I first heard the strange story of Edward Kelley and John Dee when I lived in Prague in 1991. It was a bizarre, improbable, and lurid tale of what happened to two Renaissance occultists and their families in Bohemia more than 425 years ago -- a story that included attempts to make gold through alchemy, and conversations with various spirits who (among many things) commanded the two men to share their wives. Kelley and Dee were granted audiences with Emperor Rudolph II, became entangled in Elizabethan plots and espionage, and narrowly escaped the Inquisition.
The story of Kelley and Dee stuck with me for many years. And the mysteries at its center puzzled and provoked me. Most historians view Kelley as a con man, a charlatan and a fraud -- yet he prospered for a few years in Rudolphine Prague after Dee returned to England. His eventual downfall came from his various political intrigues and the claims of his creditors, and not through fraud. (He died in debtor's prison.) No one ever proved that he could not make gold.
Discovering the story of Kelley's stepdaughter -- Elizabeth Jane Weston -- only added to my fascination. Weston was one of the most celebrated poets of her day and a singular talent of her time -- a woman writing poems in Latin. Yet a number of her poems are plaintive laments and pleas to the Emperor to rehabilitate Kelley's reputation and win back property forfeited to the imperial treasury. What happened? How did these stories connect?
Trying to answer those questions was the impetus behind my play Burn Your Bookes. The play won the 2007 Prague Post Playwriting Contest in its one-act version, and received a full production by Taffety Punk.
The one-act version of Burn Your Bookes received its world premiere in March 2007 at the Divadlo Minor (Prague, Czech Republic) as an entry in the Prague Post Playwriting Festival, where it won first prize in the competition. The production was directed by Julek Neumann and featured Akiva Zasman (Edward Kelley), Mark Bowen (Muller) and Brendan Payne (Syrrus of Augsburg).
The one-act version of Burn Your Bookes also received a staged reading by Taffety Punk Theatre Company at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (Washington, DC) in September 2009 as part of the Page to Stage Festival. The reading was directed by Marcus Kyd and featured Daniel Flint (Edward Kelley), Joel Santner (Muller) and Paul E. Hope (Syrrus of Augsburg).
The full-length version of Burn Your Bookes received its world premiere in April 2010 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (Washington, DC) in a production by Taffety Punk Theatre Company. The production was directed by Marcus Kyd and featured Daniel Flint (Edward Kelley), Kimberly Gilbert (Westonia), Esther Williamson (Jane Dee), Eric Messner (Edward Dyer/ Johannes Leo), Joel Santner (Muller), Peter Stray (Turner/Syrrus of Augsburg), Will Cooke (John Dee) and Eva Wilhelm (Joan Kelley).
All production images by Teresa Castracane.