Monday, 18 October 1999

Ben Jonson: The Devil is an Ass (1616)

Edition: Nick Hern Books
Review number: 363

Other than Volpone, I find Jonson's plays rather difficult to read, and I have never had the opportunity to see one on the stage. The main reason for both of these observations is to do with the large size of the cast and the lack of any large starring parts. (Shakespeare often also has large numbers of characters, but he generally writes at least one very dominant part which makes famous actors want to perform the play and also makes it easier to read - it's hard to forget who Hamlet is.)

The large casts make Jonson's plays confusing on the page, particularly when they have convoluted plots. On the stage they must be easier to follow. The Devil is an Ass is a satirical version of the Faust legend, as dramatised by Marlowe. A minor demon named Pug begs time off from his work in hell to go to Earth and cause mischief. The problem is that he is not very bright nor imaginative, and he finds that society is already far more sinful and wicked than anything he can conceive of. His tricks all go wrong - he gets employment as a servant, and seeks to cause trouble between his master and his wife by arranging for her to have an affair and him to find out; but she assumes that her jealous husband is trying to lay a trap for her.

I suspect that this, and the other parts of the plot, could be made great fun on stage, but I found that I had to concentrate so hard to follow what was going on that the play didn't grip me very strongly.

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