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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Insomnia again; playwright Ben Jonson

Terrible terrible terrible. Insomnia is yet more proof of an absent or malicious divine being (as though teeth weren't enough). If the cosmos is going to hand this fucking disease out to people they should at least be perpetually 26-year-old trust-fund babies whose relatives are all dead and whose friends are all extremely deferential so they never have to do anything at a particular hour and can at least get some blessed sleep when they finally drop over. People who can buy heroin when they really just want to nod off. Space monsters who need not sleep but blood. But no, it just gets handed out at random, so you just don't sleep for a week.

Then again, I could just blame Ben Jonson. I didn't get home from seeing his comedy play till 11 PM, it's almost 4 in the morning now, and I'm still all riled up. I think that's my real problem, not some made-up brain disorder. Even if he's been dead for almost 400 years, sure, why not, blame him.

I just discovered Jonson this week; yeah, I know, I claim that I speak English so I should know more about Elizabethan drama, but I should know more about a lot of things. He was the first poet laureate of England (before the term was properly invented) and wrote Volpone, one of the most famous satires of his time. And I didn't know who he was till I ran into the fine Chicago actor Don Bender, who told me there was a rarely-produced Elizabethan drama starring his person playing at a theater in my neighborhood, and this was closing weekend. He gave me a 2-for-1 ticket voucher (I just decided in my head that deal seats for great plays at off-Loop theaters should at least be considered a minor economic indicator) so I agreed to come.

The person who was going to split the ticket with me canceled, and I was going to stay in my house and watch King Lear on Netflix streaming, but then I decided I needed a mission for the night, and boy, I'm glad I did. I got in at a very discounted price anyway, and I had the time of my life. Bender warned me the intermission was an hour and a half in, and I swear it was the shortest ninety minutes of my life. When I got to the theater I ran into D'wayne Taylor, another greatly enjoyable and underemployed Chicago theater actor with whom I've briefly shared a day job, and I told him the Italian names on the character list looked like lampoons of character names from Plautus.

By the end of the play I thought: Wow. If only I could be half that on the money twice a year, I'd be a millionaire. How you top Plautus is the question on every silly person's lips, and clearly it was up Ben Jonson's pen.

Plautus was the ancient Roman comic playwright who worked the hell out of the 'clever slave' character and the 'greedy potential heirs circling the dying rich guy' theme in his day. (Or in the latter am I conflating him with Horatio? I don't remember anything, I don't sleep anymore.) I think Plautus is funny as heck, but Ben Jonson seems to have read him and said to himself, "Hm, so I think I'm pretty much a genius, so I'll just take this Plautus stuff and make it even more awesome by messing with people's heads and not ending this anything like someone who's read Plautus would guess."

I should have seen he was going to throw a big curveball when he switched the clever slave formula up from the start. The clever slave is usually servant to a young master, who's trying to get around a mean father or potential father-in-law to marry the girl of his dreams. He faithfully (even if he gets some digs in at the usually quite stupid young hero along the way; think Jeeves and Wooster) helps his master out without substantially questioning the social order, though he's often the most sympathetic character in the play.

In Volpone, however, the title character is a wealthy, old but vigorous man, who gets his clever servant Mosca to help him in his schemes -- the first of which is definitely not love. Volpone has no children, so each of his clients believes he has a shot at the estate. (This was a not-uncommon theme in Roman comedy and other writing.) He wants to leverage extra valuable gifts out of his greedy potential heirs by pretending to be near death and in the process of writing his final will. When the vultures come around, the old fox puts on his cap and lies in his bed in a phony half-cadavarous state while Mosca assures each macabre suitor in turn that he will, indeed, soon enjoy Volpone's entire estate as long as the pearls and plate keep flowing in as a show of their "affection." When each leaves, Volpone gets up and scampers around laughing, remarking how greed engenders its own punishment. He doesn't plan to die anytime soon.

There is a love plot, but it looks like a Plautus love plot that's been smacked upside the head with a cricket bat. Volpone is momentarily turned away from his satirical schemes of revenge on those who would have his fortune when he catches a glimpse of one heir's beautiful wife, whom the heir keeps locked in her room because he's madly jealous. Volpone falls in love, and Mosca cooks up a scheme in which he uses the heir's own greed to get him to force his own wife -- suddenly forgetting his jealousy and ignoring her attempts to protect her honor -- to lie in Volpone's bed with him as part of a quack cure cooked up by a physician. Of course, the minute he's left alone with her Volpone springs from the bed and begins first to seduce, then to violate her. Mid-rape, however, another potential heir's good-looking but stupid son -- whom Mosca has brought to the estate as part of another sneaky subplot -- hears her cries, wounds Mosca, ruins Volpone's voluptuousness, and saves the girl.

There's a court scene, and it looks like Volpone's going down for bodysnatching, but another of Volpone's would-be suitors is a lawyer, and Mosca gets him to turn it around on the young wife and the young bachelor. By this time in a traditional Plautus-type play, the two attractive but insipid young people would be safely married. Instead, they await sentencing, she as a trollop and he as a would-be parricide.

OK, that's enough spoilers; I know, you watch these things for the way they get to their endings, not what the endings actually are, but the surprises in this Elizabethan take on the clever butler and the greedy heirs are part of what made it special for me. Let's just say there's a really clever twist on the master-servant tradition and an unexpected but satisfying ending, and I'm really psyched to have found out about this playwright, and call it a night, because I haven't slept in two days. (Wow, that was a lot more pleasant than my drowning-in-a-port-a-potty insomnia post.)

1 comment:

  1. Coppola used the name 'Mosca' for an assassin in The Godfather part 3. The Eli Wallach character hired Mosca to shoot Al Pacino, but of course, Mosca missed Al Pacino, instead hitting Sofia Coppola. Next, the world had to suffer through 'virgin suicides,' 'Lost in Translation,' 'Marie Antoinette,' and many others...not to mention Coppola's closing remarks in 'Hearts of Darkness: A filmmaker's apockyclips,' wherein Coppola said, "The world is becoming more democratic." Ha ha ha ha ha. I think coppola set Godfather III in 1980 as an homage to the 1980 crime gangster classic "the Long Good friday."


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