As both a theatre director and historian, our Artistic Director has a variety of experience looking at the sincerity and manipulation of beliefs – themes which are present in both parts of A Journey with Jonson. Here are some of her thoughts.
Among the many things that is shared by theatre and studying history is the challenge of getting inside someone else’s head. Both often involve trying to come to terms with the possible reasons why people do certain things. In theatre about the past, there is an extra difficulty: not only is it a matter of trying to make sense of another person’s thinking, but it is about doing so when their entire world view, the matrix of their society and culture, was different. And yet, there are questions about what people actually thought which were probably just as valid in earlier times as now; the difference, perhaps, is that we are more comfortable with articulating them.
One of these unspoken questions is at the heart of Ben and Steenie, and is further explored in The Devil is an Ass: what do people actually believe, when are they putting on the appearance of a belief for their own personal agenda, and when are they using the belief of others for pragmatic reasons? If you’re a political or religious leader, do you truly buy everything you say? Or, with your “behind the scenes” knowledge, is true belief set aside for political reality?
Few occasions in history illustrate the possible views on these questions as well as the issue of witchcraft in the early modern period, and an accusation of witchcraft is one of the significant plot threads of Ben and Steenie. There seems to be a general consensus that many people of the era very sincerely believed in the presence and malevolence of witches among ordinary citizens – including, for at least some of his life, King James I/VI. But those frequently accused of being witches tended to be those (largely women) who in some way didn’t conform to community norms, so their accusations could be either the assumption that this nonconformity in some way truly indicated an evil presence, or was a more cynical attempt at bringing recalcitrant neighbours to heel through fear (without the actual belief that they were dabbling in black magic). Revenge for perceived wrongs – a direct abuse of the system – is another possible reason why someone might be accused, as is the case in Ben and Steenie, although in the play it isn’t entirely clear that this is in opposition to genuine belief; most of these situations aren’t mutually exclusive.
While Ben and Steenie silently posits these questions, and gives the audience different answers, The Devil is an Ass is Jonson’s more overt iteration of the issue. The play rolls its eyes at those who would believe anything and everything, but it also pokes fun at those who would take advantage of that blind belief. The fact that Fitzdotterel’s desire to meet a devil is patently ridiculous is also turned on its ear somewhat by the fact that, in the world of the play, devils are real, and Fitzdotterel’s wish is – unbeknownst to him – granted; Merecraft’s schemes sound absurd but aren’t as far off from real ventures as might be assumed.
One play approaches the questions of belief, sincerity, gullibility, and manipulation from a gleefully comic standpoint and the other from a more serious angle. There are no definite answers, as one can only know the answers within their own personal experiences. From our standpoint in production, the functional question is what an actor makes of these matters, and what answers he or she assigns to the part being played. These are the kind of choices that make acting the craft that it is. And the chance to explore different potential permutations of these questions is one of the great joys of working on plays about past eras. It may never give any definitive answers, but it offers insight into possibility.