The Alchemist (Jonson)

The Alchemist (Jonson) A short stage history

The first performance of The Alchemist that we know of was in Oxford in 1610. There were no reviews, but one member of the audience, Henry Jackson (an Oxford fellow), recorded his disgusted reaction. He wrote that though the play received "great applause," the actors were "not content with attacking alchemists, they most foully violated the sacred scriptures themselves." The date of the action of the play itself is November 1, 1610, which may indeed be the date on which Jackson saw the play.

The play was extremely popular during the late 1600s and early to mid-1700s, and it was constantly in revival. Samuel Pepys saw a production in 1661 and pronounced it "incomparable".

Garrick famously played Drugger in 1743, turning it into the play's main part. He also cut 1,000 of the play's 3,000 lines and introduced new sections to beef up Drugger's part. Garrick's success led to several spin-offs, including a play called The Tobacconist by Francis Gentleman, which is all about Abel Drugger. There was even a tobacconist's shop set up in London called "The Abel Drugger."

By the late 1700s, though, The Alchemist had disappeared almost altogether, replaced, it seems, by The Tobacconist. The great actor Edmund Kean (about whom Coleridge famously wrote that "seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning") actually played in The Tobacconist (but not The Alchemist) in 1815.

Throughout the 19th century, the play was not revived until William Poel rediscovered it for an 1899 production. This in turned paved the way for Alec Guinness to follow in Garrick's footsteps—Guinness similarly stole the reviews as Drugger in John Burrell's production at the New Theatre in 1947. Kenneth Tynan pronounced him "the best living English character-actor" in light of this performance.

Tyrone Guthrie revived the play in modern dress in 1962, a decision that caused much controversy and necessitated Guthrie's justification, in an article in The Times, which claimed that using Jacobean dress who "would know when Face was a Captain or a House Servant? Whether Subtle was a Divine or a Doctor?" This revival perhaps more than any other modern one reintroduced the high-paced farce to the repertoire, so that eight years later, Stuart Burge could transfer his production from the Nottingham Playhouse to the West End (New Theatre) in 1970.

The author of this ClassicNote has seen the play three times: a lackluster National Theatre staging had Simon Callow as Face (1993), a hugely inventive revival was staged by the Swan Theatre Company in Cambridge (2006), and Nicholas Hytner led a superlative production in the same year for the National Theatre, London, which starred Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale (pictured, opposite).