The Alchemist (Jonson)

Stage history

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 I 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 been 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 responding 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 amount of new material, including farces and monologues, in the latter half of the century was created.

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.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival staged a fast-paced, nearly farcical production in 1961; Gerard Larson played Face, and Nagle Jackson Face, under Edward Brubaker's direction. The performance received generally favourable reviews; however, a 1973 production set in the Wild West setting did not; the setting was generally considered inconsistent with the tone and treatment of the play.

In 1962, Tyrone Guthrie produced a modernised 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 Ian McKellen as a "greasy, misanthropic" 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. A contemporary dress production directed by Michael Kahn opened the 2009/2010 season at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Another contemporary dress production was directed by Tariq Leslie and produced by the Ensemble Theatre Co-operative at the Jericho Arts Centre, Vancouver, Canada in the summer of 2012 (see Jericho Arts Centre website, retrieved 8 July 2012 ).

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