The Alchemist

Definition

Theater

  • A satirical comedy by Ben Jonson, first performedin 1610 at the Globe Theatre. The plot concerns the attempts of threerogues - the alchemist Subtle, the butler Face, and the whoreDol Common - to fleece gullible people in the house of Face'sabsent master, Lovewit. They distribute alchemical and astrologicaladvice and even perform magic rituals for their customers (at onepoint summoning up the 'Queen of the Fairies'). Lovewit returns unexpectedly,however, and the law officers are summoned. The alchemist is foundto have fled, while Face remains in his master's good graces by arranginga marriage for him. Jonson's delight in trickery and practical jokesis evident throughout. The play also presents a serious moral abouthuman greed and gullibility.

    The Alchemist has attracted some of Britain's bestserious actors into comedy. David Garrick played Abel Drugger, oneof the duped customers, as did Alec Guinness in 1947 at the Old Vic,when critic Kenneth Tynan wrote of watching "his wistful,happy eyes moving in dumb wonder..." Ralph Richardson wasFace in the same production. In more recent revivals Subtle has beenplayed by Leo McKern (1962) and Face by Ian McKellen (1977) and SimonRussell Beale (2005).

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