Knowledge, power, vulnerability and the death of alchemy: a conversation with Richard Byrne

In the first ever Ibishblog interview, I talk to Richard Byrne, author of the recently produced play Burn your Bookes about the 16th century alchemist Edward Kelly which was performed by the Taffety Punk Theater Company at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington DC.

I: First of all, let me say congratulations on a really brilliant play, Burn your Bookes, and I want to just ask you the outset what exactly overall you were trying to communicate? Thematically, what’s the essence of your play, or does it defy a reduction like that?

B: It’s a play about knowing, and the costs of knowing to yourself and, more importantly, to others. Alchemy and the story of Edward Kelly was a good way to get into that topic because so many characters in it are obsessed with knowing and different kinds of knowing. We have John Dee, the great Renaissance polymath, who was one of Marlow’s models for Faustus, and very much so since Dee only began to engage in what he called ?angelic conversations? because he felt that he had exhausted human knowledge. And then you have Edward Kelly who, as we learn more about him…

I: Who could have been Jonson’s model for The Alchemist.

B: He was in some ways. In reputation, he was certainly the model. But Kelly clearly had some knowing and couldn’t properly capitalize on it.

I: The knowing you’re talking about here is proto-metallurgy?

B: Yes, and I think he was also very keen student of human nature.

I: Like any good grifter? A lot of what goes on in the play is other people being manipulated by Kelly: Dee, Dee’s wife, Kelly’s own wife, his stepdaughter and rival alchemists or other figures. Kelly is the central figure in your play because whatever he’s doing, it crucially involves manipulating other people.

B: Manipulating them to what end is really the question, and if you wanted to really reduce it, you’d say he was an entrepreneur. But his writings make it clear that he really did feel he was onto something real, that he had solved a lot of the riddles in the alchemical writings he had read and was attempting to communicate them somehow. That is where I think the theory that he was engaging in metallurgy under the cover of alchemy is convincing. It’s convincing because we know about what properties and duties he was given by the Emperor and nobles, many of which had to do with production in their mines.

I: He was sort of a minister of mining, 500 years ago version.

B: Yes, and almost every alchemist in that period who was a fake was eventually caught, and we know how and why they were busted. Kelly was never caught.

I: He died in debtors’ prison.

B: In those days you wouldn’t be just put in prison for being a fake alchemist, they did nasty stuff to some of the folks I read about.

I: Well, in the second act, which is I think in many ways the most perfect of the three and is brilliantly done, you’ve got Kelly having a conversation with two fellow alchemists, one, Muller, a self-avowed con man and fake, the other, Syrrus, a credulous and earnest fool. Kelly is kind of positioned triangularly between the two of them, as they are being hung up in cages literally to rot. That’s the kind of punishment you are talking about, I take it?

B: That was apparently a punishment that Rudolph meted out to some alchemists. The alchemists went on strike, and he made an example of them. I took his punishment for the striking alchemists and imposed them on the fakes, because execution wouldn’t have served my dramaturgical purposes.

I: To return to the first act for a second, Kelly is still the central figure but his principal target and victim isn’t his wife or Dee, it’s Dee’s wife. The intention of his manipulations is twofold: he wants to possess Dee’s wife, for whatever reason, and he’s also plotting to unseat and remove Dee and take his place in Bohemia. Your play does an interesting job of juxtaposing and pairing the kind of manipulation designed to betray his patron and virtually rape his wife with his actual proto-scientific stuff, so where does it fall in the realm of knowledge? There are at least two angles here: Kelly and Dee’s wife.

B: That’s a great question. The events concerning Act I are heavily documented, and I feel as a playwright the need to maintain a certain fidelity to the known facts. Kelly certainly adhered to the school of belief that predominated at that time, which held that to be a true alchemist, and if you wanted to bring forth fertility or health in other human beings, you have to be proven fertile yourself.

I: You had to have the power of essence.

B: So, much of Kelly’s desire to possess Dee’s wife is bound up with that.

I: He never had any children with his own wife?

B: These are the little cross currents of history. His actual wife, Joan Kelly, did have two children with her first husband, but the suggestion is that her second child was a difficult birth that left her subsequently barren and infertile. So Kelly was left, in my view, in a state of unknowing as to whether he was fertile or not. And when you read the angelic conversations and Dee’s private diaries much of the machinations of Kelly seem to be to prove himself fertile. He certainly didn’t want to kill Dee and marry his wife.

I: He was a scryer for Dee. Is there any reason to think that he was sincere, or was he simply manipulating him, or something in between?

B: There is a range of possibilities. The first possibility is that Edward Kelly could see angels in a glass.

I: Okay, let’s move right along from that one.

B: But there are a lot of people who believe that. Number two is that Kelly was somehow mentally ill and thought he saw things. When you read the angelic conversations he had you are struck by the amazing language and imagery, and it’s all coherent, not incoherent. So it tends to make me feel that it’s not really anything about mental illness. That leaves us with a third possibility, which was that Kelly knew exactly what he was doing and he was making up stuff as he was looking into the glass. And then there is a range within that, because he clearly wanted to stop. He didn’t want to be a scryer, because they’re often mentally ill but they had that weird quality of knowing. Nobody pays you to do that anymore. This was a big question for the actor playing Kelly. Daniel Flint was brilliant in the role. But my feeling is that even if Kelly was seeing what he wanted to see and was using those visions for his own purposes all along, over a five-six-year relationship, to live that kind of a lie in very close proximity with someone, who was one of the most brilliant people in the Renaissance, by the way, I would think that your version of what is reality starts to blur slightly. And ultimately I think that’s where I land. So I think he was very convinced of his own power to see or to create or to imaginatively inhabit this universe.

I: In a certain sense, if you do it for seven years to a very willing audience including yourself and all the other people around you, the difference between what you actually see and what you say you see ultimately would become almost meaningless.

B: Especially if you’re being rewarded for it. Let’s get back to Dee’s wife. During the production we had a lot of conversation about what was rape, what was consensual, not consensual, and what I was always trying to impress upon Marcus Kyd, the director, and the actors involved was that to my mind this is more sinister than a rape. This is two men, essentially, colluding to use one of their wives as a test tube.

I: Because Kelly wants to prove himself fertile in order to prove himself worthy as an alchemist, and Dee wants Kelly to impregnate his wife so that he can have a scryer on hand.

B: It becomes very much a transaction. I think some historical facts either speak to the abject helplessness of Jane Dee or to some sort of ambivalence because we don’t really know. The historical fact is that after this incident in 1588, Jane had this child and a few more children by Dee, so clearly the marriage didn’t end, and for the same reason that I was trying to signal to the audience that this is a very complicated situation and this isn’t a sort of ?no means no? modern sensibility of rape. There’s something very complicated going on here and in my view something very sinister.

I: You present it as quite evil and tragic, and almost devastating, it’s not overstated but it’s almost overwhelming.

B: This is the human cost of knowing. These are two men who are pursuing knowing to the destruction of a third-party.

I: What about her form of knowing? She doesn’t believe Kelly. So all of these people are running around pursuing knowledge, and everyone’s taken in to some extent, and the only one who isn’t taken in, in your play, is Dee’s wife, the ultimate victim.

B: That’s the essential tragedy of the first act. Knowing doesn’t save you.

I: Let’s talk about knowledge and the second act, because these sorts of imperfect versions of knowledge in the cages, the knowledge of how to con people but not well enough not to get caught, and knowledge of alchemy that is superficial enough to get you earnestly, credulously strung up in a cage. But then you’ve got Kelly, who is armed with a lamp and a staff as he is triangulated between the two, which give him the symbols of insight and action, so that is an encounter between three forms of knowing: two naïve kinds and one that avoids a certain kind of naïveté, or does it?

B: That’s the basic structure.

I: It has a wonderful geometry on stage.

B: When it was produced in the Prague Festival, the director had Kelly making a figure 8, an infinite loop, around each of the cages. In this production we were more interested in having Kelly interact with and take power over the other two. But there is also compensating knowledge in each. The con man knows enough to get away with it unless a certain kind of knowledge intervenes.

I: The knowledge of a better con man, Kelly, who exposed him.

B: And the fool who actually possesses the raw material, the tincture.

I: What is tincture?

B: There are two sorts of tincture. Alchemically, tincture is a combination of elements that are boiled in liquid. But by the late 16th century the definition of tincture had expanded. In earlier alchemical times, a red powder would never in and of itself have been tincture, which would have needed to have been reduced to some sort of an oil. In Kelly’s time, it could encompass almost anything that’s transformational, so the red tincture in this case is the powder that the earnest fool Syrrus has, and doesn’t know its power.

I: Did it have any power?

B: That’s an excellent question, at the essence of the whole Kelly/metallurgy theory, which was first proposed by Ivan Svitak, a Czech political philosopher who got caught up in the Prague Spring and ended up at UC Chico. He posited that what Kelly was actually doing was reprocessing waste from mines that hadn’t been thoroughly processed and was using mercury ? “red tincture” ? to do it. So in my universe the fool in the cage, Syrrus of Augsburg, is in possession of large quantities of mercury, which is very hard to come by, and he doesn’t know what to do with it, whereas in Kelly’s hands it could be used to make a lot of money.

I: Let’s talk about Syrrus’ form of knowing.

B: He knows just enough to get into real trouble. And the con man, Muller, knows enough to be a knight unless a superior knowledge intervenes. He’s learned a lot, but not quite enough.

I: Yes, because Kelly is responsible for both of their predicaments by exposing them. Before we leave the second act, I’d like you to talk about Kelly’s drunkenness. I’ve seen it four times, performed by the same actor, and each time it’s been played at a different level of drunkenness in that scene. He’s never sober, since it’s late night and he’s staggering home, and that’s built into the script. But I’ve seen it performed with him just tipsy enough to be obnoxious and also with him very drunk indeed.

B: That’s an acting choice. Daniel was never unfaithful to the logic of his own choice. His choice of degree of drunkenness was always calibrated to reach the end result I built into the second act which is that Kelly is empowered and knowledgeable. I think by the logic of the act, Kelly can’t be too drunk and my feeling is that Kelly comes there thinking, “by the end of the night I’m going to be in possession of a whole lot of tincture,” and I think that would lend him to a celebratory mood. And they’re both caged up and pose no threat to him. The question for an actor is, are you consistent with the inevitable draining away of inebriation to get to where you need to be at the end.

I: The third act is still about knowing. In this case Kelly appears only in flashbacks, only in the memory of his stepdaughter Westonia. And now we see Kelly in a new role, suddenly he is a doting stepfather, almost a model stepfather in a sense. Or is he?

B: I think it’s clear that Kelly sees a lot of his own intelligence in her, but the question is, is the kind of knowing he’s giving her not going to eventually make her very unsafe?

I: Because, again, it’s not enough. Like Muller and Syrrus she has some knowledge but not enough knowledge, and she has tincture.

B: Even with someone he clearly adores and clearly is mentoring at some level, he is still capable of manipulating them to his own ends, and in this case it’s hiding his tincture.

I: Would you we relate that to the title of your play, Burn your Bookes, which refers to a poem by Kelly which culminates with ?go burn your bookes, and come and learn of me,” suggesting that all existing knowledge other than what he possesses is useless and anyone who wants true knowledge must learn from him. He gives his stepdaughter knowledge, but not enough for agency. The agency she has is not a reflection of what Kelly has taught her, unless it’s a kind of linguistic facility. So, in a sense, it’s a very false promise.

B: It’s a very false promise for Muller as well. He is supposed to be learning from Kelly, but Kelly is only telling him just enough to get by. And you get that with Westonia, but you are dealing with a child or young teenager, so you really can’t explain that much detail to them.

I: He doesn’t tell her what they’re hiding is tincture, he just tells her it’s a powerful thing that isn’t for her and she must give it to some man.

B: And he doesn’t tell her even that until the very moment that he has to tell her so that the secret won’t get out. He tells her, but he doesn’t tell her. He gives her what we could consider a Renaissance version of a password to get into it. But I really did want to complicate that knowing for Westonia. What does she know, especially given that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, particularly so for her because it is a very physical danger that Kelly has put her in.

I: The danger comes from a spy who keeps breaking in and demanding tincture and information at knife point. Were there incidents like that in her life or is this a generalized metaphor for predators who wanted Kelly’s knowledge?

B: We don’t have a recorded moment of this kind of thing actually happening. But Act I was more difficult to write because there is such a mass of historical documentation, and with Act III, while there is much less of that, we are true to the general outline: she was a young woman trapped in Bohemia and writing poetry to the Emperor.

I: Are the poems you include genuine?

B: They are by her, and I translated them into rhymed couplets. She wrote in Latin, in traditional Latin blank verse. I wanted to do two things: I wanted to heighten the poetic language, because the play is already full of a lot of wordplay, so I wanted to make sure that the poetry was obviously such and that’s why used rhymed couplets. But it was easier to write Act III because while I had the general outline I was able to bring in a lot of other characters. I didn’t feel quite as hemmed in by the actual history, which there is a need to respect. For instance, Amadeus is a great play, but it’s totally unfair to the character of Salieri. This was basically a character assassination, and I didn’t want to do anything like that.

I: I’m glad to say I think that almost everyone knows that Amadeus is completely fictional, but maybe there may be some who don’t.

B: I think there are a lot of people who don’t.

I: Unfortunately, I guess you’re right. You know Shaffer didn’t come up with that on his own. It was a play by Pushkin originally, that got turned into something much better by him.

B: I’m not familiar that.

I: I mean it’s not entirely his fault. He took the conceit and turned it into something better, but it’s totally unfair. What about Westonia’s two suitors? You’ve got George of Silesia and Leo the lawyer, who she ended up marrying. The way you present them they seemed to me a couple of idiots.

B: I don’t think that they’re idiots. I think George is an aesthete, he’s fallen in love with her poetry, and hence with her. This is one of the great things about that doing a play with a company like Taffety Punk, which has a frame of reference that is very modern. A lot of them having been in punk rock bands, they all thought he was like the classic A&R guy from a record company. He’s very much a talent scout, but he’s very much in love with her. He sees himself very much mirrored in her. So I don’t think he’s an idiot, I think he’s young man who is infatuated and in a way that young men are when your sexual passion and your aesthetic passions are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. And Leo I think very much views her as a singular personality and something attractive that he wants. He feels the path he’s chosen as a lawyer is somewhat more boring than his actual aspirations and by marrying someone who is on a more interesting path he is somehow filling a void. It’s more like an enzyme fitting operation. They are definitely young men who aren’t operating on the level of Kelly or Westonia.

I: She’s miles ahead of both of them, which is I guess what I meant. None of them seem to me to have anything you could call systems of knowing, or if they do it seems rudimentary. In the end of the play, alchemy dies, in a couple of ways. First, because she doesn’t know what to do with a tincture and doesn’t know how to interpret Kelly’s poems, and her new husband either isn’t interested or up to the task.

B: He doesn’t know.

I: So in that sense, the legacy dies. It ultimately proves to be infertile, it cannot pass it to the next generation. It is a barren legacy. The second way in which it dies is that she declares at the very end that they are forbidden by law to ever speak of alchemy, because the authorities have felt that it’s a criminal racket. So that means also that it’s dead not just within the milieu of Kelly’s family, but it’s dead socially because authorities have banned it. And thirdly, we are moving out of one system of knowledge, out of the medieval and Renaissance system of knowledge and structure of viewing the world as a collection of symbols that have to be interpreted mystically and metaphysically, into a world of testable reality, that is measurable and verifiable rather than interpreted. So all the background of the alchemical symbols on your set were rendered moot and meaningless, and the idea of interpreting these monads of the world becomes ridiculous as alchemy gives way to chemistry and metallurgy, and metaphysics to science.

B: I think you’ve hit all the major points about the end of the play. There are two other things though. To your second point about alchemy becoming socially unacceptable, I’d like to fast forward on that a little bit. Alchemy doesn’t really die out until the end of the 17th, early 18th century. Let’s think about the battering rams that discredit it. First of all, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist as a satire, and just the overall sense that none of this stuff works.

I: But it’s not alchemy that gets overthrown, it’s the entire metaphysical worldview that gets overthrown by the scientific revolution in the 17th century.

B: And Kelly is one of the last of them. In the play he’s sort of moving away from it as well. Those are the books that you’re burning.

I: And what he’s offering his proto-metallurgy.

B: Exactly. I want to push that home a little more. If you think about the monad, that’s the journey of the play. The journey you’ve just talked about from a world where alchemy is considered something that makes perfect sense to one in which it is thrown out altogether. Remember we end with a candle being blown out.

I: And in your play the lighting of a candle is always the sign of a metaphysical process at work.

B: But the play begins with Dee describing to Dyer his hieroglyphic monad. What’s at the center of that? The earth, with the sun revolving around it. It’s a Ptolemaic model, not a Copernican model. So these are not dueling arcs, they are parallel arcs.

I: This is probably a question for the director, but I’m going to ask you anyway. The characters’ faces are painted with symbols and a lot of the people I went with were puzzled by this. Of course that added a punk feel to it and everything, but the sense I could make of it is the way it doubles back on what we’ve been talking about. Because you have the characters represented by these images painted on their faces, they are therefore in a sense readable in symbolic ways. At the end of the play when we’re no longer permitted to speak about alchemy, Westonia is wiping the painted symbols off of her face because we are no longer in a reality which is about symbolic interpretation, but are now in a reality that is measurable, testable and verifiable because we are in the middle of the scientific revolution.

B: Yes, and I was very much in favor of the face-painting. But it was also supposed to represent some of the interiority of some of the characters. I think we wanted to give audience more signposts. Especially Act I is a very dense piece that is asking a lot of the audience to follow. With Act I, everything has to go right to make it work. I think if you’re reading it, Act I is easy to make out. The question is, is everything working as well as it can on stage. I was amazed at how well it did end up working. But the writer here is taking some responsibility for clarity, and it’s something you learn as a playwright. Act I was by far the bit that took the most drafts, and in contrast Act II and Act III were a doddle to write. This is something you learn as a playwright to solve conceptually. The triptych element asks the audience to process a lot: three different views of Edward Kelly that inform against each other at some level. That’s not the easiest thing in the world.

I: I think people responded very well and you could have had at least another two weeks out of that run.

B: As a playwright I want to set the bar high for myself and for the audience.

I: Let’s talk a little bit about language. You play a lot of interesting games with the language in the play and some of it is quite subtle.

B: What I was aiming for was an active language that was going to evoke that period without replicating it, and certain characters like John Dee need to be a lot more in that realm. There are moments when I knew the audience wasn’t going to take in everything he was saying, but it was more important how he was saying it.

I: What’s next?

B: I had read Tacitus’ Annals but I had never read his Histories and last summer when I did, I got to this point very early when he mentions the fake Nero who showed up very shortly after Nero’s suicide, who looked like Nero, played the lyre, and raised an army of rabble, criminals and slaves. They caught up with him on an island and cut his head off and sent it on a tour of the empire, on which everyone said, “oh wow, he does look a lot like Nero.”

I: So the message was both this is what happens you if you do this and, by the way, doesn’t it really look like him so it’s not that surprising some of us were fooled?

B: Yes. So I’ve written a play about that called Nero Pseudo.

I: Not Pseudo Nero?

B: Pseudo Nero is the correct term, but I’m inverting it for reasons that will become apparent. And I’m starting to research and write a play about the original Luddites. It’s a lot of fun.

I: Very topical. We’ll be waiting with bated breath to see it. Thank you very much for joining me on the first Ibishblog interview.