The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)

The Alchemist is a plague play. Not only was it written in 1610, when the London theatres were closed (yet again) for (yet another) outbreak of plague, but the plot itself derives from that fact. The master of the house, Lovewit, has (like everyone else who can afford it) fled London and is waiting at his country seat for the plague to abate (his retreat appears to be in Kent; he is said to be waiting in his ‘hop-yards’). In the meantime his housekeeper, Face, has invited a conman, Subtle, and a prostitute, Doll Common, to come and stay in the house in a kind of joint criminal enterprise, persuading a series of gullible victims that Subtle is a renowned alchemist who will supply each of them the Philosopher’s Stone and make their dreams come true… for a price.

The cast

The three crooks

SUBTLE, the alchemist
FACE, the Housekeeper
DOL COMMON, their Colleague

The gulls or dupes

DAPPER, a Lawyer’s Clerk
DRUGGER, a Tobacco Man
SIR EPICURE MAMMON, a Knight
PERTINAX SURLY, a Gamester
TRIBULATION WHOLESOME, a Pastor of Amsterdam
ANANIAS, a Deacon there
KASTRIL, the angry Boy
DAME PLIANT, his Sister, a Widow.

The absent master

LOVEWIT, Master of the House

The plot

Act 1

Scene 1 The play opens in media res, with typically Jonsonian energy, as the three crooks stumble onstage in the middle of a flaring row, Face and Subtle throwing insults at each other, Face claiming to have rescued Subtle from absolute desperation, having found him on the streets in rags looking like ‘the father of hunger’, Subtle claiming to have set up the successful con scheme and made Face a fortune – both of them being told by a frustrated Doll to calm down and that by arguing they risk provoking the neighbours to call the constables.

The verbal energy in the abuse is invigorating and reminds us that formal contests of abuse were a recognised genre in medieval and renaissance literature, called flyting. They argue until Doll eventually grabs Face’s sword and ‘breaks Subtle’s glass’, calling them an ‘abominable pair of stinkards’, and reminding them they are all equal partners in the ‘venture tripartite’ and when Subtle, once again claims he plays the lead role, as the fake alchemist, Doll is so infuriated she flies at him and starts to strangle her till he cries quits and

They eventually argue themselves to a standstill and listen to Doll telling them they have to work together when there’s a knock at the door!

Scene 2 Enter Dapper, a ‘quodling’ i.e. innocent young man who has got into conversation in a pub with Face who says he knows a man can conjure a spirit to help him (Dapper) at his gambling. (I thought the name Dapper rang a bell and it is the name of Sir Davy Dapper and his son Jack Dapper, in Middleton’s play The Roaring Girl). Face makes a great pretense of claiming Subtle is a learned man who is almost to particular in his alchemical practice and then introduces Dapper (with sly humour) as:

FACE:Good deeds, sir… ‘Slight, I bring you
No cheating Clim o’ the Cloughs or Claribels,
That look as big as five-and-fifty, and flush;
And spit out secrets like hot custard,
Nor any melancholic under-scribe,
Shall tell the vicar; but a special gentle,
That is the heir to forty marks a year,
Consorts with the small poets of the time,
Is the sole hope of his old grandmother;
That knows the law, and writes you six fair hands,
Is a fine clerk, and has his cyphering perfect.
Will take his oath o’ the Greek Testament,
If need be, in his pocket; and can court
His mistress out of Ovid.

The verbal vigour of the play, the exuberance of its characters, is infectious and compelling. Face and Subtle make a wonderful double act, persuading the gullible Dapper that he was born under a lucky star, that he is related to the Queen of Fairy no less. They extort four angels from him (Jacobean coins), making pretense that Face is having to force them on Subtle, who makes a big show of warning Face that, if they give Dapper this power, he will ruin every gambler in the city and win all his bets – before telling him to return at 1 to carry out the full and elaborate ceremony which will raise him a familiar or lucky spirit.

Scene 3 Next to arrive is Abel Drugger, the not-too-bright pharmacist who is about to set up a new shop and has come to ask advice from the alchemist on how to arrange it, where to put the doors and windows and shelves. Subtle invokes contemporary learning about faces and hands (each one with its own tutelary spirit) to bamboozle the simple man.

(This is all played for laughs but as Subtle quoted obscure terms from contemporary books of alchemy etc in order to tell Drugger how to arrange his shop, I realised we still do exactly this today – it is called feng shui and, once again, requires a supposedly special mystical knowledge, dressed up in a foreign language).

Subtle promises Drugger that if he follows his instructions it will become the most popular apothecary’s in London, and they then extract a gold coin (a ‘portague’) as a down-payment. He also asks if Subtle can look over his almanac to tell him which days he should and should not trade on.

When Drugger leaves, Face repeats the accusations the play opened with, namely that Subtle thinks of himself as the supremo of these scams and yet it takes a lot of time, effort and money to seek out and latch onto such stupid gulls and bring them to him, and therefore he (Face) deserves a larger share of the loot. This is the basis of the argument between them.

Scene 4 A short one in which Doll runs to tell Subtle that she’s spied Sir Epicure Mammon waddling towards them from the end of the lane, and gives Subtle the opportunity to explain that today is the day when Subtle is due to hand over The Philosopher’s Stone to Mammon, who is already fantasising about wandering round London offering miracle cures to lepers and beggars and infertile women.

Act 2

Scene 1 Sir Epicure Mammon rolls up in front of the house and delivers a wonderful monologue to his sceptical follower, Surly, about all the wonders he will perform once he has the Philosopher’s Stone and can turn any metal into gold and can restore men to their youth and then a fantastical tour of the ancient world proving how every legend from Jason to Pandora, are but refractions of the wonder of the stone. Surly doesn’t believe a word.

Scene 2 Enter Face, from the house, dressed as a man who pumps bellows to keep a fire alight, and pretending to be working hard to maintain the heat required to produce the stone. Mammon calls him ‘Puff’ and ‘Lungs’ and says he will set him free from his master in order to come and supervise his harem, for Mammon intends to establish a vast harem, and to give himself magical powers of stamina, and a strong back, so he can make love to 50 women a night! He will, of course, have to geld Face. Face nods wisely at all this. Mammon’s speech swells into a cornucopia of sensual pleasures.

We will be brave, Puffe, now we have the med’cine.
My meat shall all come in, in Indian shells,
Dishes of agat set in gold, and studded
With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies.
The tongues of carps, dormice, and camels’ heels,
Boil’d in the spirit of sol, and dissolv’d pearl,
Apicius’ diet, ‘gainst the epilepsy:
And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber,
Headed with diamond and carbuncle.
My foot-boy shall eat pheasants, calver’d salmons,
Knots, godwits, lampreys: I myself will have
The beards of barbels served, instead of sallads;
Oil’d mushrooms; and the swelling unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off,
Drest with an exquisite, and poignant sauce;
For which, I’ll say unto my cook, “There’s gold,
Go forth, and be a knight.”

Surly points out that he who creates the Philosopher’s Stone must be pure and virginal. Yes, says Mammon cutting across the difficulty – but I’m not going to make it, I’m going to buy it. As the introduction points out, this is a play about money and greed and people’s readiness to do anything, and believe anything, to be rich.

Scene 3 Enter Subtle. The comedy in this scene is that Subtle pretends to be fantastically pure and high-minded and pretends to spot slips and hints in Mammon’s speech that the latter is covetous and greedy – at which Mammon furiously backtracks and emphasises he will use the stone purely to do good works.

MAMMON: No, I assure you,
I shall employ it all in pious uses,
Founding of colleges and grammar schools,
Marrying young virgins, building hospitals,
And now and then a church.

Surly looks on with profound scepticism which is exacerbated as he listens to Face and Subtle have an extended and jargon-ridden exchange about the umpteen pipes and retorts and alembics and burners (later they are listed as ‘Retorts, receivers, pelicans, bolt-heads,’) which are bubbling away in their laboratory from which it slowly emerges that something is not going right and they require more money.

‘You don’t say’, comments Surly, smelling a rat, whereas Mammon is desperately keen to hand over another nine or ten pounds of gold, and Subtle launches into a really massive theoretical justification of alchemy including an explanation of how gold comes about, naturally, in the bowels of the earth, but he knows the way to hasten this natural process, followed by a lengthy explanation of why the art requires such arcane terms, in order to protect it from the vulgar multitude.

They tell Mammon to bring everything iron in his house, his andirons and spit jacks, everything, so it can be turned to gold. Presumably the crooks intend to pawn it for cash.

In a further elaboration of their plotting against the gullible and self-deceiving Mammon, the pair cause Doll to briefly appear onstage before Subtle angrily tells Face to take her away. Mammon, the sensualist, is aroused at the sight of a nubile lady, even for only a minute and asks about her, whereupon Face spins an elaborate yarn that Doll is a noblewoman, a most rare scholar driven mad by studying the works of a famous alchemist, Hugh Broughton.

Hooked, Mammon gives Face money if he will mention him (Mammon) to her and praise him. (There is a deliberate disjuntion between Mammon’s verbal fantasies of being a second Solomon walking naked amid his harem, and the sordid reality of him paying Face to meet up with a prostitute.) This Doll episode convinces Surly that Subtle is a fake and this is a bawdy house.

In order to complexify the plot, Face takes Surly aside and asks him to meet Captain Face at a pub later that day (at which point we realise that Face is really meant to be utterly disguised as the bellows-man, ‘Lungs’).

Scene 4 Face explains to the others that his intention is to win the sceptical Surly round. They tell Doll she must play the part of a grand lady for Mammon, and she tells them not to worry, she knows all the tricks.

Scene 5 Enter another gull or mark or victim, a Puritan named Ananias in fact, to be precise, he is an Anabaptist, a heretical Protestant sect which arose in Germany in the 1530s but whose members were forced into exile. In a historical note, the area of Blackfriars (between St Paul’s cathedral and the river) a) was famous for its Puritans, b) it’s where Jonson himself lived for a while, and c) it was the location of the theatre where we think this play was first performed – so it was super-relevant to its first audience.

Subtle adopts a different, more religiose tone with him and, when Ananias recoils from his ‘heathenish’ use of alchemical terms, Subtle gets Face to trot through an impressive exposition of alchemical terms and concepts. Ananias is:

Please you, a servant of the exiled brethren,
That deal with widows’ and with orphans’ goods,
And make a just account unto the saints:
A deacon.

sent from the amusingly named Tribulation Wholesome. His congregation are hoping Subtle will make a philosopher’s stone for them, too, but when Subtle asks for more funds, complains that they’ve already given him thirty pounds of materials. Looking for a way to turn the situation, Subtle discovers the man’s name is Ananias and fakes outrage that the Elders have sent him a man named after the high priest who condemned Jesus in the gospel story.

Scene 6 Enter Drugger the pharmacist. Subtle concocts a sign for his new shop which plays on his name, and for which they extract more money. Drugger confesses he is in love with a young woman in his neighbourhood, a widow. He goes on to explain she has a brother, newly 21 and just inherited property worth 3,000 a year. Subtle and Face spy an opening and tell Drugger they’ll work to win him her favour. He gives them more money and leaves, at which they instantly insult him and say they will win the woman and her inheritance for one of them.

Act 3

Scene 1 A dialogue between Ananias and his superior in the Anabaptists, Tribulation Wholesome in which the latter explains that 1) Subtle may not be the heathen Ananias thinks him, maybe has has been soiled by his trade i.e. working with fire (later on Face refers to him as ‘black boy’ – presumably he has a sooty face), 2) explains their motivation, namely that many non-conforming ministers were excommunicated and forbidden from preaching by the Hampton Court Conference called soon after James’s accession, in 1604. The point being, they want to use the philosopher’s stone to produce gold to bribe secular magistrates into permitting their ‘silenced’ brethren to preach again.

Scene 2 Subtle joins them. He listens to Wholesome and makes him extravagant promises about what the philosopher’s stone will enable him to do, namely cure and heal people and so gain temporal power and influence (whenever Ananias chips in, Subtle turns on him and scolds him)

Subtle gives a long list of the odd and affected behaviours and secret hypocrisies which public opinion attributed to the Puritans, saying possession of the philosopher’s stone will mean they no longer have to practice them, with Wholesome and Ananias nodding in agreement and the audience laughing their heads off at the Puritans’ naked hypocrisy. Subtle manages to persuade them to contribute another 100 marks to buy alchemical equipment.

Scene 3 Face enters (in his disguise as a captain) to tell Subtle he’s irritated because Surly never showed up at their rendezvous at the Temple church. The good news is that ‘a noble Count, a Don of Spain’, laden with treasure, is on his way to court ‘our Dol’. How does he know? Someone handed him a message when he was waiting for Surly… Mmm.. I wonder if it’s Surly in disguise, planning to expose them as con-men.

Scene 4 Dapper arrives. He is expecting the Fairy Queen. Doll has to run off and get changed before Face opens the door to Dapper. Face is promising him the Fairy Queen will make him the most successful gambler in London when Drugger arrives, with Kastril, the brother of the widow he mentioned earlier.

Kastril is a recognisable type – a brash, crude young man, he’s come to town to learn how to swear and quarrel and smoke like the other roaring boys, and yet is touchingly naive and innocent – he won’t go to a pub because he has heard there is gambling there!

Anyway, Face bamboozles him with wild stories of how Subtle has made the poorest young men rich beyond their dreams and winds Kastril up to such a wild pitch he runs off to fetch his widowed sister. Then Face dispatched Drugger to get the length of damask cloth he’d promised them.

This leaves Face alone with Dapper. They told Dapper to wash with vinegar in preparation for his audience with the Fairy Queen, and he has, and has bought ‘six score Edward shillings’ and an old Harry’s sovereign and three James shillings and an Elizabeth groat. Would that our current money was so interesting!

Scene 5 Enter Subtle dressed as a priest of fairy who ensures Dapper has made the necessary preliminaries, they blindfold him and make him throw off all his valuables (purse, rings) then dance around him pretending to be fairies and insisting he throw off absolutely all his valuables.

They haven’t even got as far as introducing Doll dressed as the Fairy Queen, when she hisses through the window that Sir Epicure Mammon has arrived. Oops, that’s torn it! As he knocks at the door Face has to run over and speak through it saying he needs to get Subtle out of the way so Mammon can talk to Doll, so go for a few turns up & down the street… then he hurriedly changes into his outfit as ‘Lungs’.

Subtle and Face then persuade blindfolded Dapper that the Fairy Queen is eating and will see him presently. They furiously ad lib and decide he can be gagged with some gingerbread and stashed somewhere – where? the privy! They tell him it is all perfumed and ready for him, ‘Only the fumigation’s somewhat strong’. No sooner have they locked Dapper in the toilet, than Face runs over to the front door to let Mammon in.

Act 4

Scene 1 A comic scene in which Mammon, the overblown sensualist, woos Doll, enumerating her virtues and beauties, while Face stands to one side commentating, knowing she is a common whore.  When she points out his power to create wealth will threaten the authorities, Mammon paints a fantastic image of them moving to some free, fantasy country where they will live on unheard-of luxuries, in a bravura speech speech:

We’ll therefore go withal, my girl, and live
In a free state, where we will eat our mullets,
Soused in high-country wines, sup pheasants’ eggs,
And have our cockles boil’d in silver shells;
Our shrimps to swim again, as when they liv’d,
In a rare butter made of dolphins’ milk,
Whose cream does look like opals; and with these
Delicate meats set ourselves high for pleasure,
And take us down again, and then renew
Our youth and strength with drinking the elixir,
And so enjoy a perpetuity
Of life and lust!

Face enters to tell Mammon he is getting very loud, please to be quieter and go within. Doll and Mammon exit.

Scene 2 To make way for Kastril, the country heir who would be a city gallant, and his bashful sister the widow, Dame Pliant. When Kastril begins to make objections, Subtle interrupts him to play the part of teacher and explains to him how to make an argument, and then turns to the widow and flatters her, saying she is made to be kissed, and kissing her. He reads the lines in her hand and tells her she is destined for a military man.

At that moment, enter Face dressed up in his Captain uniform and he praises both Kastril and Dame Pliant, impressing both, but gets to whisper to Subtle that the Spanish Don has arrived! Hastily they fabricate a plan – Subtle will take Kastril and Pliant to his rooms where he will show them the rules of quarrelling and a magic mirror, while Face deals with the Don.

Scene 3 Subtle has taken the pair to his room and returns for an argument with Face. The scene brings out how, amid the frantic juggling of their victims, the pair are jostlingly rivalrous, quick to spot if either is gaining an advantage over the other. The arrival of Dame Pliant adds flames to the mix, because both now want to win her and are jealous of the slightest advantage the other gains… But they agree their plan and jointly greet the Don.

This Spanish Don is, in fact, Mammon’s sceptical friend, Surly, disguised in a comically exaggerate Spanish costume with an enormous ruff: ‘He speaks out of a fortification’, as Face puts it. There is the familiar but still very funny comic device that, once the Don starts speaking Spanish, Face and Subtle, at first timidly, and then with mounting confidence, insult and abuse him to his face in English, confident that he cannot understand. But of course, he can

But then they realise they are facing a pressing problem: the Don has arrived to fulfil the promise of seeing the beautiful senorita (Doll) but Doll is busy inside with Mammon. And the Don is getting impatient. Face has a brainwave. What about the widow, Dame Pliant, who’s just arrived with Kastril? Why not serve up Dame Pliant to the Don, he gets his woman, she gets a glorious knight, both pay our crooks?

This leads to a furious row between Face and Subtle who had both wanted the widow for themselves, but  the Don is getting impatient so they are forced to make a hurried deal, and Face runs off to get the widow.

Scene 4 Enter Kastril and Dame Pliant, who they all set about persuading that she should let herself be wooed by he Don, with Face and Subtle competing to paint the most grandiloquent picture of her wealth and eminence if she marries him – a coach and horses and fine clothes – whereas if she doesn’t, she’ll be a street vendor in a year. Her brother joins in the bullying and so, reluctantly, she acquiesces and goes over to the Don, who continues to address her in Spanish. They exit into the garden, apparently, while Subtle tells Kastril they should now go to his room where he can commence his lessons on how to argue and quarrel like a well-bred Londoner.

Scene 5 Cut to Mammon with Doll. Now you might have thought she would be seducing him for his money but in fact she is playing out the part allotted her of intelligent, educated woman who has been driven mad by learning and Face enters the room (having quickly changed his disguise to ‘Lungs’) to find Doll obsessively monologuing about Egyptian history and the fifth monarchy while Mammon is at his wits end to get her to stop. Face and he talk at the same time as Doll’s monologue and then they hear Subtle coming and all flee.

All except Mammon who Subtle discovers, trying to hide from him. Subtle immediately plays the role of the chaste and spiritual alchemist who is disappointed to find his favourite son engaged in some hole-in-a-corner bawdry. No wonder, Subtle grandly proclaims, the alchemy in the laboratory is going badly, if Mammon has brought spiritual impurity into the house!

THE GREAT EXPLOSION – A loud crack is heard within, and Face comes running in to say everything has exploded – ‘Retorts, receivers, pelicans, bolt-heads’ – all destroyed as if a bolt has come from heaven! Subtle faints and when he comes round, claims the great destruction was due to Mammon’s infidelity and licentiousness and Mammon believes him!

MAMMON: O, my voluptuous mind! I am justly punish’d.
FACE. And so am I, sir.
MAMMON: Cast from all my hopes—
FACE. Nay, certainties, sir.
MAMMON: By mine own base affections.

Face tells him the distressed noblewoman (i.e. Doll)’s brother is arriving, he will be angry if he discovers Mammon is wooing his sister, he’d better leave in a hurry. Is there no recompense Mammon can make? Well, says Face boldly, give a hundred pounds to the charity box at Bedlam Hospital for the insane – Mammon agrees – Face says he’ll send someone round to collect it later that day. Exit Mammon.

Our crooked pair congratulate themselves on having got one problem out of the way. Now to the Spanish Don and his wooing of the widow Pliant.

Scene 6 Surly is with Dame Pliant. He has thrown off his Spanish disguise and is explaining to her what a pack of crooks Subtle and Face are. Subtle comes in, is complacently rude to the Don (thinking he understands no English) and begins to pick his pockets when Surly throws him to the floor and berates him in English. ‘Help! Murder!’ cries a horrified Subtle. Face enters and is horrified to discover the Spanish Don is in fact Surly, who now gives a long list of the ways Face scams his victims in pubs. Face slips out again but when Subtle tries to, Surly grabs him.

Scene 7 Then Face r-enters accompanied by Kastril, and tells him that Surly is an imposter, come here on false pretences to seduce his sister. Face tells Kastril to practice his new-found quarrelling skills on him. Now Surly finds himself facing a united front of Face, Subtle and Kastril, who all start shouting at him.

With perfect comic timing, this is when the Puritan Ananias enters proclaiming the standard Puritan greeting: ‘Peace to the household!’ Ananias instantly tells from Surley’s preposterous Spanish ruffs and sill hat (!) that he is a Catholic and therefore of the Anti-Christ. Confronted by this wall of opposition, Surly has to retreat and exits. Comically, Kastril asks Face and Subtle if he quarrelled and argued like a professional. They praise him while, in fact, all he did was throw abuse.

Anyway, Kastril exits and now Face turns to sort out Drugger. He tells Drugger that they had intended him to play the part of a Spanish nobleman in order to win Dame Pliant’s heart. Has he a Spanish outfit? They dispatch him to go and find one.

That leaves the crooked duo with Ananias. The joke here is that Ananias reports that the Elders and the Brethren of the Separation (i.e. their congregation) have determined that coining money is not unlawful (to them; it is, of course, illegal according to the laws of the land). In other words, that they have piously and hypocritically decided it is alright to break the law. Subtle is pleased to act for them, but says it can’t be at this house, the Brethren must suggest another location – and so Ananias exists and Face and Subtle are finally alone, well, except for the widow, Dame Pliant, who is inside somewhere being hosted by Doll in the guise of noblewoman.

But at that moment Doll enters to tell them… the master of the house is back! He is outside, surrounded by forty neighbours! Face as usual, is the man with a plan. Subtle shall shave him to restore him to (we now discover) the character of smooth-faced Jeremy, the house servant. Face/Jeremy will put the master off for as long as he can, while Subtle and Doll pack up all their goods into a couple of trunks which they’ll have taken to the river and conveyed downstream to Ratcliffe, where they can all rendezvous in a day or two.

Act 5

Scene 1 A crowd of neighbours buzz round the master of the house, Lovewit, telling him about all the strange comings and goings and how none of them have seen Jeremy the butler for a month or more. Lovewit knocks on his own front door.

Scene 2 To his surprise, Jeremy (Face) opens it and proceeds, straight-faced, to tell his master he has been absent from the house for a month or more, and acts astonished when the neighbours insist they’ve seen so many strange comings and goings. Jeremy/Face pretends to be astonished when Lovewit retails the neighbours’ stories of endless comings and goings, saying it is all news to him. And indeed, in a nice touch of satire, the neighbours themselves begin to doubt their own testimonies and to downplay them, and Lovewit impatiently calls them changelings who are so unreliable.

Scene 3 So things were looking up when suddenly Mammon and Surly appear. Face pushes Lovewit inside just as Mammon and Surly arrive at the front door. Surly has fully explained to Mammon the scale of the imposture played on him and Mammon is furious. They knock at the door and Face/Jeremy opens it bold as brass, claims to know nothing of any Captain or alchemist, suggests they have the wrong house and, as they become angry, produces Lovewit as the true master of the house who, of course, knows nothing about them.

Hardly have they been put off than arrives Kastril, the angry boy, who bangs loudly on the door and insists on seeing his sister. And then Ananias and Tribulation, the Anabaptists, who also knock angrily on the door. When Lovewit appears at the door to appease them, they decide to fetch the officers and exit.

Face is still trying to persuade Lovewit that these visitors must be mad, when they both hear the voice of Dapper crying out from inside the house. Oops, everyone had forgotten him. Remember how they’d promised him he would meet the Fairy Queen and Face and Subtle had blindfolded him and gagged him with gingerbread, while they sorted out all their other visitors. Well, clearly the gingerbread has melted/been eaten and now he’s shouting.

When Subtle starts shouting at Dapper to shut up, Face can’t help hissing at both of them to be quiet and Truewit finally realises something is really up, and demands Face tell him the truth. He emphasises that he is a tolerant and forgiving master, just tell. So Face admits that he has been entertaining guests, but focuses on the fact that there is a widow currently within the house (Dame Pliant), a rich widow, who Lovewit can woo and win if he dresses up as a Spaniard.

Scene 4 Surprisingly, the scene cuts to the room where Dapper is, where Subtle enters and asks what happened to his gag, and where Face joins them. They both promise Dapper he will see the Fairy Queen and lo and behold, enter Doll dressed as the Queen. Subtle bids Dapper kneel and abase himself and kiss her skirts.

Doll performs impressively as the Queen, blessing Dapper and giving him a fly-familiar (?) to wear around his neck. Subtle tells him to prick his wrist to draw blood to feed the fly, once a week, and the magic fly will make him win every game of chance he plays. Subtle suggests that in a week’s time he brings them the first thousand pounds of his winnings, as fee. In fact, why doesn’t he give away his wretched inheritance of forty marks a year? To him, Subtle? ‘I will, I will’ says Dapper, kisses the Queen’s hem as she departs, then himself runs off to get the legal documents to sign over his inheritance.

He has barely left before Drugger is at the door with the Spanish suit they asked him for earlier. Subtle gives it to Face who runs off (I think) to give it to Truewit to woo Dame Pliant in. With Face out the way, Subtle tells Doll of his plan. Once they have packed up all their treasures and shipped by boat, instead of going to Ratcliffe, they’ll head west to Brentford, and escape Face, who they are both sick of. Doll agrees. She’ll go now and tell Dame Pliant to hand over rings and treasures to please the Doctor (i.e. Subtle) then they’ll abandon her and quit the house. They seal the deal with a kiss.

Face enters at precisely that point, spots them kissing, tells them Drugger is back with the parson they told him to get, runs off to sort it out – Doll and Subtle think he (Face) is planning to marry Dame Pliant in haste, but moments later he is back. The trunks are packed and all three go through the inventory of all the treasure they have extracted from all the victims they have conned, Face locks them up and then – there is A BIG REVEAL:

Face reveals that he invited his master to return, that he has told his master everything, and his master has forgiven him in exchange for possession of the treasure i.e. all the loot which only a few seconds earlier the other two were gleefully counting. All Face can offer them is a hand over the wall as they’ll have to flee the officers of the law who have been summoned.

At which exact point there is a loud knocking on the door from the officers. With mock solicitude, Face offers Doll a reference if she needs a job in a brothel – she tells him to go hang himself – and tells Subtle to set up as a conman in a different setting, and he’ll send him a customer or two for old times sake – to which Subtle replies he will hang himself solely so he can haunt Face for the rest of his life. All three exit.

Scene 5 Leaving the stage to Truewit, master of the house who enters dressed as a Spaniard and the parson, followed by Face who asks him if he’s got married to Pliant? Yes, is the quick answer. At which point the knocking gets louder, as no less a crowd than the police officers, Mammon, Surly, Kastril, Ananias and Tribulation are all banging on the door. Truewit lets them in.

They all clamour to see Face and Subtle, Truewit eventually calms them and explains – his servant here, Jeremy, has told him he let out the house this past month or more to a Doctor and a Captain, who have now quit it and where they have gone, he has no idea! He admits them all and tells them to search the premises which he himself has found the worse for candlesoot and burns, but nothing else.

All except for the widow who, he now declares, was waiting for a Spanish don to return but in whose absence, he has now married. Surly exclaims his disappointment and Truewit is comically surprised that he should have waited and delayed and so lost his bird.

Mammon has been searching the house and now returns to say it’s true, it’s empty, all except for his metal goods which the crooks have stashed in the basement and he’ll have back. ‘Will he, though?’ asks Truewit. Is Mammon prepared to go to court and broadcast to all and sundry how he was richly cozened out of his goods. ‘Oh, in that case you can keep them’, says Mammon.

Bitterly disappointed, Mammon says he will hire a farmer’s turnip cart and go preach the end of the world. Surly says he’ll join him, but if he ever finds that Captain Face… And Face – obviously transformed by having a shave and different clothes – says he will gladly tip him off if ever he sees him.

Ananias and Tribulation step forward and say they will reclaim their goods, but Truewit says no. When they launch into their biblical cant, Truewit says he will refute them with a cudgel and they flee. Drugger enters very briefly and doesn’t even have time to make a claim before Truewit scares him off.

It is clear that Truewit is, in his own gentrified way, just as much of a crook as his man, Jeremy. Editor of the New Mermaid edition, Elizabeth Cook, describes him as ‘amorally magnanimous’.

A vibe which comes over even more in the last moments of the play when Kastril enters, pushing his sister boorishly in front of him. He insults and vilifies her for marrying a poor man and not a knight as he’d planned, but Truewit interjects, says he is a true knight and when Kastril starts to practice his insulting, Truewit easily outdoes him and, in fact, talks him round to being quite friendly. Indeed the pair agree to take a pipe of tobacco together, and Kastril takes Dame Pliant inside (how many words does she get to speak in the entire play? she is just a kind of package passed from hand to hand).

It is The End. Truewit steps forward and addresses the audience, saying what master would not be delighted in a servant who procured him a rich widow as wife and trunks full of treasure, even if it is a little beyond the bounds of decorum. And the last word goes to Face who directly addresses the audience and asks their indulgence.

Thoughts

This is a brilliant play from the very start, driven by Jonson’s phenomenally energetic language, by the extraordinary range and breadth of his vocabulary – especially the specialised jargon of alchemy – and the sheer energy with which the three crooks carry out their scams.

It starts off at a gallop, throwing us into the middle of a violent argument between the crooks, and from that point the pace never lets up, with an endless stream of new victims arriving then returning in an ever-increasing frenzy of comic delusions, scheming and pomposity.

This latter quality is the speciality of the wonderful Sir Epicure Mammon – ‘I will be puissant and mighty in my talk’ – whose speeches are almost worth memorising for their elaborate and eloquent decadence.

More even than Volpone this play makes you realise Jonson was in love with the very crimes he purports to satirise and castigate.

Social history

One of the pleasures of reading older works of literature is the feast of social history they contain. The Alchemist makes reference to the following notable, contemporary events:

  • Queen Elizabeth imprisoned Alexander de Lannoy when he failed to produce the philosopher’s stone for her
  • quintessence simply means ‘fifth’ essence, superior to the four earthly elements, thought to be what heavenly bodies were made of
  • colliers were associated with hell and the devil (because of coal and its fires)
  • the act 33 Henry VIII c.8 forbade the use if magic invocations to find gold or silver
  • ‘laundering’ meant putting coins in acid to dissolve off some of the gold or silver surface; ‘barbing’ meant snipping slips off the edge of coins – both were illegal
  • the Elizabethan magician John Dee’s assistant, Edward Kelley, had both ears cut off as punishment for coining
  • Southwark doctor Simon Read was pardoned, in 1607, for invoking three spirits to discover a thief
  • Chaush – in 1607 a Turk named Mustafa arrived in England declaring himself an ambassador from the Sultan using the title ‘Chiaush’ and was grandly entertained until the fraud was discovered
  • Lambeth was ‘noted for prostitutes and thieves’, which amuses me as I live in Lambeth
  • Peru – synonymous with great wealth because of the Spanish silver mines there
  • The Hampton Court Conference of 1604 banned numerous non-conformist ministers from preaching
  • in the winter of 1607-8 the Thames froze over
  • Lions were kept in the Tower of London as tourist attractions
  • It was a common punishment for prostitutes to be attached by rope to the back of a cart which was slowly pulled through the streets of London while the prostitute was whipped
  • Barbers used stale urine as a ‘lye’ to loosen their customers’ hair
  • One of the talks of the town was the little boy of six with a large penis (mentioned act 5 scene i and in Act 3 of The Knight of the Burning Pestle)
  • In 1609 the case came to court of Thomas Rogers, a Dorset man, who was robbed of £6 by two brothers who promised they would introduce him to the Fairy Queen who would be his bride

Related links

Jacobean comedies

Cavalier poetry

17th century history

Restoration comedies

The Rover, or The Banished Cavaliers by Aphra Behn (1677)

‘I know not what thou mean’st, but I’ll make one at any Mischief where a Woman’s concerned’
(Willmore, the Rover of the title)

Aphra Behn (1640-89) is generally considered the first professional woman writer in English literature. She wrote poems, essays and prose narratives but in her own day was best known as the author of some 18 plays, indeed she was second only to the poet laureate John Dryden in terms of theatrical productivity. The Rover is by common consent the most polished and entertaining of her plays.

In fact The Rover comes in two parts, each a self-contained five-act Restoration comedy. Part two contains some though not all of the same characters and so is a sequel, though it was never as popular as the original. Both were heavily plagiarised from a similarly two-part, ten-act play, Thomaso, or The Wanderer, written by the Royalist exile and companion of Charles II, Thomas Killigrew. Thomaso was never performed onstage but was published in 1663-4. Behn comprehensively rewrote it, turning its turgid style and long wordy speeches into brisk comic dialogue.

The argument

The Project Gutenberg online edition is prefaced by a prose summary of the plot. Here it is with my additions and comments:

During the exile of Charles II a band of cavaliers, prominent amongst whom are Willmore (the Rover), Belvile, Frederick, and Ned Blunt, find themselves at Naples in carnival time. Belvile, who at a siege at Pamplona (in Spain) has rescued a certain Florinda and her brother Don Pedro, now loves the lady, and the tender feeling is reciprocated. Florinda’s father, however, designs her for the elderly Vincentio, whilst her brother would have her marry his friend Antonio, son to the Viceroy.

Belville, Fred and Blunt greet Willmore who has just arrived by boat in Naples in company of ‘the Prince’ (the implication being the exiled Charles II). Florinda, her sister Hellena (who is intended for the veil i.e. to become a nun), their cousin Valeria, and their duenna Callis surreptitiously visit the carnival, all in masquerade, and there encounter the cavaliers. Florinda flirts with Belvile and arranges to meet him that night at her garden-gate. Willmore is bewitched by the ready wit of Hellena who is pretending to be a gypsy.

Meanwhile a picture of Angelica Bianca, a famous courtesan, is publicly exposed, guarded by bravos. Antonio and Pedro dispute who shall give the 1,000 crowns she demands for her ‘favours’, and draw swords. After a short fray Willmore, who has boldly pulled down the picture, is admitted to the house, and declares his love, together with his complete inability to pay the price she requires. Angelica, none the less, falling in love at first sight, yields to him.

Hellena and Florinda appear in the street below, the latter mocking Hellena for so suddenly and completely falling in love with the man she briefly met earlier (Willmore). Belvile and pals arrive, knock at Angelica’s door and get Willmore sent out to them. Wilmore makes it plain he has slept with Angelica. Hellena, eavesdropping, hears all this from a hiding place and is heart-broken, but when she confronts him Willmore outfaces the situation and resumes his ardent courtship of her, which is detected by the jealous Angelica, who has followed him vizarded.

In the same scene Florinda in disguise had approached and talked to Belvile, trying to seduce him, but found him loyal to the women he’s in love with which, she realises, is her. She gets him to promise to meet her in ‘the garden’ that evening and leaves a pledge with her which he realises, once she’s gone, is a little picture of his beloved.

A comic interlude in which simple honest Essex gentleman Ned Blunt is enticed back to her house by a very willing whore, Lucetta, who lures him up to her bedroom, where she hops into bed and asks him to strip off, which he promptly does. But as he stumbles towards her a) the lights go out b) the bed moves (a piece of comic mechanism) and c) Ned tumbles through a trapdoor down into a sewer – leaving Lucetta and her pimp Philippo to count the gold they find in Blunt’s clothes. The scene cuts to New Blunt emerging from the mouth of the sewer, very smelly and very sorry.

Florinda that night goes to the garden gate to meet Belvile, but encounters Willmore who is drunk and tries to ravish her. Her cries attract Belvile and Fred, who interrupt drunk Willmore, but then immediately her brother, Don Pedro, and the servants. Florinda just has time to tell Belvile to come back and loiter under her bedroom window later, before she escapes back into the house where she pretends to be fast asleep. Don Pedro and servants beat off Willmore et al who run away.

Willmore has to endure the reproaches of Belvile, who is furious with him for assaulting his beloved. They have wandered to the front of Angelica’s house, where they hide as Antonio approaches and makes as about to enter the house. Because he still feels linked to Angelica Willmore staggers forward and attacks Antonio with his sword, wounding him, before reeling offstage. Belvile goes to Antonio‘s aid just as officers run up and arrest him, conveying him by Antonio’s orders to the Viceroy’s palace.

Antonio comes to Belvile in his cell, with his arm in a sling, and they make friends, Antonio asks Belvile to wear a mask (vizard) and impersonate him in a duel he has to fight with Florinda‘s brother, Don Pedro. Florinda intervenes to part them and Don Pedro gallantly assigns his sister to him thinking he is Antonio(Florinda refuses to be bullied but then Belvile pulls up his mask and reveals to her it is him.) But just as things are panning out well, Willmore staggers up and knocks Belvile’s mask off, Don Pedro realises it is he, and drags Florinda away.

Belvile is even more furious with Willmore and when he won’t stop talking, draws his sword and chases him offstage.

Angelica next comes in hot pursuit of Willmore. She accuses him of faithlessness, he gets bored and wants to hasten off to an appointment with the ‘gypsy’. They are interrupted by the ‘gypsy’ – in reality, Hellena, who arrives dressed as a boy. She tells a tale of the Rover’s amour with another dame and so rouses the jealous courtesan to fury, with Willmore intervening and beginning to suspect this young lad is Hellena. These scenes are getting confusing. Willmore makes excuses and leaves Angelica lamenting that all her beauty cannot hold such a treacherous man.

Florinda, meanwhile, who has escaped from her brother, running into an open house to evade detection, finds herself in Ned Blunt’s apartments. Blunt is sitting half-clad in a very angry mood, reflecting on having been stripped and duped by the whore Lucetta. Florinda throws herself on his mercy but he vows to use and abuse her:

Cruel, yes, I will kiss and beat thee all over; kiss, and see thee all over; thou shalt lie with me too, not that I care for the Injoyment, but to let you see I have ta’en deliberated Malice to thee, and will be revenged on one Whore for the Sins of another; I will smile and deceive thee, flatter thee, and beat thee, kiss and swear, and lye to thee, imbrace thee and rob thee, as she did me, fawn on thee, and strip thee stark naked, then hang thee out at my Window by the Heels, with a Paper of scurvey Verses fasten’d to thy Breast, in praise of damnable Women

Enter Fred who begins to believe Florinda‘s protestations, especially when she mentions Belvile and how he will thank them if they are kind to her. Hmm. Blunt‘s determination on revenge is mollified by the present of a diamond ring, but at this moment a servant announces his friends and Don Pedro are arriving, so they lock Florinda away.

Belvile had told him Don Pedro that Blunt was a fool and would be a good source of amusement. Now, despite his protestations, they break down the door to his rooms and, sure enough, all have a good laugh at Blunt’s expense. But he insists he’s going to have the last laugh and take it out on another Italian whore. But when he shows them the diamond ring Florinda gave him, Belvile immediately recognises it as the love token he gave Florinda much earlier in the play. However, the rest of the company are determined to ‘enjoy’ her as much as Blunt, and in fact draw straws in the shape of drawing their swords to find out whose is longest. Ironically, it is Don Pedro‘s who is promptly sent into the room where Florinda is hiding in order to ravish her – his own sister! Florinda comes running out pursued by Don Pedro, but she is in disguise and he doesn’t recognise her.

A servant arrives and tells Don Pedro his sister is not safe at home – as he thought – but has run off dressed as a page. He makes his excuses and leaves. The moment he’s gone Belvile acknowledges Florinda, they leap into each other’s arms, Willmore says, so this is the woman you’ve been pining for all along’, Fred begs her pardon. A boy is sent out to fetch a priest and Florinda and Belvile go into the other room to be married.

They leave Willmore to protect the pass in case anyone arrives to interrupt the ceremony but who arrives is Angelica in disguise. Willmore totally gives himself away by excitedly hoping it is his ‘gypsy’ i.e. Hellena. Infuriated, Angelica puts a pistol to his chest and is about to shoot him dead. She follows him round the stage as he outdoes himself with a stream of justifications of the cynical debaucher’s attitude.

To everyone’s surprise Antonio walks in, still wearing the sling from where Willmore wounded him last night and takes the pistol off Angelica. But when he realises the man she was threatening is his attacker from last night, he himself threatens Willmore. At which moment Don Pedro enters and overhears Angelica and Antonio declaring their love. Antonio! The man he intended to marry his sister, Florinda!

Also Don Pedro is angry because he challenged Antonio to a duel and Antonio sent a deputy, an impersonator in disguise, who turned out to be Belvile, his own rival. Don Pedro is angry with him and say, as soon as his arm has recovered, he’ll challenge him to another duel. He leaves and Pedro says he is so angry with the man whose cause he tried to promote, he is in a mood to give his sister to Belvile.

Funny you should say that, says Willmore – they are in the other room and have just got married. At which point they emerge and Pedro gives Belvile and his sister his heartiest congratulations. They exit and Willmore is about to follow them when he is accosted by Hellena. There follows a really long dialogue of wits, and he finds he is attracted to her wit and intelligence. He discovers he is ready to marry her. In a comic moment he asks if he may know her name.

The rest of the cast re-enter and Pedro is initially furious that his other sister is being ravished away, the one intended for a nunnery but, in another comic moment, bold Hellena asks the cast whether she should throw in her lot with Heaven or with the Captain:

Hellena: Let most Voices carry it, for Heaven or the Captain?
All cry: a Captain, a Captain.
Hellena: Look ye, Sir – ’tis a clear Case.

Enter Ned Blunt looking ludicrous in a badly fitting Spanish outfit, to give everyone a laugh.

Then enter a group of mummers passing by to the masquerade, who are invited in to play music and dance, thus rounding the play out with music and gaiety.

And the very last lines are to Willmore, the rover himself, as he leads Hellena into the adjoining room to be married.

Willmore: Have you no trembling at the near approach [of marriage]?
Hellena: No more than you have in an Engagement or a Tempest.
Willmore: Egad, thou’rt a brave Girl, and I admire thy Love and Courage.

Lead on, no other Dangers they can dread,
Who venture in the Storms o’ th’ Marriage-Bed.

And thus this convoluted series of shenanigans comes to an end. It is obviously designed to amuse a sophisticated London theatre audience, a large part of which would be precisely the kind of amoral aristocrats the play depicts, so they would enjoy seeing their lifestyle depicted on stage – while others would enjoy moralising about them.

The gossip instinct

It struck me the play is a kind of concatenation of gossip in the sense that

  1. the characters on stage spend almost all their time gossiping about each others affairs’
  2. they spend a lot of time pondering and reflecting and – in effect – gossiping about their own affairs
  3. and this complicated spectacle prompts members of the audience, or readers, to gossip about the gossip – to approve or disapprove of Willmore, to opine that Florinda is too hard or too soft etc

You know the magazines you get at supermarket checkouts which are stuffed full of stories about the stars of TV soaps or presenters of Good Morning Britain or Loose Women, the endless supply of tittle tattle about celebrities going out, getting married, getting pregnant, being unfaithful, splitting up with their partners, getting back together with their partners? Well – it’s like them.

The academics who introduce plays and texts like this are paid to write about them in terms of ‘gender representation’ and ‘female agency’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ and Restoration ‘misogyny’ and the handy cover-all term, ‘The Patriarchy’ (all these terms can be found in the Oxford World Classics introduction to The Rover).

I don’t deny that these are real things, are valid ideas, interpretations, and worth exploring – although the solid wall of feminist interpretation laid over everything like carpet felt, does often get very monotonous, monoglot and wearing.

But I’m suggesting something much simpler and more obvious. These plays – Restoration plays – full of theatrical artifice, 18th century language and elaborate games as they may well be – also appeal to the basic human instinct for Gossiping. They cater to the same love of judging and moralising about other people’s (‘ooh that Willmore!’) as the endless celebrity tittle-tattle which fills the Daily Mail.

Comedy

Also, it is easier to moralise and judge than to write about humour. It is notoriously difficult to write about comedy – to convey in a flat essay the thousand and one things which make an audience smile or laugh, from ironic asides, tone of voice, sarcasm, pratfalls, bathos, grotesque characters, comic mistakes, comic business with props, gags with punchlines and so on.

Much easier to grandly state that a narrative ‘subverts’ 18th century ‘gender stereotypes’ – any schoolgirl can write that kind of thing these days, it’s taught at GCSE and A-level and at university: anybody writing like that is just faithfully parroting what their teachers taught them degree level. Much harder to pinpoint just why The Rover is the brightest and funniest of Behn’s plays.

For example, when Hellena points out that aged Don Vincenzio may increase Florinda’s ‘Bags but not her family‘ I take it as a sly dig at his probable impotence, to be said with a knowing leer to the audience to trigger a fnah fnah laugh. Or, in the same speech, Hellena vividly pictures the scene as her young sister is forced, night after night, to accompany the aged Don Vincencio to his bed. After she has performed the disgusting task of undressing him…

That Honour being past, the Giant stretches it self, yawns and sighs a Belch or two as loud as a Musket, throws himself into Bed, and expects you in his foul Sheets, and e’er you can get your self undrest, calls you with a Snore or two – And are not these fine Blessings to a young Lady?

What middle-aged wife would not recognise this unflattering portrait of her husband? It reminds me of the jokes about unromantic age which fill the TV series Last of The Summer Wine

Clichés and conventions

Italy It is set in Italy. The wickedest reprobates and comic plots are always Italian (cf Shakespeare comedies with their endless Antonios). In fact, there are multiple reasons for its foreign locatio:

– The nations of Europe (and of Britain) were freely stereotyped. Italy was thought to have very devious and sophisticated people – suiting both comedies or tragedies that depended on plot devices like deception and treachery

– Italians were thought to be more hot-blooded and passionate than the phlegmatic Brits (a belief which runs through the 18th and 19th centuries, underpins countless novels and continues, in some quarters, up to this day) – thus allowing for a degree of sexual passion which might not be believable in Brits

I like their sober grave way, ’tis a kind of legal authoriz’d Fornication, where the Men are not chid for’t, nor the Women despis’d, as amongst our dull English;

– Italians were popularly known for their violence – always quick to grab a sword or dagger – as in Romeo and Juliet

Yes: ’Tis pretty to see these Italian start, swell, and stab at the Word Cuckold,

– The weather is better in Italy – so the people are more often outside – in gardens, streets and so on, bumping into each other and thus providing the potential for countless complicated comic permutations. It never rains in plays like this as, of course, it regularly rains in England, keeping people trapped moodily indoors.

Blunt: What a Dog was I to stay in dull England so long

– Also there was the simple pleasure that it was a foreign country with an exotic language, food, customs etc there was a sort of mental tourism in seeing plays in Italy

Faith I’m glad to meet you again in a warm Climate, where the kind Sun has its god-like Power still over the Wine and Woman.

Spain Same sort of thing –

Belvile: Remember these are Spaniards, a sort of People that know how to revenge an Affront.

But with the difference that Britain had little or no military or geographical interest in Italy, whereas we were at war with Spain for a good deal of the 16th century and were major rivals for imperial territories, for example in the Caribbean. Behn has the whore Lucetta’s pimp Philippo find gold pieces from ‘Old Queen Bess’s reign in Ned Blunt’s waistband and comment:

We have a Quarrel to her ever since Eighty Eight, and may therefore justify the Theft,

I.e. the character is made to say that the Spanish have had a quarrel with the British since 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, the attempt at an amphibious invasion of England which was designed to overthrow the Protestant queen and impose a Catholic Spanish dictatorship, all blessed by the Pope. The Armada had taken place about 70 years before the play’s production, so the same length of time as separates us from the Second World War, which we still remember and commemorate.

Therefore English writing about Spain often has a more bitter or harder edge, whereas Italy had and still has, fewer negative connotations. So it is a little notable that so many of the actual characters are Spanish. Still, the same hot-blooded, exotic rules apply.

English Also, being set abroad allows some of the characters to ridicule the home audience, the English, which is also humorous.

This is a stranger, I know by his gazing; if he be brisk he’ll venture to follow me; and then, if I understand my Trade, he’s mine: he’s English too, and they say that’s a sort of good natur’d loving People, and have generally so kind an opinion of themselves, that a Woman with any Wit may flatter ’em into any sort of Fool she pleases.

Which might have brought ironic cheers from the London audience.

Young woman struggling to be free A young woman is being forced to marry an old man by her wicked father for the money (Florinda being hustled to marry aging but rich Don Vincentio).

The young couple Whereas the young woman wants to marry a dashing young hero: There is a pair of young lovers – Florinda and Don Belvile.

The confidante The young woman has a comic confidante to provide a running comic commentary on the main action and make cynical asides and jokes. This leaves the heroine free to express only Noble and Dignified sentiments – in this instance the cynical humorous confidante is her sister Hellena.

The two couples In fact, as the play unfolded I realised there are two couples.This, apparently, is a core, stock convention of Restoration comedy –

A particularly appealing feature is the contrast between two pairs of lovers. The ‘gay couple’ are witty and independent, with time to banter and tease their way to choosing a marriage partner. Through them, the complexities of commitment could be explored… The second couple are constant and unexciting. Their path to true love is thwarted by outside forces, usually in the shape of a blocking character – Don Pedro in The Rover… (An Introduction to Restoration Comedy)

Rogue male There is an outstanding, amoral, rakish, predatory male figure – Willmore, the Rover.

Thou know’st I’m no tame Sigher, but a rampant Lion of the Forest.

Haste Things always have to be done in a hurry. This is itself a structural requirement of the theatre where it is difficult to convey the passage of months or years. Instead the action must follow pell-mell. Over and above the difficulty of conveying the passage of time, haste and deadlines also simply create tension, energy, dynamism – sweep the audience up in the action – and, of course, prompt the characters to all kinds of desperate behaviour they might not take. Thus when Don Pedro tells his sister, Florinda, that he wants to organise her marriage to young Antonio we can be confident it will trigger all kinds of desperate behaviour.

Dressing up The masked ball or masquerade or disguise is a key element of comedy from ancient Rome to modern pantomime. The feminist scholars of the play get excited because the masquerade allows characters to ‘subvert the gender roles’ imposed on them by ‘misogynist Restoration society’. But in fact dressing up allows for two really basic elements of comic theatre, namely:

1. Freedom you can get away with saying and doing things in disguise which you wouldn’t think of trying normally:

Will. But why thus disguis’d and muzzl’d?
Belv: Because whatever Extravagances we commit in these Faces, our own may not be oblig’d to answer ’em.

2. Comic misunderstanding – where characters say things to each other which match the outfits and characters they’ve adopted, but are wildly inappropriate to the actual characters we – the audience – know them to be.

3. Serious understanding Having read The Rover carefully it dawns on me that dressing up as someone else is also a way of discovering the real motives and character of the person you have designs on, as in the complex scene where Belvile dresses as Antonio and can sound out Don Pedro’s real character; or where Hellena dresses as a young man in order to assess Willmore‘s relationship with Angelica.

Also – people like dressing up for parties. It makes them feel special excited, in a party mood. Thus characters on stage – which have already been simplified and heightened for the audience’s enjoyment – become twice as simplified and heightened. Comedy squared.

Politics Behn was a devoted Royalist. The play is set in the 1650s and Belvile, Willmore, Frederick and Blunt are all English courtiers in exile from the Roundhead, republican government of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Gentlemen, you may be free, you have been kept so poor with Parliaments and Protectors, that the little Stock you have is not worth preserving—but I thank my Stars, I have more Grace than to forfeit my Estate by Cavaliering.

There are lots of little indications e.g. when Belvile introduces Blunt to Willmore as one of us’.

Belvile: Yet, Sir, my Friends are Gentlemen, and ought to be esteem’d for their Misfortunes, since they have the Glory to suffer with the best of Men and Kings; ’tis true, he’s a Rover of Fortune, yet a Prince aboard his little wooden World.

Class distinction There is an interesting moment when Colonel Belvile gives a satirical portrait of Ned Blunt, one of their party for sure, but an honest country English gentleman who – it is implied – the more urban, worldly Belvile and Willmore despise.

Willmore: Prithee what Humour is he of…?
Belvile: Why, of an English Elder Brother’s Humour, educated in a Nursery, with a Maid to tend him till Fifteen, and lies with his Grand-mother till he’s of Age; one that knows no Pleasure beyond riding to the next Fair, or going up to London with his right Worshipful Father in Parliament-time; wearing gay Clothes, or making honourable Love to his Lady Mother’s Landry-Maid; gets drunk at a Hunting-Match, and ten to one then gives some Proofs of his Prowess—A pox upon him, he’s our Banker, and has all our Cash about him, and if he fail we are all broke.

As so often, the aristocracy are in reality dependent on the honest bourgeoisie – and despise them for it.

Fred: Oh let him alone for that matter, he’s of a damn’d stingy Quality, that will secure our Stock. I know not in what Danger it were indeed, if the Jilt should pretend she’s in love with him, for ’tis a kind believing Coxcomb;

Blunt: No, Gentlemen, you are Wits; I am a dull Country Rogue, I.

Nobody is surprised when honest Ned Blunt is swindled out of his diamond. He even hails from Essex which, right down to this day, 370 years later, is the butt of jokes.

Blunt: ’Tis a rare Girl, and this one night’s enjoyment with her will be worth all the days I ever past in Essex.—

Contemporary references

Moretta: He knows himself of old, I believe those Breeches and he have been acquainted ever since he was beaten at Worcester.

The Battle of Worcester, 3 September 1651 was the last battle of the Civil War.

Moretta: Oh Madam, we’re undone, a pox upon that rude Fellow, he’s set on to ruin us: we shall never see good days, till all these fighting poor Rogues are sent to the Gallies.

Consignment to galleys was a punishment.

Frederick: It may be she’ll sell him for Peru, the Rogue’s sturdy and would work well in a Mine;

The Spanish had used slave labour in their South American silver mines for over a century.

Blunt: I had rather be in the Inquisition for Judaism, than in this Doublet and Breeches

Tells us something about the power of the Italian Inquisition, and of its attitude to Jews, in the 1660s.


Related links

The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it adds a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire pp. 3-192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World pp. 195-310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century pp. 313-566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is recorded and stored.

Conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How the Reconquista mindset was applied to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)


Related links

Related reviews, mainly about Mexico

Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The history of Latin America has fascinated observers as much as it has mystified them. There is something apparently alien about the continent, an exoticism that derives perhaps from it having once been perceived as a ‘new world’, although there survive monuments and relics of ancient societies whose cultures remain poorly understood by us even today. This elusiveness – hinting simultaneously  at a former state of grace and some original corruption – has rendered interpretation of Latin American history peculiarly vulnerable to speculation and myth-making.
(Edwin Williamson in the introduction to his Penguin History of Latin America, 1990 revised 2009)

Urban Impulses

This is an epic exhibition, if not quite in scale, then certainly in scope. Across four rooms and two floors, the Photographers’ Gallery is showcasing some 200 works by 73 photographers from all across Latin America.

They use a wide range of techniques and approaches to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban population, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers are represented by only one or two images and so as you move from photo to photo, you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades, which I found it quite challenging to get a handle on.

Cuba in the 1950s was very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. In this review the texts in italics are copied from the thorough and very useful free handout which accompanies the exhibition.)

Calle Alameda, Santiago, 1983 by Álvaro Hoppe © Álvaro Hoppe. Courtesy of the artist

The history of Chilean photography over the past thirty years is above all that of a rupture, or a ‘tectonic shift’ caused by the military coup of 1973. Until that time, democracy had allowed the history of the medium to evolve without major disruption, but what happened in September 1973 created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago during the 1970s and 80s.

As I wandered among this cornucopia of images and histories and countries and events, it struck me that there are many ways to group and arrange it – by subject matter, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

Or you could divide them up by technique – grouping together black-and-white photos (most of them are, in fact, in black and white), colour photos, montages, collages, photojournalism, photocopies, and art works made of photos chopped up and attached to canvases. The curators back up the visitor’s sense of an impressive diversity of medium and approach:

Here a hybrid iconography emerges where photography exists in tandem with other media of mass circulation such as graphics, photo-copying and print media, often involving the marking, cutting and defacement of images where the notion of appearance and disappearance exist in tandem.

Take this striking artwork which features a collage of commercial adverts cut with urgent news photos, and then treated and painted over.

Equis (1985) by Herbert Rodríguez © Herbert Rodríguez. Courtesy of the artist

Rodriguez denounces the injustices suffered by the populations of the Andean and Amazonian regions, dominated by a process of gradual urbanisation, and, more generally, the exploitation of one part of Peruvian society by another. The approach is experimental, the materials – often salvaged from public spaces – are banal, and the collage technique allows them to be gathered together and reordered in different ways.

Another approach would be to zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers who won international reputations during the period and seek them out first – such greats as Alberto Korda from Cuba who created the iconic images of Che Guevara, or Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, or Sergio Larrain from Chile.

Again you could group the photographers by country because many of the photos are political, in the broadest sense, and require a knowledge of the political history of the country in question, foe xample the military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina.

In fact I realised I needed to stop and remind myself just what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. Upon looking into it I discovered there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity about defining and framing the geography.

The term ‘Latin America’ can be taken to refer solely to ‘South America’, or to also include the many nations of Central America and the Caribbean. (Cuba always gets included, despite not being in South or Central America.)

Nations of South America by population

  1. Brazil
  2. Colombia
  3. Argentina
  4. Peru
  5. Venezuela
  6. Chile
  7. Ecuador
  8. Bolivia
  9. Paraguay
  10. Uruguay
  11. Guyana

We know these nations all have one big thing in common which is that they were colonnised by Spain or Portugal in the 16th century, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. So they speak the ‘Latin’ languages of Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the umbrella term ‘Latin’ America – as opposed to ‘Anglo’ America, settled by English speakers in the later 17th and 18th centuries.

Flying low, Mexico City, 1989 by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio © Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Courtesy of the artist

Mexico is a post-apocalyptic city. It has refused to accept the many declarations of its death. it survived the devastating earthquake of 1985, and has withstood overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance. The country has attempted to enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth. – Mexican poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer José Emilio Pacheco Berny

To my surprise there’s debate about whether Mexico should be included in Central America, with lots of people, including many Mexicans, considering themselves part of North America. Incorrectly, I have included Mexico in this list of Central American nations.

Nations of Central America by population

  1. (Mexico)
  2. Guatemala
  3. Honduras
  4. El Salvador
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Panama
  8. Belize

Maybe the curators should have included a map, a big map, to help remind us of the precise location of all these places. (But then I’m biased. I love maps.)

Most of these nations gained their independence in stormy conflicts against the colonial powers in the early 19th century only to find themselves saddled with legacies of huge inequality and grinding rural poverty.

It was the enduring legacy of these inequalities which led to the revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups of the twentieth century. I well remember the era of military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-83), Brazil (1964-85), Chile (1973-90), and Paraguay (1954-89). Back in the 1970s we associated Latin America (and Greece and Spain and Portugal) with semi-fascist military dictatorships such as the notorious rule of General Pinochet of Chile. In one sense, then, many of these images fro the 1970s felt nostalgic to me.

Pinochet, 1987 by Fernando Bedoya © Fernando Bedoya. Courtesy of the artist

Fernano Bedoya is a key figure in the artistic activism of Peru and Argentina, involved notably in the latter country in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by mothers of young men who went missing during the military dictatorship. An irreverent artist, he plays with mass production – photography, screen printing, photocopying – and employs a hybrid iconography strongly influenced by pop culture. Committed to the democratisation of art, he has worked with several artists’ collective on participative projects with a distinctly political focus.

The nations of Latin America all have ethnically diverse societies, beginning with the fact that the native peoples of most of the colonised countries lived on, working as serfs or slaves for their European overlords, sometimes interbreeding with them, a racial mix which was then added to by large-scale importation of African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and then by migration from other, non-Iberian European countries – mostly in the 19th century.

This much most of them have in common. But each of the countries has its own geography and history and ethnic mix and traditions, which are hard to capture in such a variegated display. That’s the problem talking about this ‘region’, it’s so big and encompasses such a confusing diversity of peoples and places that it’s too easy to fall back on casual stereotypes – machismo, military dictatorships, Che Guevara guerillas, remote villages up the Amazon, the destruction of the rainforest, oh and a collection of cheesy dances that your grandparents used to like – the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha.

In fact three or four of the photographers here are represented by pics they’ve taken of more or less the same scene, namely unglamorous, middle-aged couples from back in the day, dancing in (presumably hot and sweaty) dance halls. It’s a recurring topic.

Untitled, from the series Tango (1988) by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz. Courtesy of the artist

‘The tango image of Paz Errázuriz, without words, music or movement, frozen at one of those key moments when the dance danced by the dancers comes into its own, affirming the authenticity of the representation of a representation.’ – Chilean poet, playwright, and novelist Enrique Lihn

In fact all this pondering and wondering how to make sense of the profusion of countries and images and artists which I spent some time trying to group or arrange, has already been partly done by the curators themselves. They have divided the exhibition up into just two big parts (one on each of the two floors across which the show is presented), and titled them Shouts and Pop-ular.

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

Shouts considers photography’s role not only in documenting identities and presences, but also to explore absences: in the face of kidnappings and forced disappearances carried out by authoritarian regimes, photography has been a weapon against silence. Public spaces and the city walls have also played an important role: when pen and paper, laws and rights, courts and judges have failed to obtain justice, the walls of the cities have taken on a life of their own. And photographers have portrayed these walls, covered with the slogans and cries of protest of those demanding political, social, and economic recognition, and reflecting the anger and cynicism, the hopes and frustrations of the cities’ residents.

Thus a raft of images depicting street protests, street fighting, street riots, protesters fighting cops. This is one of the rare colour photos in the show.

The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 20 December 2001 by Eduardo Longoni © Eduardo Longoni. Courtesy of the artist

Longoni documented in colour the disturbances that took place in 2001 in response to the economic crisis and the measures taken by the government of Fernando de la Rúa, which limited cash withdrawals from the banks to 250 pesos a week. The Argentinians, with humour and irony, soon found a name for the policy: the corralito (the diminutive form of the Spanish word for ‘corraling’, which also designates, in popular Argentine Spanish, a tollders’ playground.) On 19 December 2001 a state of emergency was announced. On 20 december, early in the evening, President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. The suppression of the disturbances had taken a toll of thirty-eight deaths all over the country, including seven in Buenos Aires.

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

In Pop-ular, artists’ mine the tropes of mass media and their manifestation in public spaces. Since the 1960s, as Latin America has undergone rapid development, advertising images have diversified and multiplied, marked by the rapid transition to a consumer society. The first widespread use of colour photography was in advertising, and the richness of pop culture imagery, often associated with commerce and advertising, marks the visual identity of the Latin American metropolis. Signs, patterns and typographies, often created by self-taught hands, confer on the display windows an almost innocent beauty.

Thus there are quite a few photos depicting the most obvious aspect of a consumer society, shop windows, featuring shop window mannequins, or surreal subversions of them like the shapely, naked, young woman posing amid mannequins by Jorge Vall.

This all feels very retro since, as we know, the era of physical shops is on the decline.

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

This is the place to point out that the selection hasn’t been made from all the photographs taken by all 73 of these photographers from their entire careers. That would be an epic, maybe impossible, task.

No, this selection has been made from the large, but finite, collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who collected original prints throughout the period in question. 

Maybe this explains why, when I tried to link to some of these images, I couldn’t find any of them on the internet. Maybe they are very tightly controlled – although I did find plenty of other images by many of these photographers. As usual an exhibition like this makes a good starting point to go off on explorations of your own. But the fact that this is a selection from a selection explains some things.

Fifteenth Birthday Party in Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mixtecos Norte/Sur series (1989) by Eniac Martínez © Eniac Martínez. Courtesy of the artist

Produced for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the series Mixtecos Norte/Sur consists of photographs taken in Oaxaca and along the US-Mexico border. ‘It is the story of Mixtec indigenous people who leave their increasingly unproductive lands in the state of Oaxaca to enter the industrialised world of the United States.’ A girl’s fifteenth birthday party is a cultural milestone, not only in Mexico but all over Latin America. It involves a highly codified celebration, often accompanied by a religious ceremony, at which friends and relatives are given a lavish demonstration of the host’s generosity.

Alongside the street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there was also a stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of Latino urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or stripped posters on peeling walls.

Several photographers had captured the distinctive patters of tiles or brickwork to be found in local buildings, some of which harked back, maybe, to ancient Mayan or pre-Colombian sensibilities. For example, the attractive suite of photos by Pablo López Luz entitled Neo Inca.

Neo Inca LVIII, Pisac, Perú, 2016 by Pablo López Luz © Pablo López Luz. Courtesy of the artist

In the localities near Andean tourist destinations, Pablo López Luz photographs the doorways and facades of buildings and houses, adorned with the stucco relief work of Inca walls. The visual repertory drawn up in this way reflects the local taste for Inca motifs and shows how these have been grafted onto the urban context and brought up to date.

The photographers

So who exactly are the 73 photographers represented here? I’m glad you asked:

  • Carlos Aguirre (b.1948, Mexico)
  • Luiz Alphonsus (b.1948, Brazil)
  • Édgar Álvarez (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Yolanda Andrade (b.1950, Mexico)
  • Jaime Ardila (b.1942, Colombia)
  • Ever Astudillo (1948-2015, Colombia)
  • Álvaro Barrios (b. 1945, Colombia)
  • Juan Enrique Bedoya (b.1966, Peru)
  • Fernando Bedoya (1952, Peru)
  • Enrique Bostelmann (1939-2003, Mexico)
  • Bill Caro (b.1949, Peru)
  • Anselmo Carrera (1950-2016, Peru)
  • Jesús Reyes Cordero (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Armando Cristeto (b.1957, Mexico)
  • François Dolmetsch (b.1940, UK/Colombia)
  • Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017, Mexico)
  • Virginia Errázuriz (b.1941, Chile)
  • Paz Errázuriz (b.1944, Chile)
  • María Elvira Escallón (b.1954, Colombia)
  • José Alberto Figueroa (b.1946, Cuba)
  • Fernell Franco (1942-2006, Colombia)
  • RenéFreire (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Carlos Gallardo (b.1954, Chile)
  • Héctor García (1923-2012, Mexico)
  • Paolo Gasparini (b.1934, Venezuela)
  • Lourdes Grobet (b.1940, Mexico)
  • Billy Hare (b.1946, Peru)
  • Alejandro Hoppe (b.1961, Chile)
  • Alvaro Hoppe (b.1956, Chile)
  • Helen Hughes (b.1948, USA-Chile)
  • Graciela Iturbide (b.1942, Mexico)
  • Beatriz Jaramillo (b.1955, Colombia)
  • Mario García Joya (nee Mayito, b.1938, Cuba)
  • Alberto Korda (1928-2001, Cuba)
  • Sergio Larrain (1931-2012, Chile)
  • Adriana Lestido (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Diego Levy (b.1973, Argentina)
  • Eduardo Longoni (b.1959, Argentina)
  • Marcos López (b.1958, Argentina)
  • Héctor López (b.1955, Chile)
  • Pablo López Luz (b.1979, Mexico)
  • Ayrton de Magalhães (1954-2017, Brazil)
  • Eniac Martínez (b.1959, Mexico)
  • Agustín Martínez Castro (1950-1992, Mexico)
  • Sebastián Mejía (b.1982, Colombia)
  • Ernesto Molina (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Luis Molina-Pantin (b.1969, Venezuela)
  • Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Mario Cravo Neto (1947-2009, Brazil)
  • Viki Ospina (b.1948, Colombia)
  • Adolfo Patiño (1954-2005, Mexico)
  • Claudio Pérez (b.1957, Chile)
  • Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Jaime Razuri (b.1956, Peru)
  • Santiago Rebolledo (b.1951, Colombia)
  • Miguel Rio Branco (b.1946, Brazil)
  • Herbert Rodríguez (b.1959, Peru)
  • Miguel Ángel Rojas (b.1946, Colombia)
  • Jesús Ruiz Durand (b.1940, Peru)
  • Osvaldo Salerno (b.1952, Paraguay)
  • Francisco Smythe (1952-1998, Chile)
  • Carlos Somonte (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Milagros de la Torre (b.1965, Peru)
  • Nicolás Torres (b.1957, Peru)
  • Juan Travnik (b.1950, Argentina)
  • Sergio Trujillo (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Jorge Vall (b.1949, Venezuela)
  • Pedro Valtierra (b.1955, Mexico)
  • JoséLuis Venegas (b.1944, Mexico)
  • Leonora Vicuña (b.1952, Chile)
  • Jaime Villaseca (b.1949, Chile)
  • Enrique Zamudio (b.1955, Chile)
  • Helen Zout (b.1957, Argentina)
  • Facundo de Zuviría (b.1954, Argentina)

And where would any exhibition of modern photography be without images of transvestites and transgender sex workers?

From 10 to 11 p.m., Mexico City (1985) by Agustín Martínez Castro © Agustín Martínez Castro Estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

In the photographs of Agustín Martínez Castro, the city is embodied in the anonymous inhabitants of its nights. The photographer is one o the most sensitive and profound chroniclers of the world of transvestism. Far removed from all sense of visual pathos, Martínez Castro offers an dmirable photo essay on private life, understood as a realm of intimacy, which is celebrated here, and on the stripping away of that intimacy, which is denounced. – Art historian, curator, and editor Roberto Tejada

Summary

If I’m honest, I didn’t like many of the photos in this exhibition. There are lots of them, and I suppose there’s lots of variety, but somehow I found the sheer number, and the hopping from one country to another, and from one decade to another, diluted and lessened their impact.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are currently on display down in the basement of the same building. Each one of those took my breath away.

And after reading and rereading the handout which includes almost every photo in the show, I realised that I was bored. There’s certainly an impressive range of technical diversity – many collages and montages and artistic treatments of photographic images, incorporating them into multi-media artworks. And ten or fifteen of the images did really stand out.

But almost all of these photos are images taken on the street. They almost all have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape, to give two types of photo which are completely absent. It’s shabby, urban sprawl everywhere you look.

Rough street people in rundown looking slums and dodgy neighbourhoods. Scary street punks, one or two convicts in prison. And plenty of scenes of cops and soldiers policing the street, and riots, and people getting beaten up. Grim-faced soldiers. Grim-faced dictators. Grim-faced revolutionaries. Grim-faced prostitutes. Grim-faced hoodlums, tearful mothers protesting against the disappearance of their sons, photomontages commemorating people killed in riots, tattooed gang members.

Untitled (Aquileo Valtierra González), Prisoners series, Mexico (1997) by Carlos Somonte © Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of the artist

Again I was reminded that the whole exhibition is taken from the private collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. In other words – far from being a representative survey of all Latin American photography, this is a selection from a selection. A personal selection. A personal view of the politics and history of this continent and this era.

After a while it dawned on me that what was oppressing me was there was no joy or happiness in any of the photos. Surely someone, somewhere, in all these 20 or so countries, in the long period between 1959 and 2016, surely someone, somewhere, smiled. Maybe even laughed. Looked at the blue sky, the river, the trees and the exotic flowers in the botanical garden, and was happy? Is Copacabana beach not in Latin America? And hundreds of sun-kissed Caribbean beaches? Have there been no tourists in Latin America, no beaches and parties?

Not in these photos. Not in this exhibition. Glum and grim and earnest and embattled everywhere you look.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

The exhibition is divided between two rooms on floor 3 of the Photographers’ Gallery, and two rooms on the floor below. I visited about noon on a Wednesday. On one floor there were four teenage girl visitors. On the floor below there was just one middle-aged woman. That was it.

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

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