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Ben Jonson’s Comedy “Volpone”

Abridged Production History

The history of British dramaturgy cannot be discussed without mentioning Ben Jonson’s comedy Volpone, as such that represents a particularly high dramaturgic value. In its turn, this can be partially explained by the fact that the themes and motifs, contained in this play, did not only correlate with the innermost existential anxieties of Jonson’s contemporaries – even today, they represent an undermined discursive significance. In this paper, I will aim to explore the legitimacy of the earlier suggestion at length, while outlining the main hallmarks of the play’s production history and elaborating on how I would go about designing this play’s production-strategy.

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It is now believed that Volpone has been staged for the first time in 1606 at the Globe Theater (London). Even though that, as of today, it represents a rather impossible task to positively identify all the members of the original cast, there are good reasons to believe that, during the course of the play’s initial staging, it was namely John Lowin who performed as the main protagonist. According to the relevant accounts of the time, Alexander Cooke also took a part in the play’s initial production, while performing as the character of Lady Politic Would-be (McEvoy 55). Even though that the comedy’s first production was deemed thoroughly successful, the outbreak of plague in London in the same year made it impossible for Volpone to continue being staged in the Britain’s capital. Despite the fact that this did prevent Jonson’s comedy from attaining what is now being referred to as a ‘cult status’ with contemporaries, Volpone continued to enjoy a considerable popularity in British theatrical circles, which at the time consisted of predominantly the representatives of British aristocracy. The validity of this suggestion can be well illustrated in regards to the fact that Jonson’s comedy remained an integral part of the Royal court’s theatrical repertoire well through the course of 17th and 18th centuries. According to Steggle, through the years of 1700-1710 alone, Volpone has been staged in front of the members of Queen Anne’s court at least fifty-eight times (x). One of the main specifics of Volopne’s theatrical performances of the time was the fact that, while playing their roles, the actors used to actively interact with the members of viewing audiences. In fact, back then it used to account for a commonplace practice for actors to be forced to replay their parts, if spectators believed that the actors’ initial performance lacked in quality (Stern 278).

Nevertheless, as time went on, the popularity of Volpone was becoming progressively undermined. Partially, this had to do with what dramaturgic critics of the time used to refer to as the lessened extent of the comedy plot’s plausibility. Volpone was also criticized for the formulaic nature of the characters’ act, which was believed to reflect the sheer measure of Jonson’s intellectual inflexibility. Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that, even as early as at the end of the 18th century, Jonson’s comedy became the subject of a number of different theatrical adaptations, which were meant to revive the comedy’s dramaturgic appeal. The most notable of these adaptations was that of George Colman’s, who in 1771 staged a structurally revised version of Volpone in London. Colman’s adaptation was mainly concerned with the simplification of the Sir Politic’s sub-plot, which Colman believed was making it harder for viewers to concentrate on the main plot’s unraveling (Cave and Brian 167). Even though that Colman’s adaptation was initially proven a success, it nevertheless failed in ensuring the spatial ‘longevity’ of the comedy’s original themes and motifs. This is the reason why, after this particular adaptation’s last staging in 1785, Jonson’s comedy remained virtually forgotten for the duration of 136 years, before being revived by the Phoenix Society (Hammersmith) in 1921.

Nevertheless, it was specifically Stefan Zweig’s adaptation of Volpone, which was staged for the first time in 1926 in Vienna, which can considered as such that did result in the revival of Jonson comedy’s de facto popularity. According to Ribes, “Although the approaches of different translators to Zweig’s version were not uniform, the play nevertheless enjoyed surprisingly high records of attendance. This was particularly notable both in New York, where it held the stage for 160 nights starting 9 April 1928, and in Paris, where it was successfully premiered on 23 November 1928 and continued to run for 250 performances during that season” (62). One of the most notable characteristics of Zweig’s adaptation is the fact that, while reworking the Jonson’s original play, this Austrian writer made a deliberate point in eliminating the sub-plot, concerned with the character of Sir Politic Would-be and his wife.

What also makes Zweig’s version of Volpone different from the original one is that the earlier mentioned adaptation does not feature scenes in which the character of Volpone poses as Scotto the Mountebank. The reason for this is quite apparent – whereas, during the course of Jonson’s era, the ideas of a scientific Enlightenment were only beginning to define the essence of the surrounding socio-political reality, through the 20th century’s first half, these ideas attained a complete legitimacy. Therefore, had Zweig preserved the scene in which Scotto takes advantage of gullible people, while simultaneously praising science and conning them to buy his ‘miracle potion’, it would contradict the socio-cultural discourse of the time.

Another important aspect of Zweig’s adaptation was its explicitly sexual undertones, which caused many contemporary critics to accuse Zweig of peddling obscenity. This accusation, however, was not thoroughly rational, since the theme of sexuality continually resurfaces throughout the course of Jonson’s original play, as well. Zweig merely amplified this theme, so that his adaptation would be discursively consistent with the realities of the 20th century’s living.

In 1938, Volpone saw a new production at the Westminster Theatre (London), which, just as it was the case with Zweig’s adaptation, helped rather substantially to increase the extent of Jonson play’s dramaturgic appeal. In part, this can be explained by the fact that this production featured Donald Wolfit playing the role of Volpone. This actor was able to ensure the psychological integrity of his character to such an extent that his contemporaries would often refer to him as the Volpone’s actual embodiment. According to Hinchcliffe, “Wolfit had a terrifyingly personal relationship with every member of the audience… His (Wolfit’s) hypnotic, chuckling laugh… was an extraordinarily powerful moment, and an audience waited, completely controlled, not knowing which way the fox would jump” (55). Even today, the memetic image of Volpone continues being closely associated with Wolfit, as an actor who was predestined to play the role of Jonson’s main protagonist. Therefore, it is fully explainable why the Westminster Theatre’s production of Volpone is considered the most successful one. In fact, it established a quality-standard for the consequential productions of Jonson’s comedy, which even today continues to be thoroughly observed by directors.

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Another notable production of Volpone, Directed by Frank Hauser (Oxford Playhouse) took place in 1966. This production is being remembered for the fact that in it, Leo McKern (who played Volpone) was able to reveal the metaphysical essence of the main protagonist’s obsession with money, as such that was allowing Volpone to experience the joy of deception (Jensen 96). This is the reason why, as of today, this particular production is often being discussed as probably the most psychologically sound of all, even though it did not prove quite as successful as the previously mentioned one.

Nevertheless, the modern production history of Volpone is not only being concerned with the directors having deployed different approaches towards ensuring the characters’ psychological three-dimensionality, but also with them having strived to amplify the philosophical sounding of Jonson’s masterpiece. The validity of this statement can be explored in regards to the 1968 National Theater’s (London) production of Volpone, directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Even though that the director did not alter the original play’s structural subtleties (with the exemption of eliminating the Sir Politic’s sub-plot), he did succeed in endowing Volpone with an entirely new perceptual spirit. This is because Guthrie decided to adjust the actors’ appearance to be fully consistent with the atavistic implications of the concerned characters’ names. That is, the director made a deliberate point in representing Volpone’s main characters dressed in animal-costumes – in full accordance to their names’ animalistic connotations. While reflecting upon the significance of the Guthrie production’s animalistic imagery, Shaughnessy noted, “What makes (Guthrie’s) Volpone exceptional… is the presence of a frame of reference in which the relationship between the natural and the cultural is clearly, formally visible… Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino (vulture, raven, and crow) are outwitted by the Fox” (38). In its turn, this allowed Guthrie’s production to advance even further the idea that never ceased defining the original play’s semiotics – it is specifically the people’s animalistic side (unconscious), which defines the nature of their rational (conscious) choices. Given the fact that throughout the course of the 20th century’s second half, the representatives of Homo Sapiens species have been effectively exposed as essentially primates, it is fully explainable why Guthrie’s production enjoyed an enormous success with viewers. Apparently, it was well adjusted with the innermost essence of intellectually liberating anxieties, on their part.

As of more recent adaptations of Jonson’s comedy, are well worthy being mentioned the Italian 1988 film Il Volpone by Maurizio Ponzi (starring Paolo Villaggio and Enrico Montesano), the French 2003 film Volpone by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt (starring Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Prevost), and also the 2004 opera Volpone, produced by the Wolf Trap Opera Company (Vienna, Virginia). Even though that all of these adaptations feature a number of different alterations to the Jonson’s initial plot, they nevertheless do convey the comedy’s original spirit rather effectively. This serves as yet additional proof to the validity of the idea that it was namely due to the Jonson comedy’s intrinsic properties (concerned with exposing the true nature of people’s existential inclinations), that this dramaturgic masterpiece continues to represent an undermined discursive value.

Modern Production Concept

When it comes down to conceptualizing what would account for the methodologically legitimate approach towards ensuring the theatrical production’s successfulness, it is utterly important to be thoroughly aware of how this production can serve the purpose of propagating memes (the replicators of spatially unbounded cultural archetypes), contained in the original work of dramaturgy. According to Dawkins, “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body… memes propagate themselves in the meme (cultural) pool by leaping from brain to brain” (192). This suggestion is being consistent with Hutcheon’s theory of theatrical adaptation, which specifies that in order for the theatrical production to be considered thoroughly faithful to the written script’s original spirit, it must be capable of exposing the contained themes and motifs, as such that correlate with what happened to be the currently predominant socio-cultural discourse. This because theatrical productions are supposed to ensure the spatial survival of plays’ memetic contents, “The stage performances we call adaptations are the vehicles of narrative ideas – that is, their physical embodiment in some medium” (Bortolotti and Hutcheon 447). What it means is that it is specifically the theatrical production’s ability to convey the message of an ‘innate truth’ about the surrounding reality, regardless of how the director goes about setting up the actual stage-performance, which should be thought of as an indication of this production’s actual quality. In this respect, we can only agree with Bertolt Brecht, who never ceased stressing out that directors should always aim to create objective preconditions for the themes and motifs, explored in theatrical productions, to remain discursively relevant. As he noted, “We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field… but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself” (190). The earlier outlined conceptual provisions leave very few doubts, as to what should be considered a proper approach towards adapting Jonson’s play for the modern stage.

If I was a director, I would first identify the foremost memetic idea, promoted throughout the original play’s entirety. This task cannot be considered particularly challenging, because this idea is quite apparent: the layer of people’s cultural refinement is only skin-deep, because the manner in which they address life’s challenges effectively betrays them, as to what they really are – vicious animals, endowed with intelligence, upon which they rely when it comes to assuring their place under the sun. It is needless to mention, of course, that this idea is being fully compatible with what account for the realities of a post-industrial (modern) living. This is because, just as it was the case in Jonson’s time, the measure of contemporary individuals’ actual worth is being commonly assessed in regards to how much money they have in the bank, regardless of what happened to be the money’s actual source.

In its turn, this would justify my choice of how I would go about adapting Jonson’s play discursively. Instead of having the plot extricated in the 17th century’s Venice, I would have it unraveled in the 21st century’s Los Angeles. After all, just as it was the case with Venice during the course of the 17th century, today’s Los Angeles is commonly being referred to as an epitome of corruption, greed and perversion. This is because the flow of time never alters the foremost laws of historical dialectics. In our case, the concerned law has to do with the well-observed fact that too much money breeds corruption. In my production of Jonson’s comedy, the character of Volpone would be represented as a pretentiously pious and money-greedy Christian ‘televangelist’. The main secondary characters of Mosca, Voltore, Corbacio and Corvino would be respectively transformed into: an Illegal Mexican ‘handyman’, a rich ‘yuppie shyster’, a 70 year-old ‘newly born’ Christian, and an owner of a chain of McDonald’s restaurants. By applying the proposed adjustments, I would be able to ensure the survival of the earlier mentioned semiotic meme, contained in Jonson’s original comedy.

Given the fact that the play’s action implies an undermined spatial continuity, I think it would be fully appropriate to utilize minimalist settings. For example, Volpone’s room may well feature just some basic furniture. At their turn, actors can be dressed in an avant-gardist manner (black shirts and skirts/trousers). After all, in Volpone, it is not the settings’ contextual relevance, which ensures the play’s overall mise-en-scenic integrity, but the psychological plausibility of the provided on-stage performance.

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I believe that the provided abridged history of Volpone’s theatrical productions/adaptations, and my proposal as to what I consider an appropriate approach towards the staging of Jonson’s play today, is being thoroughly consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. As it was illustrated earlier, it is specifically the fact that Volpone contains a number of discursively relevant ideas/memes, which attracts viewers to this play’s modern productions. Therefore, it would only be logical for those in charge of designing Volpone’s production-strategies, to never cease being observant of what accounts for the play’s philosophical significance – as their foremost priority.

Works Cited

Brecht, Bertold. “A Short Organum for the Theatre.” Brecht of Theatre. Ed. John Willett. New York: Hill & Wang, 1977.179-205. Print.

Cave, Richard and E. Brian. Ben Jonson and the Theatre: A Critical and Practical Introduction. Florence, KY: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Hinchcliffe, Arnold. Volpone: Text and Performance. London: Macmillan, 1985. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda and Gary Bortolotti. “On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and ‘Success’ – Biologically.” New Literary History 38.3 (2007): 443-458. Print.

Jensen, Ejner. Ben Jonson’s Comedies on the Modern Stage. Ann Arbor, Ml: UMI Research Press, 1985. Print.

McEvoy, Sean. Ben Jonson: Renaissance Dramatist. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. Print.

Ribes, Purificacion. “Stefan Zweig’s Volpone, Eine Lieblose Komödie on Stage in Austria and Germany (1926-1927).” Ben Jonson Journal 14.1 (2007): 61-77. Print.

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Shaughnessy, Robert. “Twentieth-Century Fox: Volpone’s Metamorphosis.” Theatre Research International 27.1 (2002): 37-48. Print.

Stern, Tiffany. Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

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