Shakespeare Theatre Company dumbs-down Jonson’s ?The Alchemist?

The Shakespeare Theatre Company?s new production of Ben Jonson?s 1610 comic masterpiece ?The Alchemist? really doesn?t give its audience enough credit. No doubt the Company revived this play about greed and the nefarious activities of confidence tricksters in light of the subprime mortgage, Bernard Madoff, and other financial scandals that have rocked the US and global economies back on their heels. In other words the play was absolutely topical enough, dealing with the efforts of conmen to gull a variety of Londoners out of money through various alchemical frauds. It therefore really didn?t require the extreme updating of the terms of reference it received. Turning the character of Able Drugger, a stupid tobacconist, into a pot-dealing hippie; recasting the avaricious Sir Epicure Mammon as Donald Trump; adapting the religious fanatics of The Brethren as Jimmy Swaggart-style evangelical holy rollers and so forth are amusing gestures, but they have quickly diminishing returns when taken too far.

This may be Michael Kahn?s 150th directorial effort, a remarkable record no doubt, but it?s also too heavy-handed. The thematic material of Jonson?s play is sufficient to make it relevant to a contemporary audience without the relentless tweaking of all kinds of minutia. As it wears on past the intermission, ?The Alchemist? begins to feel like a too-clever-by-half university production that is an exercise in showing how much smarter the production team is than the audience (and really, how little respect the people in the seats are being given). That said, the cast performs very ably, especially David Sabin as Mammon (Kahn used him as Sir Toby Belch almost 20 years ago, and I’m sure he was delightful). The errors here are in the conceptualization of the performance rather than its staging or enactment.

Perhaps most frustrating from the point of view of anyone who really enjoys Jonson?s poetry was the excessive and unjustified cutting, trimming and amending of his text. Obviously, all plays of this kind require some manicuring, and I?ve never been annoyed the way some other people get by the liberties that are taken with, for example, Shakespeare?s texts. Obviously, there?s a big difference between the plays as long pieces of poetry on paper and as scripts for an actual production. However, I do think the way this delicate job was handled in this case meant that a great deal of richness was lost from some key sections of ?The Alchemist,? and that this was completely avoidable both from the point of view of length and pacing, and in terms of accessibility for a contemporary audience.

Take for example one of the satirical highlights of the play, Mammon?s crazed rant about the luxuries, excesses and sensual pleasures he intends to acquire with the ?philosopher?s stone? that can transform base metals into gold, and which he thinks he is about to purchase from the grifters:

MAM. For I do mean
To have a list of wives and concubines,
Equal with Solomon, who had the stone
Alike with me; and I will make me a back
With the elixir, that shall be as tough
As Hercules, to encounter fifty a night. ?
Thou’rt sure thou saw’st it blood?

FACE. Both blood and spirit, sir.

MAM. I will have all my beds blown up, not stuft;
Down is too hard: and then, mine oval room
Fill’d with such pictures as Tiberius took
From Elephantis, and dull Aretine
But coldly imitated. Then, my glasses
Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse
And multiply the figures, as I walk
Naked between my succubae. My mists
I’ll have of perfume, vapour’d ’bout the room,
To lose ourselves in; and my baths, like pits
To fall into; from whence we will come forth,
And roll us dry in gossamer and roses. ?
Is it arrived at ruby? ? Where I spy
A wealthy citizen, or [a] rich lawyer,
Have a sublimed pure wife, unto that fellow
I’ll send a thousand pound to be my cuckold.

FACE. And I shall carry it?

MAM. No. I’ll have no bawds,
But fathers and mothers: they will do it best,
Best of all others. And my flatterers
Shall be the pure and gravest of divines,
That I can get for money. My mere fools,
Eloquent burgesses, and then my poets
The same that writ so subtly of the fart,
Whom I will entertain still for that subject.
The few that would give out themselves to be
Court and town-stallions, and, each-where, bely
Ladies who are known most innocent for them;
Those will I beg, to make me eunuchs of:
And they shall fan me with ten estrich tails
A-piece, made in a plume to gather wind.
We will be brave, Puffe, now we have the med’cine.
My meat shall all come in, in Indian shells,
Dishes of agat set in gold, and studded
With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies.
The tongues of carps, dormice, and camels’ heels,
Boil’d in the spirit of sol, and dissolv’d pearl,
Apicius’ diet, ‘gainst the epilepsy:
And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber,
Headed with diamond and carbuncle.
My foot-boy shall eat pheasants, calver’d salmons,
Knots, godwits, lampreys: I myself will have
The beards of barbels served, instead of sallads;
Oil’d mushrooms; and the swelling unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off,
Drest with an exquisite, and poignant sauce;
For which, I’ll say unto my cook, “There’s gold,
Go forth, and be a knight.”

FACE. Sir, I’ll go look
A little, how it heightens.

MAM. Do. ? My shirts
I’ll have of taffeta-sarsnet, soft and light
As cobwebs; and for all my other raiment,
It shall be such as might provoke the Persian,
Were he to teach the world riot anew.
My gloves of fishes’ and birds’ skins, perfumed
With gums of paradise, and eastern air ?

SUR. And do you think to have the stone with this?

MAM. No, I do think t’ have all this with the stone.

This passage is one of the funniest, most pointed and finely wrought not only in ?The Alchemist,? but is among the more memorable and cutting Jonson ever produced. At least 30-40% of it was dropped or changed in the new production, severely reducing the impact it could and should have had. I doubt I was the only person in the audience shaking their heads and muttering, “what a pity,” at this half-wasted moment of what should have been soaring hilarity and in the event was just mildly amusing. This error blunted the impact of this scene and passage, just as the heavy-handed topical references blunted, I think, the impact of the entire play. Perhaps we will have to wait for next year?s anticipated production of Richard Byrne?s ?Burn Your Bookes? for a more fully satisfying contemporary take on alchemy and the interplay between knowledge, fraud, self-deception and greed.