Sympathy for the Devil

As Ben Prusiner nears completion of his The Devil is an Ass adaptation for our A Journey with Jonson project, our Artistic Director gives some of her views on the ongoing popularity of devils and demons on stage.

One of the major plot points in Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass hinges on the fact that its gullible central character, Fitzdottrel, desperately wants to meet a real devil. He is fascinated by the idea, thinking that meeting a devil will help him gain further prosperity, but also simply for the novelty factor. The idea that the devil is usually considered evil, scheming, and generally considered not conducive towards the furtherance of a good life is lost on him.

This is, of course, a comic aspect of the situation, but it’s reminiscent of a phenomenon I’ve noticed with medieval drama: almost everyone wants to play the devil or work on the plays with demonic characters. Although there may be an assumption that medieval people would have preferred playing the holy characters (in an era of wider, less contested faith, it is possible there was more cache in playing someone holy than there might be today), there is some evidence that the devils were just as popular then as now. Considering this general trend, Fitzdottrel’s fascination seems less the product of sheer idiocy (although I suspect that the foolishness of it was an intentionally comic aspect) and more a normal human process taken to the extreme. What is it that makes actors want to play demonic parts, that makes audiences find demons some of the most entertaining bits of the show, and that makes Fitzdottrel long to meet one?

There is varied psychological opinion on the matter, about transgression and pushing acceptable social boundaries and such, but I don’t think you need a psychology degree to see that, dramatically, these issues give devils and demons a broader pallet onstage. Modes of movement, speech, and mannerism will be somewhat constrained for a “good” character, whereas if you’re playing one of Hell’s imps, it’s usually permissible to move about, shout, scream, spout gibberish or adopt funny accents, or even scramble your lines a bit – after all, isn’t that just what a devil really would do? For anyone who likes to ham it up a bit, the devil’s your chance. And for audiences who want a laugh rather than a sermon, the devil can often offer a lot more in this area.

For some reason we have come to regard “stillness” with decorum, decency, and goodness. Unfortunately, stillness doesn’t tend to make for especially entertaining theatre, and even with all actors doing exactly what they should for their characters, it’s easy for a lively demon to upstage the most dignified holy personage. It’s one of the things that was picked up by those who were generally against theatre: the audience ends up cheering for the wrong person, and therefore, in Reformation or Puritan-era eyes, theatre is a naughty thing for encouraging such things.

Jonson manages to turn this on its head. His devil-come-to-earth, though earnest in the pursuit of his craft (making mischief), is actually really bad at it, and so the audience can find him amusing without actually siding with the cause of evil (laughing at him, rather than with him). Even more interesting is the fact that, throughout the play, the functional “devil” – the one who causes misery and mischief, and who really does behave like the titular ass – is Fitzdottrel. Not only does he make his long-suffering, loyal wife miserable, but when he does meet an actual devil, he doesn’t believe that Pug is what he claims to be, thereby revealing that he has no clue about the reality of thing he most desperately wishes to encounter; and then he proceeds to make Pug pretty miserable, too.

The interest and attraction of the demonic was more an issue and field of study in Jonson’s time than it had been in the Middle Ages (as exhibited by the simultaneous upswing in accusations of, and books written about, witchcraft), but like all of history it didn’t spring up from nowhere, and Jonson knew that. It has frequently been noted that, earlier in his writings, he had disdained the fashion for theatre about the supernatural, and so his writing of The Devil is an Ass may seem a contradiction of that. I wonder, though, if this play isn’t Jonson mocking his own cynicism: if he finds stage devils unconvincing, would he be any cleverer in spotting a real one than Fitzdottrel? In a sense, Jonson has written a new type of morality play, one defined less by transparent allegory (his characters still bear names suggestive of their personality, in most cases, even if they are not directly representing sins or virtues) and the black-and-white kind of morality offered up by religion, and more by revealing the complexity of right-and-wrong that exists in the real world.

Maybe that is why people of all eras have found the devils of the stage so intriguing. Characters intended to show us virtue often seem unapproachable, an ideal we can never reach, but the demons and devils, who almost never come across as all bad, give us a window into the kind of moral ambiguity that we face every day. Unlike Fitzdottrel (and perhaps Jonson himself) we are less likely, today, to be burdened with the question of whether or not they are real or even realistic; they – and a play like The Devil is an Ass in particular – remind us that evil intentions can yield kind results, that the most well-intended ideas can result in suffering, and that ideas like “good” and “evil” rest at least partially in a disputed space where perception and opinion leave a lot of ambiguity in between.