base metal into gold. Face persuades Mammon that the doctor is on the verge of success as the process has reached the transmutation stage, and Mammon rushes off to find all the household metal he can ready to have it transformed into precious gold. In this scenario, to further trick Dol plays a gentlewoman who is under the doctor’s care for madness.
Drugger is told he needs to be bathed and fumigated to become fit to meet his familiar, and that before returning he should prepare himself by not eating but instead
Three drops of vinegar, in, at your nose;
Two at your mouth; and one, at either ear;
Then, bath your fingers ends; and, wash your eyes;
To sharpen your five Senses;
Coming from the learned ‘doctor’ Drugger accepts this treatment and agrees to follow it.
Mammon too buys in to the doctor’s skills as a chemical physician, one who follows the principles of Paracelsus and the idea that diseases could be treated with chemical compounds rather than the humoral model of Hippocrates and Galen, telling the sceptical Surly:
O, by this light, no. Do not wrong him. He’s
Too scrupulous, that way: It is his vice.
No, he’s a rare Physician, do him right.
An excellent Paracelsian! and has done
Strange cures with mineral physic. He deals all
With spirits, he, He will not hear a Word
Of Galen, or his tedious Recipes.
Another client Abel Drugger wants help setting out his new tobacco shop, and commissions an astrological chart setting out the most favourable days to do business on and even where to position the shelves in his new premises. He returns later to have the doctor divine a sign for the store. At the time tobacco was often smokes for its health-giving properties, and Face flatters Drugger by telling the ‘doctor’ at length how pure Drugger’s tobacco is. The doctor seeks divine inspiration for the sign and pronounces:
He first shall have a Bell, That’s Abell;
And, by it, standing one, whose name is Dee,
In a rug Gown; There’s D. and Rug, that’s Drug:
And, right against him, a Dog snarling Err;
There’s Drugger, Abel Drugger. That’s his signe
On the stage at The Swan all this is presented in a fast-paced skilled performance. The money tricked from clients is stored in a stuffed crocodile -in another nod to the scientific laboratories of the early modern era, and the gunpowder smells from the exploding pretended attempts to manufacture the philosopher’s stone add to the atmosphere. The audience laughed along as the farce unfolded until all was revealed and the comedy ends as was traditional in a wedding.