Saturday, 10 March 2001

Ben Jonson: The Alchemist (1610)

Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1996
Review number: 778

Like several others of Jonson's plays, The Alchemist is very long; in this case the length is used to build up from a slowish start, gradually increasing in pace until the farcical denoument.

A group of three tricksters, Face, Subtle and Dol Common, are using a borrowed house to get money through the pretended practise of alchemy, persuading people to pay to see wonders or to finance the supposed creation of gold from other metals. The major problem that they have is that this works too well, with new customers arriving before they have finished with earlier ones.

Apart from Volpone, The Alchemist is probably the easiest of Jonson's plays to enjoy today. A modern audience will probably be lost with much of the mystical discussion of Face and Subtle, used to convince their victims. It is however apparently genuine, and even so it doesn't need to be followed in great detail. The subject matter, then, has dated; but the structure and characterisation in the play is very well done.

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