Actors' Renaissance Season 2007

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Stuff that Happens
stuff that happens in the play
  • A minor devil named Pug persuades Satan to send him to earth. Satan imposes constraints upon him: he may remain only until midnight, he must make do with a ready-made body (of a cutpurse just hanged at Tyburn) instead of a new one, he must use his ingenuity to obtain clothes, and he is to serve the first man he meets.
  • In London, a foolish squire named Fitzdotterel longs to meet a devil; Pug appears and becomes his servant.
  • Fitzdotterel is particularly susceptible to the con artist Meercraft, who proposes many schemes to make the squire rich: distilling wine from raisins, manufacturing fine gloves from dog skins, and draining the fenlands.
  • Pug tries to seduce Mrs. Fitzdotterel; she thinks that her husband put him up to it as a test, so she exposes Pug, whom Fitzdotterel beats.
  • Two young gallants, Wittipol and Manly, see through both Fitzdotterel and Meercraft and manipulate both, initially for fun and eventually to effect justice.
  • Mrs. Fitzdotterel tricks Pug into arranging a meaning with Wittipol, who loves her. In revenge, Pug tells Fitzdotterel, then recognizes too late that by preventing adultery he failed to profit his master’s cause. Knowing Fitzdotterel’s passion for fine clothes, Wittipol trades a rich cloak for the squire’s permission to speak to Mistress Fitzdotterel, whereupon he proceeds to woo the young woman in the presence of her husband, who – according to the terms of the argument – must remain silent or forfeit the cloak.
  • When Fitzdotterel complains that his wife is not adapting to her forthcoming position as a duchess, Meercraft and his broker Engine devise a new plan to fleece him.
  • To protect Mrs. Fitzdotterel from the financial idiocies of her husband, Wittipol impersonates a Spanish lady, holds a “school” for fashionable ladies at Lady Tailbush’s house, and instructs them in exotic manners and elaborate cosmetic concoctions.
  • Revelations, imprisonments, and out-deviling the devil ensue.
Notes from the Executive Director
earning it the new fashioned way

When he wrote The Devil is an Ass 390 years ago, Ben Jonson might as well have been looking at the last two decades in America as at his own London. A full paraphrase of the play’s title would be, “When it comes to greed, stupidity, and vanity, the Devil is an ass compared to the people here on earth.” Jonson embodies those vices in Fitzdotterel, whose main preoccupation is achieving social standing at any cost. Because the appearance of success is so important to Fitzdottrel, he will even let another man woo his wife in exchange for a fashionable cloak to wear to the Blackfrairs. (What are you wearing? How did you get it?)

As he does in so many of his plays, Jonson delights in reproducing for his audience the language, its vocabulary and its rhythms, of various unsavory professions from alchemists to pimps, from quacks to lawyers. Here, in the person of Merecraft, he gives us the language of a “projector,” at 17th century version of what we would call an entrepreneur in search of investment capital. Merecraft is a scam artist who has found the perfect victim in Fitzdotterel, and much of the comedy in the play stems from watching Merecraft’s verbal manipulation of his eager patsy, who wants to be Duke of Drowned Land.

These kinds of delights are on display in all of Jonson’s great plays (most notably in Volpone and in The Alchemist), but in The Devil is an Ass, Jonson adds some unusual delights. For the first time ever, he puts supernatural creatures on stage (something for which he often scolded his friend William Shakespeare), and the play even opens with a scene in hell. What’s more, the closest he ever comes to a romantic plot is the wooing of Lady Fitzdottrel by Wittipol. Both the wooing scenes are remarkable. The first for its supreme use of dramatic irony as Wittipol makes Fitzdottrel witness the seduction of his own wife, and the second for its use of the balcony at the Blackfriars Playhouse (and also for its bawdiness).

For playgoers at Staunton’s Blackfriars, the Prologue of the play should be of particular interest, because we can see from it how popular it was to sit on the gallants’ stools when the King’s Men performed there. The speech is a plea to those gallants to make room for the actors to act. We can see that the interaction between audience and actor on that stage went two ways. We can also see that Jonson wanted the engagement of the audience and he wanted it, as do we, to be of the sort that increases their pleasure in the play.

In that respect, we think that for its audiences Ben Jonson would envy the American Shakespeare center and the new Blackfriars Playhouse.

Ralph alan cohen

Executive Director