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Alchemy and Theater

by John H. Lienhard

We describe theater with words from the ancient world Richard has been describing. Yet those words have all changed. A theater is now a "play house," an enclosed structure, seldom open to the sky like ancient theaters. The orchestra was once a circular place for dancers. Now it's the ground floor — or a group of musicians. The proscenium was once the playing space behind the dancing ground. Now it's the arch that divides the imaginary world of the stage from the audience.

The rediscovery of visual perspective in the Renaissance led people to re-envision the playing area. The world behind the proscenium became a kind of diorama where sets gave illusions of depth and detail unknown to Aristophanes. By the turn of the 17th century, by Shakespeare's time, the theater was laying much different claims on the human psyche.

To understand more about that change, we turn, not yet to Shakespeare but to Queen Elizabeth's personal alchemist, John Dee. Dee was born in 1527 and studied in England and Flanders. He trafficked in all known science, and he also made heavy use of the quasi-magical side of alchemy and numerology. He became Queen Elizabeth's tutor in science before she was crowned — as well as her astrologer. Then he took a shadowy role in her court. She didn't make him an official counselor because his science lay too close to the occult. Instead, he traveled Europe as an academic, gathering information for her.

Elizabeth's eerie talent for sizing people up and manipulating the men in her court was legendary. She let an intimate laser charm break through her regal beauty and iron control just often enough to keep men slavishly loyal. Part of that intimacy was her practice of assigning nicknames. Her sea captain, Sir Francis Drake, was Water. John Dee she called Eyes.

And Dee was her eyes and ears. He signed his memos to Elizabeth with an odd symbol: two Ohs (a pair of eyes) followed by a 7 with its top drawn back across the Ohs.

[Armstrong] John, you don't mean ...

[Lienhard] I do indeed. That symbol, looked like a lady's lorgnette and formed a double-oh-seven (  ) four centuries before James Bond.

We could say much more about the Queen and her magician spy — how each seemingly controlled the other by weaving a web of mystery — even threat — to hide what was, in fact, hard-headed intelligence-gathering on both sides. But our interest here is the theater of their interaction.

Dee had a direct interest in theater. Remember Richard's Deus ex Mechanethe mechanical god appearing on ropes and pulleys. Not much of the magic that'd captivated the ancient world carried into Medieval theatre — the theatre of the Catholic Church. The church, after all, had the Biblical miracles and they were not to be outshone.

But that changed when English Renaissance alchemists rediscovered the Roman engineer Vitruvius. Vitruvius had catalogued the ancient technologies, filled one of his chapters with mechanical wonders: self-filling bowls, water organs, and more. As the Renaissance read those old texts with a new eye, Vitruvius's magic machines struck a nerve — especially among alchemists.

Understand: they held a strange view of magic. They mixed magic tricks with a belief in real magic powers. It seems baffling to us. John Dee always kept one eye on his volume of Vitruvius. He set up a catalogue of human knowledge using Vitruvian principles. And he brazenly mixed trickery in with what he claimed to be true magic.

When he was 20, Dee created one of the first magic devices in English Theatre. He built a great flying bird with a man on his back for an Aristophanes play. The device was primitive, but he stunned his audience by the sheer novelty of it.

Sixty years later, the brilliant and arrogant architect, Inigo Jones, surfaced. Jones read Dee. He trafficked with the later alchemists and he was intimate with Vitruvius. Late in life, Jones wrote a book on Stonehenge. He vainly tried to prove that it was a Roman temple built on Vitruvian principles.

Jones took up theatrical machinery in a very big way. His King, James I, put huge sums into his productions. And, as Dee's magic began appearing in the theatre, people began taking it for granted. They began to expect magic.

The writer Ben Jonson hated the alchemists, and he saw Jones as one of them. Jonson also hated seeing theatre made into a bag of cheap tricks. He wrote scathingly about Jones and his machines:

He designes, he drawes, he paints, he carues, he builds, he fortifies, Makes Citadels of curious foule and fish, ... He has Nature in a pot!

Still, these new Deus ex mechanes were here to stay. They took on a curious importance in Western thinking. When the alchemists put their magic in the theatre, they demystified magic itself. Magic out in the footlights was magic no longer. In the end, theatrical magic helped pave the way for a new and more rational science. It helped us expect magic of a better kind from technology and science.

[Armstrong] Something else about Elizabethan theater ...

[Lienhard] That would be?

[Armstrong] It was also over the top in another way. It was rife with violence and horror that still shocks us today. Do you think it'd be okay to talk about that?

[Lienhard] Let's take a chance. Do it!


R. Deacon, John Dee: Scientist, Geographer, Astrologer and Secret Agent to Elizabeth I. (Letchworth, Hertfordshire: Frederick Muller, 1968).

N. H. Clulee, John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion. (New York: Routledge, 1988).

P. French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, (New York: Dorset Press, 1972).

F. A. Yates, Theatre of the World. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969).

I. Jones, The Most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain called Stone-heng. Restored, (John Webb ed.) (London: J. Flesher for D. Pakeman and L. Chapman, 1655).

A. G. Debus, The English Paracelsians. (New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1966): Chapter I.

To satisfy the time demands of an audio story I've asserted some things that are only known circumstantially. For example, Jones was in several of the same places as the alchemist Robert Fludd (see Episode 614.) They were almost surely friends. Jones's education was such that he had to have read Dee (see Episode 474.) The author of Jones' book on Stonehenge is often given as John Webb. Webb was a friend of Jones who professed to have written the book from Jones's manuscript notes after his death.