Samuel Coleridge wrote that Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist was one of the “three most perfect plots ever planned.”* The not so subtle message to the writer adapting Jonson’s play being: “Don’t screw up the plot.” So when Jesse Berger asked me to adapt The Alchemist for Red Bull, I figured I would focus on the language. Jonson’s plot, his arrangement of actions, exposition, and expectations is, as Coleridge said, a perfect, densely packed machine and a joy to watch unwind. But his language can be daunting. He’s very funny, but he’s funniest to those who know what Jonson knew. His erudition, his references and Jacobean era in-jokes can be lost on us if we haven’t done our homework. I stubbed my toe on more than one of Jonson’s Latin-based witticisms and double entendres that combine a sexual joke with the name of one of Jonson’s colleagues (read: rival). There’s nothing more deadening than a joke that requires the audience to read a footnote that explains why it’s funny. Purists will call this a free adaptation, but any inventions of my own, even the anachronistic ones, are intended to be in Jonson’s style and spirit, if not his meter.
Of course I did end up screwing around with the plot. I know: that way madness lies. But ours is a slimmed down version of the play, with fewer characters, one setting instead of three – or four, depending on how you view the original. In making it more compact, I couldn’t help changing some of Jonson’s perfectly planned plot. To those in the know, this will be evident in the role of Dol. Dol has more to do in this adaptation than she does in the original. Jonson’s Dol Common is a great character, but Jesse and I thought she got tossed about a bit, so she’s been given more, what’s the word, agency. Ditto Dame Pliant. Dol and Dame Pliant are the only women in this adaptation. That’s two women against eight men. We’ve tried to make it more of a fair fight.
So, apart from dumbing down the jokes, ruining the perfect plot, inventing anachronistic things for the women to do that they never did before, and adding a song first sung by Shirley Bassey, the play is pretty much your grandmother’s The Alchemist. If your grandmother was Shirley Bassey.
*The other two perfect plots were Oedipus and Tom Jones, both of which I plan to screw up next.
On Monday, June 24, we'll present a premiere reading of a brand new adaptation of Ben Jonson's THE ALCHEMIST by Jeffrey Hatcher, whose version of inane corruption à la Gogol delighted Red Bull audiences in The Government Inspector. Jesse Berger will direct. The cast will include Duane Boutte, Steven Boyer, Stephen DeRosa, Christopher Fitzgerald, John Glover, Tracie Lane, Teresa Avia Lim, Euan Morton, Noah Robbins, Steve Rosen, and Spiff Wiegand. GET COMPLETE DETAILS
ABOUT JEFFREY HATCHER
Jeffrey Hatcher’s Broadway credits include Never Gonna Dance (book). Off-Broadway credits include The Government Inspector at Red Bull Theater, Three Viewings and A Picasso at Manhattan Theatre Club; Scotland Road and The Turn of the Screw at Primary Stages; Tuesdays with Morrie (with Mitch Albom) at the Minetta Lane; Murder by Poe, The Turn of the Screw, and The Spy at The Acting Company; and Neddy at American Place. Other credits include Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Mrs. Mannerly, Murderers, Mercy of a Storm, Smash, Korczak's Children, To Fool the Eye, Confederacy of Dunces, The Critic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and others at The Guthrie, Old Globe, Yale Rep, The Geffen, Seattle Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Cleveland Playhouse, South Coast Rep, Arizona Theater Company, San Jose Rep, The Empty Space, Indiana Rep, Children’s Theater Company, History Theater, Madison Rep, Intiman, Illusion, Denver Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Milwaukee Rep, Repertory Theater of St. Louis, Actors Theater of Louisville, Philadelphia Theater Company, Huntington, Shakespeare Theatre (D.C.), Asolo, City Theater, Studio Arena and dozens more in the U.S. and abroad. Film and television credits include Stage Beauty, Casanova, The Duchess, Mr. Holmes, and episodes of “Columbo” and "The Mentalist." Grants/awards: NEA, TCG, Lila Wallace Fund, Rosenthal New Play Prize, Frankel Award, Charles MacArthur Fellowship Award, McKnight Foundation, Jerome Foundation, Barrymore Award Best New Play, and IVEY Award Best New Play. He is a member and/or alumnus of The Playwrights Center, the Dramatists Guild, the Writers Guild, and New Dramatists.