BY BEN JONSON
ADAPTED BY JEFFREY HATCHER
DIRECTED BY JESSE BERGER
The greed and absurdity of Jonson’s Jacobean London have never shone more brilliantly than in this brand new adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, whose version of inane corruption à la Gogol delighted Red Bull audiences in The Government Inspector.
Claiming alchemical powers, quick-witted con men Face and Subtle, together with the sexy and brilliant prostitute Dol Common, scam a series of chumps that they lure to the respectable house where they’ve set up shop. Jonson’s legendary satire spares no one, and Hatcher ensures that today’s audience doesn’t miss a beat in this side-splitting update of the classic comedy.
FROM JEFFREY HATCHER
Samuel Coleridge wrote that Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist was one of the “three most perfect plots ever planned,”* so when Jesse Berger asked me to adapt the play for Red Bull, I took Coleridge’s comment as a warning: “Don’t screw up the plot.” Jonson’s comedy is an exquisitely wound mechanism and a joy to watch unwind, but his language can be daunting. He’s funniest to those who know what Jonson knew, and there’s nothing worse than a joke that requires a footnote to explain why it’s funny. Purists will call what I’ve written a free adaptation, and much of it anachronistic, but it’s intended to be in Jonson’s style and spirit, if not his meter.
Of course, I did screw around with the plot. Ours is a slimmed down version of the play, with fewer characters and one setting instead of four. In making it more compact, I couldn’t help but change Jonson’s perfect plan. To those in the know, this will be evident in the role of Dol Common. Dol has more to do than she did in the original. Jonson’s Dol is a great character, but Jesse and I thought she got tossed about a bit, so she’s been given more brass. Ditto Dame Pliant. Dol and Dame Pliant are the only females in the play. Two women against eight men. We’ve tried to make it a fair fight.
So, apart from dumbing down the highbrow jokes, ruining the perfect plot, tossing in anachronisms, and adding a song very much like one sung by Shirley Bassey in 1964, 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.
ABOUT THE PLAY
The Alchemist (1610) features a conventional city comedy premise: cash-strapped Londoners devise 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. Beyond their resourcefulness, they are impressively well educated, and they draw on their erudition in pretending to practice the ancient art of turning base metals into gold. This esoteric scheme, which they support with elaborate scientific and philosophical explanations, sets them apart from city comedy’s typically pragmatic plots. Also uncharacteristically, The Alchemist’s threesome includes 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 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 new 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, Professor of English, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHTS
Jeffrey Hatcher’s work was last presented by Red Bull Theater in 2017 with his hit version of inane corruption à la Gogol, The Government Inspector. His Broadway credits include Never Gonna Dance (book). Off-Broadway credits include 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.
Poet, playwright, actor, and scholar, Ben Jonson (1572-1637) embodied the pressures and possibilities of his fast-paced urban literary world. Raised in London, he had an elite classical education at the Westminster School, but he apprenticed as a bricklayer, which he resented, before reportedly killing a man in single combat as a soldier in Flanders. Notorious for drinking and fighting, he was frequently on the wrong side of the law; he was nearly hanged in 1598 after killing an actor in a duel, and was imprisoned in 1597 and 1605 for co-writing plays that fell afoul of censors. Fiercely competitive, he claimed that he “beat Marston, and took his pistol from him,” and he responded to the legend that Shakespeare had “never blotted line” by writing, “my answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand.” Yet he also reveled in friendships, frequently collaborated with other writers, and was revered by younger poets who became known as “Sons of Ben.” In keeping with his mixture of grittiness and aspirations to gentility, his literary output ranged from commercial drama to elite court masques and lyric poems. The satiric comedies for which Jonson is best known reflect the mix of urban ambition, work, violence, and playfulness that shaped his own experience.