Changing Face

At the end of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, Jeremy the Butler, who has previously been known to the audience as Face (or is Jeremy the disguise and Face the reality, we’re not entirely clear) seems to address the audience, wrapping up the play and inviting applause:

                                                        Gentlemen,
My part a little fell in this last scene,
Yet ’twas decorum. And though I am clean
Got off from Subtle, Surly, Mammon, Doll,
Hot Ananias, Dapper, Drugger, all
With whom I traded; yet I put myself
On you, that are my country: and this pelf,
Which I have got, if you do quit me, rests
To feast you often and invite new guests.

In the recent Cambridge Ben Jonson edition, the editors, Peter Holland and William Sherman, add the stage direction ‘Addressing the audience’ and this decision makes perfect sense since Jeremy/Face refers to ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘you, that are my country’. Indeed, sometimes the speech is played as an epilogue, with Face alone on stage, as at the Liverpool Playhouse production I saw in October 2012.

Since he has outdone his accomplices, there may be something triumphant about this speech, but his admission that his ‘part a little fell’ might equally undercut any exultation. Face seems to recognize the grubbiness of his actions and he might here register a touch of desperation and relief; he wants to be acquitted of his crimes by the jury of the audience. It’s notable, though, that he speaks in the first person singular – ‘my part’, ‘I am ‘, ‘I traded’, ‘I put myself’, ‘I have got’, ‘quit me’ – making himself the central subject at the close of the play. He takes acclaim for his ingenuity, but he also bears the brunt of the blame. It’s already a wonderful closing speech, but at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, Riding Lights Theatre Company gave it a striking and interesting twist. Instead of talking directly to the audience, Face spoke to Lovewit and Dame Pliant. In the early texts of the play, Lovewit, rather unapologetically, revels in his own ingenuity, before handing over to the ‘knave’ Face, for the final speech. Lovewit need not escape the audience’s approbation, but, at this critical juncture, he seems to distance himself from his servant. At the Belgrade, however, Lovewit and Face were more explicitly associated as accomplices.

At the start of the production, a black gauze curtain, decorated with faces, separated the audience (sat on either side of the stage) from Face, Subtle, and Doll. The three conspirators argue, ripping down the curtains, allowing the audience a better view of the action, and symbolically beginning the gulling process. At the end of the play, the mesh curtains are put back again, as Jeremy/Face completes the house’s restoration. Notably, the staging echoes the play’s opening. Subtle and Doll are gone, of course, but Lovewit and Pliant take their places. Face’s final remark, that he will ‘invite new guests’ suddenly sounds less like a metatheatrical gesture to the audience, imploring them to come back to the theatre to watch the play again (or to tell their friends about the show) and more like the beginnings of a new scam. The issue of Lovewit’s complicity in the gulling has been subtly (pun intended) re-imagined. Indeed, there is a disturbing tonal shift here and the contorted, lurid faces on the gauze which stare back at us offer a potent reminder of the dark heart at the centre of the play.

Local reviews suggest that a number of audience members deserted the production at the interval. Indeed, rather shamefully, one local reviewer admits to leaving at the halfway point. They missed a production which put its own clever twist on Jonson’s twist ending.

This post was adapted and included on the Reviewing Shakespeare website. You can access the review, which features more thoughts about the production, here.

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