Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Edward Kelley's Alchemy: Fact or Fraud?

Playwriting has some alchemical aspects to it. And like any good alchemist, I don't want to to give away too many of my secrets about writing Burn Your Bookes.

But in writing a play about Edward Kelley, there is no secret about the biggest problem confronting the playwright: Was Kelley a fraud and charlatan -- either as a scryer or an alchemist or both? Was he really talking to spirits and angels? Was he really making gold?

In the spirit of keeping secrets, I will take a pass for the moment on my views on the spiritual actions described in such detail in Meric Causabon's 1659 collection of John Dee's transcripts of the angelic conversations, A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between John Dee... and Some Spirits. It's a complicated question with more than 500 pages of evidence to sift through. I did sift through it. I came to my conclusions. The play makes those conclusions clear.

The question that I wrestled with mightily was the question of Kelley's alchemy. It seems impossible to write about Kelley without taking a position on the question of whether he made gold or not.

Writing Kelley as a fake is difficult in the 21st Century. That's the picture that creative works -- Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, for instance --have given us for centuries now. And the historians have been even worse. The fantastical legends that grew up around Kelley decades after his death in 1597 painted him as a grave robber and swindler whose ears had been cropped in the stocks in Lancaster before he even walked through John Dee's door. His alchemical dealings have also been tarred as fraudulent and criminal well into the 20th Century. A bit of Ralph M. Sargent's 1935 biography of courtier, diplomat and poet Edward Dyer (At the Court of Elizabeth, Oxford University Press) gives a flavor of opinion on Kelley into recent times.

Sargent's biography gets lots of facts wrong as it winds through the complicated tale of Dyer's missions to Bohemia to deal with Dee and Kelley -- and then later, with Kelley alone -- on the instructions of the highest levels of the English government. Indeed, the author's animus against Kelley blinds him to some of the most interesting bits of the story of Kelley's flight from Prague and first arrest in 1591 and Dyer's imprisonment in Bohemia in connection with the affair:

That Edward Kelley was no honest alchemist his dealings with Dyer and [William Cecil, Lord] Burghley attest. Had he been able to perform what he claimed for himself, he would have had need of none of the promises and guarantees he asked for. On the contrary, of course, he was playing the ancient game of all charlatans.... Kelley's career differs from that of an ordinary mountebank by the audacity of his claims and the magnitude of his success.

"The magnitude of his success." Interesting words. Indeed, Sargent even admits that "[h]is tricks, whatever they may have been, were never during his life, or later, satisfactorily exposed."

Dee believed that Kelley could transmute, mentioning the fact on multiple occasions in his private diaries. Dyer's belief was so powerful -- and has the added power of his time working with Kelley in his lab -- that Francis Bacon mentioned it in his Apophthegma, which was published in 1626 -- almost four decades after Dyer first encountered Kelley and 19 years after Dyer's death:

Sir Edward Dyer, a grave and wise gentleman, did much believe in Kelley the alchymist ; that he did indeed the work, and made gold : inso much as he went himself into Germany, where Kelley then was, to inform himself fully thereof. After his return, he dined with my Lord of Canterbury, where at that time was at the table Dr. Browne, the physician. They fell in talk of Kelley. Sir Edward Dyer, turning to the Archbishop, said ; I do assure your Grace, that that I shall tell you is truth. I am an eye-witness thereof, and if I had not seen it, I should not have believed it. I saw Master Kelley put of the base metal into the crucible, and after it was set a little upon the fire, and a very small quantity of the medicine put in, and stirred with a stick of wood, it came forth in great proportion perfect gold, to the touch, to the hammer, to the test. Said the Bishop ; l You had need take heed what you say, Sir Edward Dyer, for here is an infidel at the board. Sir Edward Dyer said again pleasantly ; I would have looked for an infidel sooner in any place than at your Grace's table. What say you, Dr. Browne? saith the Bishop. Dr. Browne answered, after his blunt and huddling manner, The gentleman hath spoken enough for me. Why (saith the Bishop) what hath he said? Marry, (saith Dr. Browne) he said he would not have believed it except he had seen it ; and no more will I.

The other piece of evidence is Kelley's own self-assurance, bordering on arrogance. His famous tract, "The Stone of the Philosophers," apparently written during one of Kelley's stints in prison, is dedicated to Emperor Rudolf II and starts off with one of the most breathtakingly audacious introductions I have ever read:

Though I have already twice suffered chains and imprisonment in Bohemia, and indignity which has been offered to me in no other part of the world, yet my mind, remaining unbound, has all this time exercised itself in the study of that philosophy which is despised only by the wicked and foolish, but is praised an admired by the wise.... Nevertheless, it always was, and always will be, the way of mankind to release Barabbas and to crucify Christ.

And then, of course, there is also the first stanza of Kelley's poem that gives my play its title:

All you that faine philosophers would be,
And night and day in Geber's kitchen broyle,
Wasting the chips of ancient Hermes' Tree,
Weening to turn them to a precious oyle,
The more you work the more you loose and spoile;
To you, I say, how learned soever you be,
Go burne your Bookes and come and learn of me.

The notion that Kelley might be no fake at all was a powerful lure for me to write. But I didn't want to turn the play into a piece of magical unrealism. So I went looking for explanations that might have Kelley making gold but not through magic.

Enter Ivan Sviták -- Czech philosopher and one of the intellectual giants of the Prague Spring in 1968. Faced with a jail sentence after the Soviet invasion, Sviták emigrated to the United States and ended up teaching at California State University at Chico. (His book of essays written during the Prague Spring -- The Czechoslovak experiment, 1968-1969 -- remains one of the wisest. most humane and most ebullient political books ever written.)

Sviták had a passionate interest in the story of Dee and Kelley (and, also, Kelley's stepdaughter Elizabeth Jane Weston). He wrote a trio of books about these three personages which are available in their entirety only in Czech editions published in 1994.

Fortunately, Sviták also published a short article in English about Dee and Kelley in the journal Kosmas in 1986. It contained a bombshell: An argument that Kelley's chicanery was never uncovered because it he was not a fraud at all. Sviták recites the eyewitness evidence of Kelley's "transmutations" and then writes:

We could dismiss these reports as simply common fraud and alchemical tricks... My explanation coincides with the historical evidence available about Rosenberg mining and about his constant effort to improve the conditions in the old gold mines in Jilove (Eule) near Prague.

The short version of Sviták's theory is that Kelley was using mercury to extract trace amounts of gold and other precious metals from seemingly spent soils in old mines. "The metallurgist must have appeared to his contemporaries as a magician," Sviták writes. "Indeed he was producing gold from earth, and everybody could see that..." (Sviták also posits that Kelley's training as an apothecary gave him useful knowledge of all sorts of drugs -- a leg up in making things like aurum potabile, or liquid gold.)

But the important thing for me, as a playwright, is that Sviták's theory -- which I think holds up quite nicely -- also carved out space for me to imagine myself back into Kelley's shoes. He's a bad guy, yes. Machiavellian to Max-iavellian. But he's smart. Super smart. And that fabled arrogance is, in some important ways, justified.

In short, it let me imagine a Kelley that is comprehensible to a modern sensibility without resort to magic or an outright con job. It's all of a sudden a very complicated and very believable story. Which is just the sort of thing to write a play about....


RmH said...

That's a fascinating and credible theory. I've always had an interest in Dee and Kelly, though of the two Kelly was the more evocative of the pair.

Consider me sold on the mercury theory for his 'transmutations'. Now if I could just come up with an explanation for the complexities what he related to Dee through his 'angels'. There must be some more plausible explanation than visits from disembodied beings.

Anonymous said...

I reached the same conclusion as Svitak, independetly, I never read his books :-). Kelley owned a large part of Jilove town, famous place of gold mines. While he did not own the mines, he might have found one new, secret motherlode. That would explain the huge amount of the gifts made of true gold he was spreading around quite extravagantly.

As for his metal transmutations: one of gold composites is of red colour, and his red powder could have been it. It was just enough to cover the surface of the pot or develop those red crystals in the mixture. That would be nothing new: historically, gold composite was used for centuries to color the ordinary glass red.