Today’s audience watching The Alchemist may be reminded of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a modern version of Jonson’s comedy. In both, three con artists compete to see who can swindle the most money from a motley group of willing victims. In Jonson’s London, everyone struggles to invent themselves, always seeking to have more and to be more than they are. The con artists—Subtle, Face and Dol Common--invent themselves over and over again, designing just the right con for every victim. Subtle and Dol range through the city, restless opportunists. Face has a base of operations, his master’s house. Face, ambitious to be more than Jeremy the Butler, can make the house available for con games on a lavish scale because his master has fled the plague.
The play opens with an escalating war of words between Subtle and Face. Each mocks the other: Subtle for being so broke he can afford only to sniff fast food, Face for wasting his energy on minor scams. It takes Dol to bring them together in a desperate speech, warning them not to ruin everything. “Cozen kindly, And heartily, and lovingly, as you should,” she implores them. Sullen but reunited, they embark on their “venture tripartite.”
Face and Dol take on different identities throughout the play. Face is variously Jeremy the Butler, the Captain, or Lungs. Dol is the Fairy Queen or the mad sister of a Lord. Subtle creates “a new tune, a new gesture” specific to each mark. Face offers opportunity; Subtle withholds it. No matter: each victim wants more and more. Subtle plays the Alchemist, but each victim is his own alchemist as well, and revels in anticipating the transformation Subtle can only promise.
Jonson’s play is set in London just outside the playhouse door. The victims he shows us could have been members of his audience: a law student, an ambitious apothecary, a decadent sensualist, an angry teenage misfit, and a religious hypocrite. Every one of the chosen victims is consumed by desire—for success, luxury, skill, or wealth. In every case, they vest their longing in things, imagining gross matter converted to their golden fantasies.
Dapper, the law clerk, wants a “familiar spirit” to help him win at cards. Face, disguised as “the Captain,” brings him to Subtle, whose unwillingness to help quickly makes Dapper escalate his desires—first to win at “all games,” and then to see his familiar, the Fairy Queen.
Abel Drugger, the young businessman, is convinced he needs only the perfect ad campaign to make his shop thrive. Subtle and Face offer him a custom sign, and a little feng shui to boot. They play to his ego, designing a contorted visual emblem of his name to hang above the door. The sign for his business signifies him as well.
Sir Epicure Mammon is the target of the biggest con in the play. He wants desperately to be rich. After all the metal in his house has been changed to gold, he plans to buy up all the pewter, tin, lead, and copper in England to make more gold. All this to live the good life: restoring youth, curing plague, and furnishing his bedroom with an airbed (“down is too hard”), pornographic tapestries and wall-to-wall mirrors. He will eat impossible delicacies served in jewel-studded dishes, and will wear shirts as soft and light as cobwebs. For the first time, the victim has company, someone who “would not be gulled.” Surly is a skeptic, convinced that Mammon has fallen among thieves in a bawdy house. Mammon shrugs him off.
After Mammon, Tribulation Wholesome—pastor of the Amsterdam Brethren—is the swindlers’ biggest target. He has sent his assistant Ananias, who demands to know if Subtle is a believer. Subtle counters the religious jargon of Ananias with a flood of alchemical terms, setting one transformative code against another. Ananias protests that Subtle has already received 120 pounds for materials, and yet there is no gold. Subtle throws him out, knowing he’ll be back. He returns with Tribulation, who vows to convert the Alchemist, but only after the pots and pans have been converted to gold. Tribulation, like Mammon, dismisses the worries of his skeptical companion. His hypocrisy is a kind of alchemy, casting his greed as a selfless desire to help widows and orphans.
Jonson, as the comic alchemist, makes pure comic gold out of his characters, building a structure of separate plots that threaten to collide and collapse. The plots start whirling when Surly returns to the house, having disguised himself as a Spanish lord in order to scam the scammers. But even Surly will be undone by his own desire, as he tries to secure Dame Pliant, sister of the angry boy Kastril, as his wife. As the plots escalate into impossible crisis, the master of the house unexpectedly returns. Face, now just Jeremy the Butler, saves face by turning over everything to Lovewit, while Subtle and Dol Common escape over the back wall.
Jonson is the alchemist of language as well as plot. If Shakespeare writes of thought and feelings, Jonson writes of action and things. He compiles wondrous lists, grouping the jargon of London’s mini-worlds into comic extravaganzas. We may not know the lingo, but we laugh at the heaps of words, the excess of language mocking the excess of longing. The alchemy of plot and language cannot escape the base metal of the human body. None of the characters in Jonson’s theatrical city can transform themselves after all.
At the end of the play, Lovewit and Face turn to the audience. Lovewit takes all, just as the audience’s love of wit takes all the comic gold. Face gives himself to the audience, “that are my country,” and offers the house—the theatre—“To feast you often, and invite new guests.” Four hundred years later, we’re still coming.