Last night I was privileged to witness a preview at the Kennedy Center of what looks to be a brilliant and important new play, "Burn Your Bookes," by Richard Byrne. It wasn’t a full performance of the work, sadly, but a kind of working rehearsal of Act II, performed by the excellent Taffety Punk Theatre Company of Washington DC. The group promises that a full production is high on their list of future projects, possibly to be staged next year. Based on what I saw last night, I can’t wait.
The play is about the late 16th century alchemist Edward Kelly and his patron and collaborator John Dee. There is a great deal of speculation about the activities of these notorious individuals, who have been the subject of discussion and analysis since their own lifetimes. Kelly is reputed to have been the model for Jonson’s masterpiece, "The Alchemist," and there is even speculation that Kelly and Dee were responsible for the magnificent but impenetrable Voynich Manuscript. Byrne essentially offers a recuperated version of the long-maligned Kelly, siding with a spate of recent scholarship which holds that, rather than a prototypical charlatan, his work was not only partially valid but that he was essentially an early scientific metallurgist.
The two found themselves in the capital of Bohemia, Prague, under the patronage of Emperor Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy. Act II occurs entirely outside the castle in Prague. It is basically a three-way dialogue between Kelly, who is passing by, and two fellow alchemists condemned to hanging in cages outside the castle walls. The prisoners call out to Kelly for help, initiating a conversation about politics, law and, of course, the nature and purposes of alchemy. One of the caged men is a blatant grifter who has attempted to defraud the monarch and been caught when his trick was revealed. Another is an earnest but incompetent and ignorant practitioner who chanced into the business and was summoned to the court, only to be arrested as a charlatan when he failed to produce any gold.
The fraud and the incompetent are isolated, suspended and half naked, relying entirely on their empty words and futile spitting at each other. They are literally and figuratively exposed. Kelly, however, is armed with a walking stick and a lamp, metaphorically suggesting that unlike the two caged alchemists, he has power and insight, at least enough not to get hung up in a cage. For now. In the course of the conversation it is revealed that unlike the fraud and the fool, Kelly has a sense of the nascent metallurgy involved in alchemy. He also reveals, or at least claims, that he was the one responsible for exposing the fraud and bringing the fool to court, in other words that he is the one, more than the King, who placed them in their dire situation. It amounts to a rather nuanced partial defense and partial condemnation of Kelly as one part brilliant proto-scientist, one part huckster and one part master-manipulator. The idea here is that the traditional view of alchemists as either blundering ignoramuses and/or cynical con-men is insufficient, and Byrne’s version of Kelly provides an alternative way of looking at alchemists and alchemy from a more complex and nuanced perspective.
Obviously, a real evaluation of Byrne’s plainly outstanding new play requires a full production. However, it’s perfectly clear from the one-act sneak preview last night that he has developed an artistically and historically significant work, and that his play rather powerfully take sides in an ongoing academic dispute about the nature of Kelly’s work and his status, and alchemy in general. The bad news is that we have to wait for full production. The good news is that it is coming, and in the meanwhile the sneak preview can be viewed online at the Kennedy Center website.