Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Q & A About Burn Your Bookes

Taffety Punk Theatre Company's production of my play, Burn Your Bookes, opens at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. on Friday, April 30. I'll be blogging about various aspects of it here until opening night. Info/tix at

As Taffety Punk put together the press push for Burn Your Bookes, we decided on some video (stay tuned) and on a quick Q & A with the playwright that gets people up to speed on alchemy, why the play is a "triptych," and also introduces some of the main characters in the play, including Edward Kelley and his stepdaughter, Elizabeth Jane Weston (right).

I decided to share the Q & A with the wider Balkans via Bohemia audience. Want me to delve deeper into any questions? Leave a comment and 'll do so in a future post.

Why is alchemy so difficult to understand today?

The English historian Charles Nicholl writes that “Like all occult systems, alchemy employs a language of symbolism and subterfuge. You enter a linguistic labyrinth full of cross-references and false trails. Its strange and wonderful images -- its green lions and red kings, its nigredos and albedos, its lactating virgins and cannibalistic couplings -- have a multiplicity of interpretations and counter-interpretations.”

The simpler answer is that alchemists wanted it that way. In this case, knowledge really was power. If everyone knows how to do what you do, then why are queens and emperors going to employ you?

Another problem is that you had to get results. And though alchemy was a forerunner of modern science, its methods and approach to knowledge were often at odds with what we now call the “scientific method.” Modern science values transparency, clear writing, and a gradual approach to knowing via hypotheses and experiments. Alchemy was murky, metaphorical and often attempted to work backward from grand cosmological schemes.

Why is Burn Your Bookes a triptych?

The information that we have about Edward Kelley is so contradictory that it is almost impossible to fashion a clear and straightforward narrative.

We know almost nothing about Kelley before 1582 (when he was 27 years old) except for wild legends about necromancy, forgery and criminal acts. Then he steps into the home of John Dee – one of the great English intellectuals of the Renaissance – and we have six years of the minutest detail about him: visions he saw in a scrying glass, drunken escapades, fights with his wife, his strange relationship with Dee, and Dee’s report that he did indeed appear to “manufacture” gold.

Then Kelley breaks with Dee in 1588 and the record of him becomes more obscure again. We know he was made a knight in Emperor Rudolph II’s court. He was thrown in jail – not for alchemical fraud, but rather to prevent him from leaving Bohemia to return to England. He’s released to find himself impoverished, and is eventually thrown in jail for debt and dies in prison. Even his death is murky. There are tales of an escape attempt, and even suicide.

The play is structured in such a way as to capture those contradictions of Kelley’s life and character. Each of the plays three acts informs the other two acts, and informs against them too.

The play argues that Kelley was not a charlatan. If not, how did he get such a bad reputation?

Three main reasons. The first was the growing notion – reinforced even in contemporary plays such as Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610) – that alchemy equaled fraud. Kelley was by far the most famous English alchemist; thus, he was seen as the biggest fraud.

The second reason was the posthumous publication in 1659 of John Dee’s extraordinarily detailed diaries of his “spiritual actions” (i.e., crystal gazing) with Kelley as A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. The diaries not only revealed that Dee and Kelley talked with spirits and were given an “Enochian language” by angels, but also that Dee and Kelley drew up and acted upon a compact to share all things in common, even their wives. It’d be scandalous today; think about the reaction in 1659.

A third reason that Kelley has continued to have a bad reputation is modern scholarship on John Dee, which steadfastly denigrates Kelley to reestablish Dee’s reputation as one of the great – and most interesting intellects – of the Renaissance. The project of restoring Dee was long overdue and has produced rich and wonderful scholarship. But many of the scholars who’ve embarked upon it have cut through the knotty complexities of the Kelley/Dee relationship by deriding Kelley, eliding Kelley, or just plain ignoring him.

Who was Elizabeth Jane Weston?

Part of my inspiration to write the play was to address the role of the women in the tale of Kelley’s life. What did Kelley’s wife (Joan Kelley) and Dee’s wife (Jane Dee) make of this strange episode of “cross-matching” that their husbands concocted?

But as I researched and wrote the play, the story of Kelley’s stepdaughter, Elizabeth Jane Weston, intrigued me. She was a teenager when Kelley died, but her story sheds a great deal of light on what we know about his later years. We know that he employed a tutor to teach her Latin. We also know that around the time of his death, she began writing poems in Latin. Many of them were poems to the Emperor or other important figures in Prague, presenting herself as a poor English girl in Bohemia seeking redress for the injustice done to her family.

A woman writing Latin verse in 1602 was well past novelty. Westonia (as she styled herself) was a sensation among the network of Latin-speaking poets and writers across Europe. (One even sent her a laurel wreath.) We also know she had contact with other prominent alchemists, including Oswald Croll. (The Folger Shakespeare Library has a copy of her first book, called Poemata.)

Another interesting thing about Westonia is that her connection to Kelley was largely hidden from the time of death until the 20th century, even though she mentions Kelley in a poem to the emperor in her first book. Two Czech scholars rediscovered the connection in the 1920s, but English-speaking researchers did not pick up on it until the 1970s. Considering the continuous interest in Kelley from the time of his death to the present, this hidden relationship suddenly bursting forth into view in our own era after three centuries proved too tantalizing to resist dramatizing.

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