Coleridge deemed the narrative structure of The Alchemist perfect. But, I wonder. A landowner quits plague-ridden London and his cunning servants pose as learned sages in order to defraud affluent locals. Ben Jonson’s plotting is certainly adroit. The action takes place in a single location within the span of an afternoon, and this concentration of forces may have appealed to Coleridge’s idea of classical purity. What Jonson’s narrative doesn’t explain is why so many dim-witted toffs are kicking around in a city abandoned by all but its poorest inhabitants.
His characters’ names crassly signal their roles: Surly, Dapper, Lovewit, Sir Epicure Mammon. The chief villains, Subtle and Face, are assisted by Doll Common, whose vocation is self-evident, and in the early scenes their cheesy swindles are achieved with so little effort that one’s sympathy shifts away from the crooks and towards their prey. Which is not ideal. Jonson’s gallery of wealthy twerps seems stale to the modern eye: uppity monks, Spanish dandies, calculating apothecaries, aspiring duellists, mute virgins being touted for marriage by greedy relatives. The central figure is a deluded millionaire who believes his rusting bric-a-brac can be transformed into gold.
This glimpse into the Jacobean underworld is interesting enough, as a documentary, but it’s supposed to be much more than interesting. It’s supposed to be comic genius. The mental effort, however, required to find the play entertaining has a distancing effect. Comedy writers hate asking viewers to analyse the show because ‘an audience that’s thinking isn’t laughing’. Matters improve in the second act with a couple of decent plot twists and revelations. And the predictable return of the landowner creates some entertaining shocks.
Polly Findlay’s production has a wonderful overture of 17th-century music, which includes sly quotes from movie soundtracks: The Sting, The Italian Job, the Bond theme.