Alchemy is the secret science of transformation, whether it be from base metal (lead) to gold, or, psychologically, the transformation of the human psyche from ego fixation to higher consciousness. Either way, Alchemists understood that the world consists of four elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire, and each corresponds to a specific part of the human experience.
Earth equates with an impulse, physical reality; Water with feelings, desire, the unconscious; Air with mind, thinking, consciousness; and Fire with energy and action.
Furthermore, Alchemists understood reality as cyclic and the elements reflect a process: Earth, physical reality, leads to Water, a feeling or desire about that situation (coming from the unconscious), which leads to Air, a conscious thought or aim, which leads to an action, Fire. Always aware of the need to take the right action, Alchemists, realized that there is in fact a fifth element, Ether or light, which becomes enlightenment as a reward for right action and a small step up towards higher consciousness.
Alchemists used the metaphor of a lit candle to demonstrate the process in action: the hard wax of the candle is Earth; the melting wax is Water; the evaporating wax is Air; the candle flame is, of course, Fire; and Ether is the LIGHT or enlightenment emanating from the candle produced by the process. And light once generated cannot be destroyed.
Because this Alchemical cycle reflects exactly how we humans operate: a situation leads to a feeling/desire, which leads to a thought, which leads to an action, then it is a very useful actor’s aide memoire for working out the truth about a character.
This is particularly useful with TV scripts and screenplays where there is minimal dialogue and the actor needs to make some quick decisions about what their character wants and how they go about getting it. Therefore, in any scene, it’s always best to understand first where it is set: is it a public or private space? Is it interior or exterior? And what is your character doing there? That physical reality (Earth) must give rise or create an impulse to a feeling/desire (Water) of comfort, discomfort or neutrality about being in that place. That feeling/desire will in turn give way to a thought process (Air) about what your character want to consciously achieve in that situation? And then how do they go about getting it (Fire)? It might be a proactive physical action or it may be passive silence.
In order to create screen ‘reality’, the actor will have to come up with interesting answers to all of these questions, because drama, like Alchemy, is all about change or transformation. The scene will not be in the script unless it shows a clear (albeit small) movement in the worldview of the characters from beginning to end. The scenes will then combine together thematically to make a greater change throughout the Act, and the three Acts together will then tell the complete story of the protagonist’s hero’s journey.
The Alchemical Cycle will therefore be evident in each scene as well as in the drama as a whole, just as the DNA in each cell of the body is a hologram of the complete being.
A good example of a film structured as an Alchemical Cycle is Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’:
EARTH: The Dawn of Man – the set up of the Monolith arriving on Earth (clearly of extra-terrrestrial origin) amongst a group of ape men being the impulse for human evolution. Once they touch it, the ape men start to use bone tools as weapons which ultimately develop into the technology which takes man into space.
WATER: Monolith on the Moon – Dr Floyd’s secret mission to examine the Monolith which has been found buried on the Moon. At this point it is discovered (presumably when Floyd touches it) that the Monolith has some link with Jupiter but we don’t learn that until the end of the next part. The Moon of course is a symbol of the subconscious.
AIR: Jupiter Mission has been sent to discover the origin of the Monolith – but the on board HAL computer turns rogue and kills all the crew except Dave Bowman who manages to disconnect HAL just in time, learning in the process the reason for the secret mission to Jupiter. HAL of course is pure thought, logic, consciousness.
FIRE: Beyond The Infinite – Facing certain death in deep space without the help of any artificial intelligence, Bowman embraces his fate and is drawn by the floating Monolith through the stargate into what looks like another dimension. The broken wine glass shows that it’s now time for his body and spirit to part company, and the final appearance of the Monolith triggers:
ETHER: The birth of the Star Child returning to Earth, showing that man’s ultimate evolution is towards cosmic consciousness.