On a balmy Thursday night in early December 2012, Red Bull’s Volpone, or the Fox, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village, presented a somewhat sentimental parable about wealth and desire. If the production, in these latter days of our own Gilded Age, lacked some of [End Page 309] Ben Jonson’s satiric snarl, it made up for it by indulging the audience’s appetites for theatrical pleasures. Stephen Spinella’s engaging performance as the shrewd old conspirator set the tone with pampered luxury and palpable joy. Just after the opening curtain was raised, his narrow (fox-like?) face rose up from the massive bed at center stage. He spread his features into an infectious smile as a hidden door appeared at the foot of his bed. Along with us, he gazed down upon his precious treasure, bright yellow gold, “the world’s soul, and mine.” His opening speech claimed a dramatic centrality that he would never relinquish:
More glad than is The teeming earth to see the longed-for sun Am I to view thy splendor darkening his, That, lying here amongst my other hoards, Show’st like a flame by night, or like the day Struck out of chaos, when all darkness fled Unto the center.
Volpone’s metaphysics of gold, his hymn to wealth and mobility, fueled this production. I kept waiting for the perhaps too easy hook to get set in my fish’s mouth, but the show never really gestured toward the Wall Street crash or the financial masters whose offices were just a few blocks south and east of the theater. This Volpone may have taken too much pleasure in its title character’s joy for any real satiric bite.
In a sense the audience was invited to join with Volpone in pondering the power of money to create social and dramatic motion, to navigate people and things into and out of collisions with each other. I spent some time mulling a gnomic line from Borges’s story “The Zahir”: “money is the future tense.” Volpone performed that future tense, and his elaborate ruses designed to fob off potential heirs appeared as the ploys of a futurity that wanted to avoid becoming past. “What should I do?” asked the Fox, “But cocker up my genius and live free / To all delights my fortune calls me to?” The play’s opening tableau and soliloquy, and Volpone’s first exchange with Mosca comprised the quick-arriving heart of the play. In a world where identity was made almost entirely through wealth—visible, exchangeable, both getting and spending—the overtness of Volpone’s question seemed telling. What should he do, except play games for our enjoyment? The fox baited traps, enjoyed watching his shrewd parasite Mosca gull his greedy neighbors, and for a lively section of the middle of the play his gold-lust assumed sexual form. But at the end of the day, he had to both invent something to do and later do it, in a circular fashion. [End Page 310] This particular rich man was not a job creator so much as a resource everyone wanted to extract. Hiring Mosca, who would later attempt to commandeer his legacy, was perhaps the only productive use of his money.
The theatrical mode of the play’s central acts was a wonderfully light and musical version of street opera, in which a series of semi-stock Jonsonian...