BY BEN JONSON
ADAPTED BY JEFFREY HATCHER
DIRECTED BY JESSE BERGER
MORE COMING SOON
FROM JEFFREY HATCHER
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.