Ben Jonson, Birthday Boy

Today is Ben Jonson’s 450th birthday. He’s not around to celebrate, of course, so I’ll raise a glass in his honor and re-read Bartholomew Fair, my favorite of his plays and the source of my career.

I wrote about Ben himself on this straggly blog 9 years ago, and don’t have anything to add to my fond portrait of this genius. So I’ll talk about what he means to me, especially now that I’m able to understand more intimately his thoughts about aging, his anxieties about his legacy, and his weariness with the task of keeping up with a newfangled world in which he feels invisible.

In the summer of 1989, my first marriage was falling apart, and my graduate studies at UCLA were my sanctuary from a world that didn’t make sense anymore. I was heading into my final year of classes and had to decide on a topic for my dissertation; I had just completed a seminar with the brilliant theater-history scholar, Andrew Gurr, and he had suggested that the paper I wrote on the play Bartholomew Fair might make a good topic. I was in love with this silly, exuberant comedy, and felt strongly that it held the key to understanding the author himself. Shakespeare was too godlike for me to imagine talking to, but Ben felt very real to me — the kind of man who would bend your ear in the tavern and ask you questions designed to stretch your intellect and unsettle your cherished fantasies about politics, life, and art. Kind of like an English professor, which was what I dearly wanted to be.

I can’t imagine being Ben, though. I’ve tried a few times to write fictional versions of him, and haven’t found the key yet. He’s larger than life, but the Ben we can tease out of his own words and those of others is too guarded, too judgmental, too steeped in his own pedantic sense of superiority to ordinary mortals and their petty feelings. There’s little romance in Ben’s plays and even less in his poetry — just social climbing, exposure of greed and hypocrisy, nostalgia for a lost world of classical order, and a frantic desire to appear smarter than everyone else. He doesn’t like women much, our Ben, and he’s rather too fond of trading poetic praise for the chance to bend an elbow with the movers and shakers of the court — pretty unsavory characters, most of them, and King James the creepiest of them all.

So I tried to imagine living in Ben’s world, being a fly on the wall as he traded barbs in the Mermaid Tavern with fellow Friday Street Club members Shakespeare, Donne, Bacon, Raleigh, and the rest.

It’s a boy’s club I would never have been allowed to join, of course, nor would I have wanted to. I’ve witnessed the tense one-upsmanship of writer’s rooms and academic conferences, and I’m just not made for that kind of obsessive grandstanding. But I did marry two Jonsonian fellows, which probably isn’t surprising — first a mordant comedy writer with a love of satire and wordplay, then an exuberant scholar of the past in love with the sound of his own voice. Neither, alas, was able to stick with marriage to me; I fear they both saw me the way Ben saw his own wife, Anne, whom he abandoned after 8 years of marriage and three children: “a shrew, yet honest.”

So like Ben, I’m facing my final decades in a single state, a bit cynical about love but still hopeful that someone out there can see beyond my fatness, my introverted nature, and my lack of a social filter. I also struggle to shake off the isolation and languishing of the last two years of Covid- and grief-induced depression (a really awful time to have a 30-year partnership come to an end), and produce some writing that will gain a wider readership than the academic articles. (The book is still in print, however, and I love it when people send me pictures of it taken on the shelves of various theater and museum gift shops.)

Ben has some words (written when he was 57) for any writer who has failed to produce much in these days:

Where dost thou careless lie

Buried in ease and sloth?

Knowledge that sleeps, doth die

And this security,

It is the common moth

That eats on wits and arts, and that destroys them both.

He kept writing his way through loneliness, illness, and disillusionment, and his name lives on even if his work is not currently in style. During this “post-Covid” summer I’m similarly struggling to get off the couch and make a contribution to the world’s store of knowledge and art. Will keep you posted on my progress, if any.

So happy birthday, Ben. Wish I could share a “pure cup of rich Canary wine” with you, but I’ll do my small part in helping the Internet remember you anyway.

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