Games People Play
By Helene Ragovin
Driven by greed, lust and ambition, The Alchemist takes the stage at Balch Arena
Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist was first performed in 1610. But Laurence Senelick is willing to bet that when it’s staged at the Balch Arena Theater, contemporary audiences will find plenty to connect with.
“The main characters are three foul-mouthed confidence tricksters. The rest of the characters are pretty much naïfs or fools,” says Senelick, the Fletcher Professor of Oratory in the School of Arts and Sciences.
“It speaks very much to our time. It fits in in an age of Enron, Bernie Madoff, junk bonds and people listening to psychics. It shouldn’t be hard to see the contemporary connections,” he says. Senelick is directing the play, with a cast of undergraduates; its remaining performances run from November 4 through 6.
The action of The Alchemist unfolds over a couple of hours at the abode of a London gentleman who has fled to the country to avoid the plague. Home alone, the owner’s servant and two accomplices use the classy digs as a base to pull scams, many of which draw on the lure of alchemy—the dark art that supposedly holds the promise of transforming commonplace metals into gold.
The con artists’ marks run the gamut. There’s a rich young country boy, a skeptic named Surly, two Puritans and a lech known as Sir Epicure Mammon. Through them, Jonson satirizes various elements of society—and human nature itself. The language is rich and the pace is fast, filled with disguises, quick-change artistry and cases of mistaken identity.
“I don’t think the audience will be complaining about lack of variety in what goes on on the stage,” Senelick says.
Less Love, More Laughs
Like many of Jonson’s works, The Alchemist enjoyed great popularity for about 200 years before sliding into relative obscurity—at least in comparison to the comedies of his contemporary, William Shakespeare.
“It’s a funny thing, because for two centuries Jonson was the most popular playwright on the British stage—at certain times he was far more popular than Shakespeare,” says Senelick. “The Alchemist in particular held the stage for quite a long time, even though it was in a cut and often bowdlerized form.”
Jonson’s comedies “are very cruel and satirical,” he says, and rarely involve any love interest. In the 18th century, when theater began to draw a more bourgeois audience, Jonson fell out of favor. “The audience wants to see love onstage; it wants to see poetic justice. It doesn’t want to see bad guys get away with anything—it is more moralistic and sentimental.” For Victorian audiences in the 19th century, Jonson was far too bawdy and sardonic, Senelick says. “It’s not until the 20th century that he begins to be rediscovered and revived.”
Senelick was thinking of comedy when he decided to bring The Alchemist to Balch.
“My last show at the Arena, two years ago, was a French farce, Anything to Declare. It was a huge success—audiences just roared with laughter,” he says. “I don’t want to step in the same stream twice, but it’s clear that audiences, these days particularly, are eager for comedy.” In 1970, he had staged a big production of Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair in Cambridge. “I’ve always wanted to get back to Jonson, so I thought of The Alchemist.”
A Distorting Mirror of the Past
One challenge is the play’s length. Until the age of Shaw and O’Neill, it was reputed to be the longest play in the English language, next to Hamlet. “It’s extremely dense,” Senelick says. For this production, Senelick and his dramaturge, Patrick Bradley, G14, drew on an adaptation that was prepared by Barry Edelstein, A86, former director of the Classic Stage Company, for a New York production in 2000.
“Barry had done some cutting that was extremely skilled,” Senelick says. “He did not cut any of the main characters or the incidents. But he pruned the language considerably.” Senelick and Bradley used Edelstein’s version, with some adjustments of their own. “What we’re doing is a hybrid,” Senelick says. “It should not run more than two hours, the length of an ordinary play.”
Whenever The Alchemist has been performed for American audiences over the past couple of decades, directors have set it in the modern day—as Edelstein’s production did. The Balch version bucks this trend.
“There are a number of reasons why I wanted to set it in 1610, the date of its first performance,” Senelick says. “First of all, you have to give audiences credit for intelligence. You don’t have to hit them over the head by dressing people up like modern types. They should be able to figure it out if it’s performed well enough.”
And, simply put, audiences like fancy costumes. “One of the reasons I’m doing this is for the audience to enjoy itself by being immersed in a world that’s both foreign and also very familiar,” Senelick says.
Audiences also want comedy—especially now. “I do think, the harder the times, the more the need for laughter,” he says. During the Great Depression, one of the most successful genres in Hollywood was the screwball comedy, “where everybody seems to be wearing tuxedos and evening gowns and going to night clubs, presenting a world that was quite different from that of the audience. It’s giving people an escape, to be very cliché about it.”
But with The Alchemist, because Jonson is so sarcastic and satirical, the audience is not exactly escaping, Senelick says. “What it’s doing is seeing itself reflected in a distorting mirror of the past, and that will provide a lot of entertainment.”
The Alchemist is at Balch Arena Theater Nov. 4–6 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 for the general public and $7 for students and senior citizens and those with a valid Tufts ID. To purchase tickets over the phone with a credit card, call the theater box office at 617.627.3493.
Helene Ragovin can be reached at email@example.com.