Monday, 20 March 2017

The Alchemist - The Art of the Con

When I was in London last year I had the opportunity to see a play that generally isn't performed all that much here in Australia, but then again there are quite a lot of plays that tend not to be performed, most likely because the population really doesn't support multiple theatre companies focusing on plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Fortunately we now have opportunities like Shakespeare on Screen, National Theatre Live,  and similar productions which mean that all I need to do is to go to the cinema when a particular play is on as opposed to traveling all the way to London. Mind you, I have done that once, namely to see Les Miserables, but sure enough a year after I returned it was being performed here in Australia. Still, that trip was still worth it (even though I spent at least three days stuck on a plane).

The thing with London is that if I am there then I should at least take the opportunity to actually see some plays. I have been to The Globe twice now, and also seen plays, and musicals, at a couple of theatres in Theatreland, otherwise known as Soho. However, this time I had the opportunity of seeing Ben Jonson's The Alchemist at The Barbican, which seems to be one of those all purpose art centres that includes two theatres, cinemas, and a library. According to their website the organisation is designed to push the boundaries of art, and as well as performances is also an education provider. From what I could tell, it seems as if the Royal Shakespeare Company use the Barbican when they have a performance on in London (the company is actually based up in Stratford upon Avon, Shakespeares' traditional place of work).

The Play

In a way the plot of The Alchemist is pretty simple: the plague has hit London so the master of the house, like a lot of the upperclass, decide to leave London for their country estates and plan to return once the plague has died down. In doing so they leave their servants in charge of the house, however since the master isn't around keeping an eye on what is going on the servants use this as an opportunity to turn a tidy profit, and decide to set the house up as the abode of an alchemist.

Sure enough word gets around and people begin to pay the servants a visit to make use of the skills of the purported alchemist, and while things seem to work well at first they pretty quickly escalate and eventually get way out of hand. All the while the neighbours are watching what is going on, and while the servants (and their confidants) are attempting to iron everything out, the Master suddenly returns home unannounced (which is generally what always happens - I remember that happening to me as a teenager when I decided to invite all my friend's over while my Dad was at work and my mother interstate).
Anyway, the interesting thing about the play are not so much the servants, but the characters that come through the door seeking to take advantage of the services of the alchemist. For instance we have the gambler, who basically wants to make use of the skills to be able to increase his odds at winning. We have a tobacconist who is basically a really nice guy, and quite gullible as well, who wants his business to flourish (without actually putting in any hard work). There is also the guy who is seeking out the philosopher's stone so that he may turn lead into gold, and finally we have the widow who is seeking out a suitable husband.

The thing that connects all of these people is that they want to eliminate risk from their lives, and are seeking out the mystical arts to do so. In a way everybody wants a reward, but they want the reward without having to risk anything, or at least to minimise the risk. In fact we have a whole industry in existence dedicated to minimising risk. While the title of 'Risk and Compliance Officer' may sound boring, it can be a pretty sweet role if you land up in one - the whole idea is to minimise the risk that a company or business will be sued, or lose money due to negligence.

While risk minimisation is probably a wise practice to engage in when in business, what we have in The Alchemist is something much different - these people are turn to the mystical arts to create some potion to make all of this go away - in a way they are cheating, such as the gambler rigging a deck of cards so that he knows exactly what everybody else is holding. Okay, maybe it isn't cheating per-se, but it is still in a way attempt to get something for nothing.

The Art of Alchemy

When we think of Alchemists we generally consider them to be frauds at best, or sorcerers practicing the dark arts. Well, maybe that is true, particularly when it comes to the fraudulent ones, but the reality is that our modern science of chemistry actually evolved out of this idea of alchemy. Some of our most famous scientists, including Isaac Newton, practiced alchemy. While alchemy still exists today, in many ways it has been subsumed by the science of chemistry and modern alchemy generally falls into the category of proto-science, and is generally the domain of non-traditional health practitioners. While they may not call themselves alchemists per-se, the proto-medical professions such as iradiology (the study to disease by looking at the eyes) and reflexology (the feet) find their roots in the practice.

The thing with alchemy is that people generally look on it as being something that are performed by crackpots and con-artists, as was the case in this play, however the reality is that back in the early-modern era, and before, this was a serious science, even if it was frowned upon by the church. In a way many people viewed alchemy as the desire to turn base metals, such as lead, into 'noble' metals such as gold - in a way it is a get rich quick scheme. However alchemy is actually much, much more than that. Sure, there are people who are looking for get rich quick schemes, or at least schemes that enable them to be able to become wealthy with as little work as possible. However Alchemy is actually much, much more than that - it is, like most forms of magic, a way to seek wisdom and power with as little effort as possible.

A quick look through Wikipedia will reveal that while the concept of turning lead into gold is mentioned, it is actually much more than that. For instance there is the universal solvent - a glue that is designed to hold anything together and be unbreakable (sort of like super glue on steriods). Then there is the philosopher's stone, which in some cases suggests that is involved turning lead into gold, but it goes beyond that in creating not only the elixer of life, but also changing one's soul - it takes the user beyond their base human nature and transforms them into something much more noble. 

What is interesting though is that a lot of scientists, such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, actually fell into the category of alchemist back when they were alive and practicing. In fact kings and queens would regularly consult, or even have Alchemists working for them (such as John Dee, who was a confident of Queen Elizabeth). However, what set the modern scientists apart from the Alchemists of yesteryear is the use of the scientific method, where experimentation, trail and error, and extensive record-taking, as a means of understanding the world in which we live. However, as one engineer that I knew once said, 'everything that we have studied and have come to understand could all turn out to be completely wrong. It is just that what we have now is the best explanation we have of an unknown world'.

A Sucker in Born

The suggestion in the play is that alchemists are con-artists, and people are suckers. Well, I would argue that not all alchemists were out to pull a fast one - there were a lot out their who generally believed in the work they were doing. However, as with all psuedo-sciences, it is open to abuse. We see this with that non-traditional 'medical' practitioners, such as the reflexologists. The thing is that such practitioners don't actually require a university degree to practice their art, and in some cases can open up a clinic with as little training as possible. The thing is that there are a lot of conditions, particularly relating to pain, that is all in the head, and what these practitioners do is simply play on that reality (whether they are conscious of it or not). As a physio friend of mine once said, 'a lot of people experience chronic pain not because they are suffering from chronic pain, but because there is a settlement cheque at the end'. In fact, it is amazing how curative a settlement payout actually is - a person who hasn't been working for five years after an accident, is suddenly back at work the day after the money hits the bank.

However, con-artists generally work on the fact that people want to make as much money as possible with as little work as possible - which is why there was all this talk about turning lead into gold. Actually, it is possible to turn lead into gold, it is just that you require a nuclear reactor to do so, and even then the amount that you will be producing is going to be minute. Anyway, the thing is that these quacks, for want of a better word, succeed for two main reasons - people are lazy, or they have nothing left to lose. Take the lazy person for instance, or the one that doesn't want to take risks - they visit the alchemist to basically get them to turn their 'lead' into 'gold', or their laziness into luxury - we see this with the gambler, and the tobacconist - in fact we see that with all of them.

We also have these people that are suffering from an incurable disease - it is the fear of death than drives them. This is why there is also this idea of the alchemist creating the elixir of life - it is a way of being able to stave off death. The thing is that there are two things certain in this world - death and taxes, and you can actually get out of paying taxes if you are smart, or rich, enough. The thing is that no matter how rich or powerful somebody happens to be, they are still going to die. It is why cosmestic surgery is such big business, and why people were complaining about how bad 2016 was - we fear death, and we want to do what we can to escape it. When a celebrity dies it shatters our perception of an immortal life. In a way we are immortal, that is until we die (though I wouldn't use that statement to go and do stupid things because we don't actually know the event that will eventually kill us).

The thing is that con-artists play on these desires - our desire to get well, our desire not to die, and our desire to get rich with as little effort as possible. Casinos play on this belief, though the reality is that while the house may always win, if nobody plays against the house then the house isn't going to be making any money. To prove how the house always wins, just watch a game of blackjack for a few hands and count the amount of money that goes to the house as opposed to the amount of money that goes to the players - ditto with roulette. 

It is also why 'fake' religions flourish - they play on the reality of our death, and then promise a way to escape that death, or at least to have some certainty as to the reality beyond death. Death is the great unknown, which is why when somebody comes along, pushes the right buttons, people will follow them, especially if they offer them an answer, or a vision, beyond that great unknown. It is also interesting how there are a number of ancient religions (Christianity among them) where it is said that the founder died and then returned to life. The interesting thing is that, with the exception of Christianity, all of the religions that I am aware of that are practiced today the founder died, and stayed dead.

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The Alchemist - The Art of the Con by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


  1. I would love it if someone in my town would tackle Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe. Certainly if I see a Los Angeles area production, I will be all over it. This does sound like a particularly fascinating play. Good analysis. It always makes my day to see a new live theater review from you in my blog feed.

  2. Thankyou. It was only by pure chance that I managed to see this play, but pretty much booked my tickets as soon as I discovered that it was on. The RSC were also doing Doctor Faustus, but I had seen that previously.