This guest post was contributed by Lydia Craig, MA student at Loyola University, Chicago.
Ben Jonson’s ironic prologue to The Alchemist (1610) might easily describe the grimy, depressive atmosphere of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1864-5):
‘Our scene is London, ‘cause we would make known,
No country’s mirth is better than our own,
No clime breeds better matter, for your whore,
Bawd, squire, impostor, many persons more,
Whose manners, now called humours, feed the stage:
And which have still been subject, for the rage
Or spleen of comic writers’
(The Alchemist, Prologue).
A comedic playwright himself, Jonson describes the true intent behind his amusing spectacles: to improve his countrymen’s morals through deploring the morally corrupt age. He advises his audience to sit by the stream where flows the filth of London’s sewers to ‘look what it doth run’ if they wish to behold the evidence of its people’s guilt. Jonson sets his play in a Blackfriars house, near where the Fleet River emptied into the Thames, ‘an unsanitary ditch along which no reputable people would live’ (Furdell 63). From the safety of Master Lovewit’s abandoned house, as plague infects London, a quack alchemist (Subtle) and a whore (Doll) join in a ‘venture tripartite’ with Lovewit’s faithless butler (Jeremy Face), to cozen ‘respectable’ citizens. Puritans, Sir Epicure Mammon, and the country gentleman Kastril trade money, fortune, and women for the promise of the philosopher’s stone, which magically turns any substance into gold, restores youth, and destroys disease.