About Ben Jonson's THE ALCHEMIST

Written while an extended bout of plague closed London theaters for two years, The Alchemist (1610) satirizes people’s susceptibility to dreams of easier lives. As in many other city comedies, the play shows cash-strapped Londoners devising a scheme to get rich at others’ expense. Like Jonson himself, the con artists Subtle, Face, and Dol are short on money but rich in ingenuity. Resourceful and well-educated, they draw on elaborate scientific and philosophical explanations to pretend they can turn base metals into gold. Uncharacteristically for Jonson, The Alchemist’s schemers include a female con artist, who not only matches the others in learning but exceeds them in common sense; while the two men threaten to sabotage each other, she strategizes to keep them from destroying their shared project. As Subtle, Face, and Dol race against the clock to maximize profit before their precarious arrangements collapse, they draw on all the resources of their imaginations to outwit their customers and respond to unexpected developments. ​ With its whirlwind of schemes, characters, and cravings crammed into a single room, The Alchemist dramatizes a world of pressure and constriction. Like the city of London, whose teeming population looms invisibly outside of their doors, the tricksters face limitless demand with sharply limited resources. The tension between their outsized ambitions and reduced circumstances fuels the play’s suspense-ridden conflicts, while other pressures fuel their alchemical arts. Just as the tricksters describe treating raw materials with heat, steam, and foreign elements to turn them to gold, they similarly apply wit, persuasion, and force of will to turn their gulls’ susceptibility into profit. Subtle, Face, and Dol are in the business of selling fantasies under the auspices of scientific authority. Although their customers pursue a range of different dreams, they all aspire to better lives, whether through luck at games, professional success, sensual delights, religious ideals or upwards social mobility. The con artists’ primary task is to supply persuasive versions of the stories that these customers want to hear.

Subtle, Face, and Dol may not possess the metal-working skills they claim, but they excel at the alchemy of the theater. We never see the chemical laboratory they describe, but we watch the theatrical laboratory in which they experiment with dressing up and playing roles to extract money from audiences. By setting the play in a house in the Blackfriars neighborhood of London, Jonson identifies this laboratory with the upmarket Blackfriars Theatre, where the play would have been staged by the King’s Men. Like the members of that playing company, Subtle, Face, and Dol are not only performers, but also co-investors in a shared economic enterprise. By throwing in their lot with others, they stand to multiply their profits, but also risk multiplying their losses, just as Jonson had incurred both rewards and punishment in his own literary collaborations. The play’s shifting alliances expand options and build verve, but the partnerships also prove combustible. Like the steam-filled vessels in their invisible laboratory, the con artists’ schemes threaten to explode as the pressure builds. ​

The Alchemist’s winning plot and freewheeling improvisation have made it a magnet for imitations and adaptations since its seventeenth-century beginnings. When commercial theaters were shut by Parliament from 1642 to 1660, the play stayed alive as a short comic sketch called The Imperick, focused on the tricksters’ scenes with Abel Drugger and Ananias. In the eighteenth century, when audiences preferred amiable humor to sharp satire, a popular adaptation called The Tobacconist, with a wide-eyed Drugger as its lead character, played to packed houses. After nineteenth-century audiences avoided the play altogether, decrying its bawdiness and obscenities, modern productions have explored the play’s elastic possibilities through cutting, modernizing, and rewriting. Jeffrey Hatcher’s new adaptation captures the play’s screwball verve while adding unexpected plot twists that mix up its sexual politics and possibilities. By up-ending audience expectations yet again, this Alchemist joins Jonson at his own game, showing the play’s theatrical alchemy to be a living art. TANYA POLLARD | Scholar & Dramaturgical Consultant

 

TANYA POLLARD is Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and is Chair of the Council of Scholars at Theatre for a New Audience. Her books include Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages (2017), Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England (2005), Shakespeare’s Theater (2003), and four co-edited anthologies. She appeared in Shakespeare Uncovered with Ethan Hawke in Macbeth (2013) and with Christopher Plummer in King Lear (2015). Beyond the Red Bull and TFANA, she has spoken with artists and audiences at theaters including the Public, Classic Stage Company, and Roundabout, where she consulted on Kiss Me Kate (2019). A Rhodes Scholar, she has had NEH, Whiting, and Mellon fellowships. Her edition of The Alchemist is forthcoming with Arden Early Modern Drama.


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