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.

So, What Do You Really Think?

As both a theatre director and historian, our Artistic Director has a variety of experience looking at the sincerity and manipulation of beliefs – themes which are present in both parts of A Journey with Jonson. Here are some of her thoughts.

Among the many things that is shared by theatre and studying history is the challenge of getting inside someone else’s head. Both often involve trying to come to terms with the possible reasons why people do certain things. In theatre about the past, there is an extra difficulty: not only is it a matter of trying to make sense of another person’s thinking, but it is about doing so when their entire world view, the matrix of their society and culture, was different. And yet, there are questions about what people actually thought which were probably just as valid in earlier times as now; the difference, perhaps, is that we are more comfortable with articulating them.

One of these unspoken questions is at the heart of Ben and Steenie, and is further explored in The Devil is an Ass: what do people actually believe, when are they putting on the appearance of a belief for their own personal agenda, and when are they using the belief of others for pragmatic reasons? If you’re a political or religious leader, do you truly buy everything you say? Or, with your “behind the scenes” knowledge, is true belief set aside for political reality?

Few occasions in history illustrate the possible views on these questions as well as the issue of witchcraft in the early modern period, and an accusation of witchcraft is one of the significant plot threads of Ben and Steenie. There seems to be a general consensus that many people of the era very sincerely believed in the presence and malevolence of witches among ordinary citizens – including, for at least some of his life, King James I/VI. But those frequently accused of being witches tended to be those (largely women) who in some way didn’t conform to community norms, so their accusations could be either the assumption that this nonconformity in some way truly indicated an evil presence, or was a more cynical attempt at bringing recalcitrant neighbours to heel through fear (without the actual belief that they were dabbling in black magic). Revenge for perceived wrongs – a direct abuse of the system – is another possible reason why someone might be accused, as is the case in Ben and Steenie, although in the play it isn’t entirely clear that this is in opposition to genuine belief; most of these situations aren’t mutually exclusive.

While Ben and Steenie silently posits these questions, and gives the audience different answers, The Devil is an Ass is Jonson’s more overt iteration of the issue. The play rolls its eyes at those who would believe anything and everything, but it also pokes fun at those who would take advantage of that blind belief. The fact that Fitzdotterel’s desire to meet a devil is patently ridiculous is also turned on its ear somewhat by the fact that, in the world of the play, devils are real, and Fitzdotterel’s wish is – unbeknownst to him – granted; Merecraft’s schemes sound absurd but aren’t as far off from real ventures as might be assumed.

One play approaches the questions of belief, sincerity, gullibility, and manipulation from a gleefully comic standpoint and the other from a more serious angle. There are no definite answers, as one can only know the answers within their own personal experiences. From our standpoint in production, the functional question is what an actor makes of these matters, and what answers he or she assigns to the part being played. These are the kind of choices that make acting the craft that it is. And the chance to explore different potential permutations of these questions is one of the great joys of working on plays about past eras. It may never give any definitive answers, but it offers insight into possibility.

Why choose ‘The Devil is an Ass’?

Our new production project, A Journey With Jonson, will include two shows – a piece of new writing about Ben Jonson’s life and his own The Devil is an Ass. Below our Artistic Director explains some of her reasoning for choosing this play.

In just about any field, it’s pretty normal for there to be ideas that the academic community has largely rejected, to which the general public still clings. This is especially true if you’re in a niche field that doesn’t get a lot of press through which to reveal developments. Theatre history definitely suffers from this lag, and so the idea that there are fairly hard and fast delineations between one era of drama and another often persist. The notion that it’s an inexorably forward-moving evolution – drama in churches leading to mystery plays giving rise to more secular moralities morphing into classically informed interludes which suddenly give way to the completely public theatre and, poof, suddenly there’s Shakespeare – tends to be a narrative that sticks around. In the context of drama historians, it’s a narrative that is, at best, a vast oversimplification, but it hangs on because it’s neat and tidy.

The reference to medieval drama that most people know – without realising it – is the “rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, their shorthand title alone telling you how people viewed medieval plays. That stuff was de classe, old hat, only fit for bumblers by Shakespeare’s sophisticated day, right? But not all of his contemporaries had dismissed all things medieval in such a fashion.

When it came to choosing a project to follow Mankind, we knew we wanted to move out of the Middle Ages, but without such a seismic shift that it unsettled everyone. One step at a time. We’d been interested in Jonson for a while, for various reasons, and The Devil Is An Ass was practically made to order.

It’s not a morality play. The majority of it is focused on real – if periodically absurd – people, who aren’t representing humanity as a group but who are decidedly individual. It’s also not divorced from the morality tradition. The first scene opens in Hell, with demons and allegorical vice characters. The actions of the demon Pug influence and affect those of the worldly people throughout the play. It’s impossible to not see the demonic scenes as a connection to the medieval morality plays.

The virtues are missing. Virtue is provided by certain human characters, in differing degree, although none of it is morally unambiguous – which is perhaps the biggest step away from the black-and-white ethics of morality plays. Additionally, the fact that Pug is completely inept – a fairly significant point – undermines reverence for the concept of embodied, allegorical evil. But it’s not the morality play tradition Jonson is mocking, because he’s still using it effectively through these scenes. His commentary is not that the plays were bad; rather, he is pointing out that a world-view which suggests that good or evil is disconnected from human agency is in error, that life is not made up of absolute virtue or inescapable viciousness. Those who start out with questionable motives can change, while those whose intentions are malicious may end up fostering decency – and those groups of people are all one and the same.

The Devil is an Ass gives us a bridge into theatre beyond the medieval period and some of its moral clichés, without kicking over the traces so hard we lose the thread of the plot. It has the extra advantages of being really enjoyable (without which we wouldn’t have considered it, despite its other utilities!), and it’s not exactly played out. Upon reading it, it was in fact quite surprising to realise just how slight its performance history has been, historically – it seems like the sort of early modern play you may expect to be more popular. I suspect that something else it might share with Mankind is a more harsh judgement historically than we might be inclined to give it today, when our minds are (I hope) a bit more open, and when we’re more willing to take a new look at old things.