- The Alchemist (play)
"The Alchemist" is a
comedyby English playwright Ben Jonson. First performed in 1610 by the King's Men, it is generally considered Jonson's best and most characteristic comedy; Samuel Taylor Coleridgeclaimed that it had one of the three most perfect plots in literature. The play's clever fulfillment of the classical unities and vivid depiction of human folly have made it one of the few Renaissance plays (excepting of course the works of Shakespeare) with, apart from a period of neglect during the Victorian era, a continual life on stage.
"The Alchemist" premiered 34 years after the first permanent public theatre (
The Theatre) opened in London; it is, then, a product of the early maturity of commercial drama in London. Only one of the University wits who had transformed drama in the Elizabethan period remained alive (this was Thomas Lodge); in the other direction, the last great playwright to flourish before the Interregnum, James Shirley, was already a teenager. The theatres had survived the challenge mounted by the city and religious authorities; plays were a regular feature of life at court and for a great number of Londoners.
The venue for which Jonson apparently wrote his play reflects this newly solid acceptance of theatre as a fact of city life. In
1597, the Lord Chamberlain's Menhad been denied permission to use the theatre in Blackfriars as a winter playhouse because of objections from the neighborhood's influential residents. Some time between 1608and 1610, the company, now the King's Men, reassumed control of the playhouse, this time without objections. Their delayed premiere on this stage within the city walls, along with royal patronage, marks the ascendance of this company in the London play-world (Gurr, 171). "The Alchemist" was among the first plays chosen for performance at the theatre.
Jonson's play reflects this new confidence. In it, he applies his classical conception of drama to a setting in contemporary London for the first time, with invigorating results. The classical elements, most notably the relation between Lovewit and Face, are fully modernized; likewise, the depiction of Jacobean London is given order and direction by the classical understanding of comedy as a means to expose vice and foolishness to ridicule.
With his master Lovewit resting in the country to avoid an outbreak of plague in
London, a clever servant named Face develops a scheme to make money and amuse himself. He gives Subtle, a charlatan, and a prostitute named Dol Common access to the house. Subtle disguises himself as an alchemist, with Face as his servant; Doll disguises herself as a zealous Puritan. Together, the three of them gull and cheat an assortment of foolish clients. These include Sir Epicure Mammon, a wealthy sensualist looking for the philosopher's stone; two greedy Puritans, Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias, who hope to counterfeit Dutch money; Drugger, a "tobacco man" hoping to marry the wealthy widow Dame Pliant; Dapper, an incredibly suave, fashionable, good-looking 17th century gentleman, and other minor figures looking for a short-cut to success in gambling or in business.
In "The Alchemist", Jonson unashamedly satirizes the follies, vanities and vices of mankind, most notably greed-induced credulity. People of all social classes are subject to Jonson's ruthless, satirical wit. He mocks human weakness and gullibility to advertising and to "miracle cures" with the character of Sir Epicure Mammon, who dreams of drinking the elixir of youth and enjoying fantastic sexual conquests. This same kind of gullibility is still found today.
"The Alchemist" focuses on what happens when one human being seeks advantage over another. In a big city like London, this process of advantage-seeking is rife. The trio of con-artists - Subtle, Face and Dol - are self-deluding small-timers, ultimately undone by the same human weaknesses they exploit in their victims. Their fate is foreshadowed in the play’s opening scene, which features them together in the house of Lovewit, Face’s master. In a metaphor which runs through the play, the dialogue shows them to exist in uneasy imbalance, like alchemical elements that will create an unstable reaction. Barely ten lines into the text, Face and Subtle’s quarrelling forces Dol to quell their raised voices: “Will you have the neighbours hear you? Will you betray all?”
The con-artists' vanities and aspirations are revealed by the very personae they assume as part of their plan. The lowly housekeeper, Face, casts himself as a
sea captain(a man accustomed to giving orders, instead of taking them), the egotistical Subtle casts himself as an alchemist (as one who can do what no one else can; turn base metal into gold), and Dol Common casts herself as an aristocratic lady. Their incessant bickering is fuelled by vanity, envy and jealousy, the root of which is Subtle’s conviction that he is the key element in the ‘venture tripartite’:
FACE: ‘Tis his fault. He ever murmurs and objects his pains, and says the weight of all lies upon him.
The ‘venture tripartite’ is as doomed as one of the Roman
triumvirates. The play’s end sees Subtle and Dol resume their original pairing, while Face resumes his role as housekeeper to a wealthy master. Significantly (the collapse of their scheme aside), neither of the three is severely punished. Johnson’s theatrical microcosm is not a neatly moral one; and he seems to enjoy seeing foolish characters like Epicure Mammon get their comeuppance. This is why, while London itself is a target of Johnson’s satire, it is also, as his Prologue boasts, a cozening-ground worth celebrating: “Our scene is London, ‘cause we would make known/No country’s mirth is better than our own/No clime breeds better matter for your whore…”
"The Alchemist" is tightly structured, based around a simple dramatic concept. Subtle claims to be on the verge of ‘projection’ in his offstage workroom, but all the characters in the play are overly-concerned with projection of a different kind: image-projection. The end result, in structural terms, is an onstage base of operations in Friars, to which can be brought a succession of unconsciously-comic characters from different social backgrounds, who hold different professions and different beliefs, but whose lowest common denominator – gullibility - grants them equal victim-status in the end. Dapper, the aspirant gambler, loses his stake; Sir Epicure Mammon loses his money and his dignity; Drugger, the would-be businessman, parts with his cash, but ends up no nearer to the success he craves; the Puritan duo, Tribulation and Ananias, never realize their scheme to counterfeit Dutch money.
Jonson reserves his harshest satire for these Puritan characters--perhaps because the Puritans, in real life, wished to close down the theaters. (Jonson's play "
Bartholomew Fair" is also anti-Puritan.) Tellingly, of all those gulled in the play, it is the Puritans alone whom Johnson denies a brief moment of his audience’s pity; presumably, he reckons their life-denying self-righteousness renders them unworthy of it. Jonson consistently despises hypocrisy, especially religious hypocrisy that couches its damning judgments in high-flown language. Tribulation and Ananias call their fellow men "heathens" and in one case, say that someone's hat suggests "the Anti-Christ." That these Puritans are just as money-hungry as the rest of the characters is part of the ironic joke.
In many English and European comedies, it is up to a high-class character to resolve the confusion that has been caused by lower-class characters. In "The Alchemist," Jonson subverts this tradition. Face's master, Lovewit, at first seems to assert his social and ethical superiority to put matters to rights. But when Face dangles before him the prospect of marriage to a younger woman, his master eagerly accepts. Both master and servant are always on the lookout for how to get ahead in life, regardless of ethical boundaries. Lovewit adroitly exploits Mammon’s reluctance to obtain legal certification of his folly to hold on to the old man’s money.
's "L'Astrologo"; however, both the similarity in subject matter and Tomkis's apparent familiarity with commercial dramaturgy make it possible that he was aware of "The Alchemist", and may have been responding to the play's success.
The play continued onstage as a
drollduring the Commonwealth period; after the Restoration, it belonged to the repertory of the King's Men of Thomas Killigrew, who appear to have performed it with some frequency during their first years in operation. The play is not known to have been performed between 1675and 1709, but the frequency of performance after 1709 suggests that it probably was. Indeed, the play was frequently performed during the eighteenth century; both Colley Cibberand David Garrickwere notable successes in the role of Drugger, for whom a small amount of new material, including farces and monologues, in the latter half of the century was created.
After this period of flourishing, the play fell into desuetude, along with nearly all non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama, until the beginning of the twentieth century.
William Poel's Elizabethan Stage Society produced the play in 1899. This opening was followed a generation later by productions at Malvern in 1932, with Ralph Richardsonas Face, and at the Old Vicin 1947. In the latter production, Alec Guinnessplayed Drugger, alongside Richardson as Face.
Oregon Shakespeare Festivalstaged a fast-paced, nearly farcical production in 1961; Gerard Larson played Face, and Nagle Jackson Face, under Edward Brubaker's direction. The performance received generally favorable reviews; however, a 1973 production set in the Wild West setting did not; the setting was generally considered inconsistent with the tone and treatment of the play.
Tyrone Guthrieproduced a modernized version at the Old Vic, with Leo McKernas Subtle and Charles Gray as Mammon. Trevor Nunn's 1977 production with the Royal Shakespeare Companyfeatured Sir Ian McKellenas a"greasy, misanthropic" Face, in a version adapted by Peter Barnes. The original was played at the Royal National Theatre, with Alex Jenningsand Simon Russell Bealein the central roles, from September to November 2006.
*Craig, D. H. "Ben Jonson: The Critical Heritage". London: Routledge, 1999.
*Donaldson, Ian. "Jonson's Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation". Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
*Gurr, Andrew. "Play-going in Shakespeare's London". 2nd edition; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
*Lake, Peter, with Michael Questier. "The Anti-Christ's Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists & Players in Post-Reformation England". Yale University Press, 2002.
*Ouellette, Anthony. "The Alchemist and the Emerging Adult Private Playhouse." "Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900" 45 (2005).
* [http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4081 The Alchemist] - Project Gutenberg eText
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