Ben Jonson's
THE ALCHEMIST

MONDAY, MARCH 19, 2018 AT 7:30 PM

Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St.)

Directed by Jesse Berger

  

FEATURING Stephen DeRosa, Ben Mehl, Jason Kravits, Edward O'Blenis, Christina Pumariega, Steven Rattazzi, Jay O. Sanders, Robert Sella, Jeanine Serralles, David Ryan Smith, Derek Smith, and Raphael Nash Thompson

LIVE MUSIC by James Nathan Hopkins

When the plague hits, Lovewit flees town and foolishly entrusts his Blackfriars house to his servant Jeremy, who promptly sets up shop with fellow con man Subtle and the brilliantly sexy prostitute Doll Common. Claiming alchemical powers, the three scam a series of memorable chumps including Sir Epicure Mammon, a Falstaffian figure with an epic sensual appetite. No one escapes Jonson’s searing wit in this satire of greed and folly, set in his own Jacobean London, in the very neighborhood where he once lived. One of the comic masterworks of the age, and arguably Jonson’s finest, this play promises pure delight.

The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings​ series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York. Casting subject to change.

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ABOUT the PLAYWRIGHT

 

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was an early modern poet, playwright, and actor best remembered now for his lyric verse and the remarkable comedies of London life that he wrote in the ten years following 1605. These include Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair (1614), and Eastward Ho (1605), co-written with John Marston and George Chapman.  The son of a clergyman who died before he was born, Jonson was apprenticed by his step-father to a bricklayer before he ran off to Flanders to join the English army there. Though lacking a university education, Jonson prided himself on his erudition. During the reign of James I (1603-1625), Jonson wrote many elaborate masques and entertainments for the court and wrote poetry often dedicated to court figures. In 1616 he produced an elaborate folio version of his Works, which was seen by some as an act of hubris since such imposing volumes were often reserved for classical authors and not for living playwrights. Shakespeare’s company brought out a more modest folio version of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, seven years after his death. Jonson died in poverty after his later works lost favor both with theater audiences and with the new King, Charles I.

ABOUT the PLAY

 

The Alchemist is a play about a plot. Three rogues, Face, Subtle, and Doll Common, plot to siphon money from a series of gulls by telling each of them that Subtle, who pretends to be an alchemist and a wise and holy man, can provide each of them with a means to grow rich.  Some of the gulls have very simple ambitions. Drugger, a tradesman who sells tobacco, wants Subtle to help him design a sign and lay out his shop in a way that will attract customers.  Sir Epicure Mammon, a knight and a voluptuary, wants nothing less than the philosopher’s stone, a product of alchemical labor popularly believed to allow base metals to be turned into gold. For its more serious practitioners, alchemy was a philosophical pursuit of the secrets of the natural world to be undertaken only by the virtuous. In The Alchemist, Jonson delights in showing what happens when con men get into the alchemical racket and, with no claims to real learning or virtue, turn alchemy into a game of smoke, mirrors, and bombast. 

 

What makes the play spin is how this simple gulling plot is compressed into a single day and a single place (the London home of Face’s master, Lovewit). In the tradition of great farce, one gull is no sooner out the door than another one arrives—and sometimes two appear at once, causing a crisis for the plotters who must create elaborate scenarios to take in each gull. Sometimes Doll plays the Queen of the Fairies, for example, and sometimes a learned lady.  Sometimes Subtle must pretend to be stoking the fires to produce the philosopher’s stone and sometimes he is supposed to be conjuring up a familiar or simple spirit who will help a clerk, young Dapper, win money at the races.  The plot depends on quick costume changes and split second timing as the plotters stoke the gulls’ imaginations with visions of wealth and wives that lie just around the corner—if only the gulls can come up with a little more cash.  

 

These three rogues carry out their plot in Lovewit’s house because Lovewit has fled the city to escape the plague, leaving his home in the care of his servant, Jeremy (known for four acts as Face). Jonson thus turns London during the plague into a kind of Carnival world-upside-down where servants rule the roost when their social superiors have fled and where the forces of appetite and lawless desire run amuck. Like most of Jonson’s comedies, The Alchemist satirizes the vices of the time, especially the desire for wealth at any cost.  But Jonson also makes fun of the lustful, the gluttonous, and the hypocritical. Two of the most memorable characters in The Alchemist are Tribulation and Ananias, examples of the period’s more severe and self-righteous Protestant sectarians who in this instance rail against the vices of others while embezzling the property of widows and orphans in order to get Subtle to deliver to them the philosopher’s stone.

 

One of the most striking features of this play is its language. The play abounds in lists: lists of things the gulls want to eat, drink, wear and buy once great riches are theirs; lists of materials that Subtle and Face must acquire to perfect the philosopher’s stone; lists of the many stages through which the alchemical transactions must pass. Jonson uses these lists both to show the outrageousness of desires that know no limits and to reveal the way jargon can be part of a great con game to entrap the unwary or the naïve. He is a great connoisseur of language and a great plotter: The Alchemist, observing the unities of time, place, and action, is a tour de force of dramatic skill. Whether he meant to or not, Jonson shows quite clearly how a good dramatist resembles a good con man, no matter how much their moral purposes may differ.

 

Jean Howard

Columbia University

 

SYNOPSIS  (SPOILER)

Subtle, posing as an alchemist, together with his accomplices Doll Common, a prostitute, and Face, a servant, hoodwink and rob a series of gullible victims. Using the temporarily vacated house of Face’s master, Lovewit, who has left the city to escape the plague, they play upon the ambitions and desires of Dapper, a clerk who wants to become a successful gambler; Abel Drugger, a tobacconist who wants to be a prosperous businessman; Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias, Puritan brethren, who are counting on alchemy to extend their power; and Sir Epicure Mammon, who wants the help of the philosopher’s stone to transmute all his earthly possessions into gold. While negotiating for the stone, he catches a glimpse of Doll, whom Subtle describes as an aristocratic lady under his care.

 

Meanwhile, Drugger, convinced of Subtle’s efficacy, introduces Kastril, a young man from the country and his sister Dame Pliant, a wealthy young widow to the household. Surly, a friend of Sir Epicure, becomes suspicious of Subtle and his gang and tries to expose them, but no one will listen.

 

Lovewit unexpectedly returns, surprising the gang. Face, seeing honesty as the only course open to him, confesses his misdeeds, and promises Lovewit a young, rich wife (Dame Pliant) in return for his forgiveness. Back in the good graces of his master, he prevents his former accomplices from absconding with the loot, and they make for the back door empty-handed.

 

 

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