The Alchemist (play)
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The Alchemist is a comedy by English playwright Ben Jonson. First performed in 1610 by the King's Men, it is generally considered Jonson's best and most characteristic comedy; Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that it had one of the three most perfect plots in literature. The play's clever fulfillment of the classical unities and vivid depiction of human folly have made it one of the few Renaissance plays with (apart from a period of neglect during the Victorian period) a continual life on stage.
The Alchemist premiered 34 years after the first permanent public theater (The Theatre) opened in London; it is, then a product of the first maturity of commercial drama in London. Only one of the University wits who had transformed drama in the Elizabethan period remained alive (this was Thomas Lodge); in the other direction, the last great playwright to flourish before the Interregnum, James Shirley, was already a teenager. The theaters had survived the challenge mounted by the city and religious authorities; plays were a regular feature of life at court and for a great number of Londoners.
The venue for which Jonson apparently wrote his play reflects this newly solid acceptance of theater as a fact of city life. In 1597, the Lord Chamberlain's Men had been denied permission to use the theater in Blackfriars as a winter playhouse because of objections from the neighborhood's influential residents. Some time between 1608 and 1610, the company, now the King's Men, reassumed control of the playhouse, this time without objections. Their delayed premiere on this stage within the city walls, along with royal patronage, marks the ascendance of this company in the London play-world (Gurr, 171). The Alchemist was among the first plays chosen for performance at the theater.
Jonson's play reflects this new confidence. In it, he applies his classical conception of drama to a setting in contemporary London for the first time, with invigorating results. The classical elements, most notably the relation between Lovewit and Face, are fully modernized; likewise, the depiction of Jacobean London is given order and direction by the classical understanding of comedy as a means to expose vice and foolishness to ridicule.
The play is believed to be the first time the word "dildo" appeared in print. Lovewit, finding his house a mess upon his return, says that Doll has "writ o' the walls" with one.
With his master Lovewit resting in the country to avoid an outbreak of plague in London, a clever servant named Face develops a scheme to make money and amuse himself. He gives access to the house to Subtle, a charlatan, and a prostitute named Doll Common. Subtle disguises himself as an alchemist, with Face as his servant; Doll disguises herself as a zealous Puritan. Together, the three of them gull and cheat an assortment of foolish clients. These include Sir Epicure Mammon, a wealthy sensualist looking for the philosopher's stone; two greedy Puritans, Tribulation Wholesome and Ananais, who hope to counterfeit Dutch money; Drugger, a "tobacco man" hoping to marry the wealthy widow Dame Pliant; Dapper, an incredibly suave, fashionable, good-looking 17th century gentleman, and other minor figures looking for a short-cut to success in gambling or in business.
The play takes place over the course of one day in the house of Face's master. The three rogues are forced to increasingly frenetic maneuvers first to manage all of their simultaneous scams, and then to fend off the suspicious Kastril, Dame Pliant's brother. At last, Lovewit returns; quickly perceiving what Face has done in his absence, he devises a scheme of his own to allow all to end well. Doll and Subtle escape unpunished but empty-handed; Mammon's goods are restored to him, but the Puritans' are not. The smaller victims either flee or are driven from the stage. Lovewit himself pledges troth to Dame Pliant, with Kastril's approval. Face is restored without punishment to his original place as Jeremy, Lovewit's butler.
Internal references indicate that the play was written for performance at Blackfriars; ironically, given its initial scenario, plague forced the company to tour, and The Alchemist premiered at Oxford in 1610, with performance in London later that year. Its success may be indicated by its performance at court in 1613 and again in 1623. Evidence of a more ambiguous kind is presented by the case of Thomas Tomkis's Albumazar, performed for King James at Cambridge in 1615. A tradition apparently originating with Dryden held that Jonson had been influenced by Tomkis's academic comedy. Dryden may have mentioned Jonson to increase interest in a somewhat obscure play he was then reviving; he may also have bene confused about the dates. At any rate, the question of influence now runs the other way. Albumazar is, primarily, an adaptation of Giambattista della Porta's "L'Astrologo"; however, both the similarity in subject matter and Tomkis's apparent familiarity with commercial dramaturgy make it possible that he was aware of The Alchemist, and may have been responsding to the play's success.
The play continued onstage as a droll during the Commonwealth period; after the Restoration, it belonged to the repertory of the King's Men of Thomas Killigrew, who appear to have performed it with some frequency during their first years in operation. The play is not known to have been performed between 1675 and 1709, but the frequency of performance after 1709 suggests that it probably was. Indeed, the play was frequently performed during the eighteenth century; both Colley Cibber and David Garrick were notable successes in the role of Drugger, for whom a small number of new material, including farces and monologues, in the latter half of the century.
After this period of flourishing, the play fell into desuetude, along with nearly all non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama, until the beginning of the twentieth century. William Poel's Elizabethan Stage Society produced the play in 1899. This opening was followed a generation later by productions at Malvern in 1932, with Ralph Richardson as Face, and at the Old Vic in 1947. In the latter production, Alec Guinness played Drugger, alongside Richardson as Face. In 1962, Tyrone Guthrie produced a modernized version at the Old Vic, with Leo McKern as Subtle and Charles Gray as Mammon. Trevor Nunn's 1977 production with the Royal Shakespeare Company featured Sir Ian McKellen as Face, in a version adapted by Peter Barnes. The original was played at the Royal National Theatre, with Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale in the central roles, from September to November 2006.
- Craig, D. H. Ben Jonson: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1999.
- Donaldson, Ian. Jonson's Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
- Gurr, Andrew. Play-going in Shakespeare's London. 2nd edition; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- Ouellette, Anthony. "The Alchemist and the Emerging Adult Private Playhouse." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 45 (2005).