Director’s Notes on The Alchemist

It is a very exciting and humbling thing to discover something precious that one has previously been blind to or ignored. Such is my excitement over Mr. Jonson’s The Alchemist. I fully and shamefully admit to sustaining a kind of juvenile disdain for the play over a 40-year span, based on nothing but my avoidance of it for so long. It was one of many plays I was assigned to read in college, and I remember perusing the first few pages and tossing it aside in frustration. I found it daunting to decipher, and lacking in any aspect compelling enough for me to complete the assignment -- and so I didn’t. Luckily, it wasn’t the subject of any subsequent essay test! I recall trying to read it again several times over the years, as occasionally it would be mentioned as a great classic that I should consider for production, both here at The Shakespeare Theatre and at other companies where I have worked. Each and every time, I would get about three or four pages in and then shove it back in the bookshelf, annoyed by its obstinate resistance to entering my brain with ease. I also admit to the fact that given my tentative and extremely limited exposure to the play – literally a sporadic re-reading of the first three pages over four decades – I had completely misconstrued what the play was about, assuming that it was about an alchemist. This did not seem terribly stupid at the time; the play’s title seemed to indicate the likelihood of that being the case. So, it is with much chagrin and full disclosure that I confess to being wrong about everything in regard to The Alchemist.

For some reason (I sometimes think there is a mysterious divining rod hovering about me that leads me to certain plays at the exact right time), I picked the script up again this past winter with the thought, “well, I’ll give it one more try.” Inexplicably, I got past page three. Not only did I keep reading, but somehow it suddenly seemed so clear, and to my delight, hysterically funny. I found myself laughing out loud as I read it; at one point, so much so that I became quite alarmed. It is a rare play that can make one laugh audibly and quite uncontrollably in the solitude of a reading room. This is not to say that I don’t recognize the comedy in comedies when I read them, yet most don’t make me laugh raucously out loud until they are brought to life by actors. I became convinced that The Alchemist was possibly the funniest play I had ever encountered. I also saw, with dismay and clarity, why it is so rarely performed. It’s a massive understatement to say that it’s a tough nut to crack, as my own prolonged experience so clearly demonstrates.

After much thought and re-reading, I decided on the bold (and I’m sure controversial) decision to “translate” and adapt it, in the hope of alleviating the problems that it presents for a modern audience. This is indeed a provocative act because technically the play is written in modern English. The text is overflowing with archaic language, obtuse references, topical jokes, and technical jargon from 450 years ago; not to mention grammatical construction that feels almost foreign, numerous settings, a barrage of minor characters and, in its original form, is probably well over four hours long.

Each and every adaptation that I create presents a very different set of challenges and goals. The goal here was not to “dumb down” Ben Jonson’s work at all, but rather to create a more up-to-date language conduit through which the play could flow and emerge with deserved brilliance for the modern ear. Language, sentence and thought structure, slang, and so much else have changed over the centuries since the play was penned, that even though it is written in our tongue, it strains that assertion. Add Ben Jonson’s particular writing style, far more convoluted to us than Shakespeare’s, and you have a very difficult piece of theatre. I’m sure that the language issues in combination with the play’s epic production demands have prevented many a company or director from attempting it.

What has not changed over 450 years is human nature. Each and every thing that Jonson so magnificently and astutely observes about humanity, and then satirizes with equal brilliance, remains stunningly, appallingly, hysterically true and relevant. I could go on and on about the complexity and dazzling genius of the play, but I do not have the room to do so here. Let me simply say, that it is no mistake that Jonson is often touted as Shakespeare’s only equal from that time or since. They lived at the same time, in the same place, and practiced the same occupation, but they could not be more different as writers. I read a wonderful remark that said that Shakespeare’s genius was so unique that it has never been imitated or equaled since, that it will stand alone forever; but that Jonson’s genius was in creating a new form that was adopted and imitated, and influenced dramatic literature for generations after.

I have made at least 1,000 changes to Jonson’s original text – some as minute as shifting the placement of a comma, others as arrogant as re-writing entire lines. I made hundreds of cuts and word changes, and deleted various minor characters and locations. What I have attempted is to create an adaptation that so honors Jonson’s language, style, and intent that, unless you are an expert, you will not notice the changes. This has all been done because I want this piece to be brought to the glorious life and attention it deserves as one of the world’s greatest comedies. As a now fervent admirer of the play, I have assigned myself the role of modern tour guide to bring Jonson to the audiences of the 21st century. I am sure I will offend or even outrage the purists, but the world and language change, even though humans do not, and so, in the spirit of the transformational nature of alchemy, I have endeavored to convert old gold into new gold.

“God bless all con men and hustlers and pitch-men...” Tennessee Williams, Camino Real


T he sickness hot, a master quit, for fear,
H is house in town, and left one servant there,
E ase him corrupted, and gave means to know
A Cheater, and his punk; who now brought low,
L eaving their narrow practice, were become
C ozeners at large; and only wanting some
H ouse to set up, with him they here contract,
E ach for a share, and all begin to act.
M uch company they draw, and much abuse,
I n casting figures, telling fortunes, news,
S elling of flies, flat bawdry with the stone,
T ill it, and they, and all in fume are gone.

–Ben Jonson