Following an outbreak of the plague in London, a gentleman’s house falls into the hands of two would-be small-time crooks : Face, the gentleman’s butler and Subtle, his good friend. They are also accompanied in their exploits by a prostitute, Doll Common. They then start their long list of cons on unsuspecting victims, which quickly turn out to be as vicious, vile and greedy as the con artists who attempt to abuse them. First, a lawyer’s clerk seeks necromantic skills from Subtle to help him with his gambling ; they recommend he gets the help of the Queen of Fairy, but that comes with a price. Then they con a tobacco merchant, avid to expand his business. Then arrives Sir Epicure Mammon : he is keen to get his hands on the philosopher’s stone in order to transform everything into gold, hence the title of the play. His friend, Surly, is a sceptic, and does not believe in the philosopher’s stone. Then enter the Anabaptists who look for goods to be transformed into gold. The conmen try to convince them it happened, and that there are Sir Epicure’s own goods. And then the lawyer’s clerk comes back in order to meet with the Queen of Fairy. He is blindfolded and subject to humiliations. The tobacco merchant returns too, and is told he could marry a rich widow, Dame Pliant, for the right amount of money. Sir Epicure is then introduced to Doll, who impersonates a mad noble lady. Surly returns also, disguised as a noble Spaniard. Then the whirlwind of dupes carries on until the gentleman returns to the house. Face first tries to lie to his master, but confronted with the reality of the different characters, he has to seek forgiveness, whilst Subtle and Doll run away and the different victims either end up with prizes or losses, according to their respective evilness.Retour en haut de page
The most famous of Jonson’s plays
“The Alchemist” is widely considered in England to be Jonson’s best play. Coleridge is known to have said it has one of the most perfect plots in literature. Perfect, probably, but complicated, imbricated, certainly. The ruthless depiction of human’s greed, lack of scruples, avidity for material goods or for fresh flesh, appetite for deceit and for humiliating others is so constant and vivid that it rightly turned Jonson into the undisputed master of satire.Retour en haut de page
A Golden age ?
We have talked numerous times about the English theatrical Renaissance. It is hard to overestimate the magic of this era. Over about seventy years, 1200 plays were produced on the London and English stages. These were times when human creativity was not the measure of the intervention of the State, where optimism and passion for being alive were not necessarily disrupted by the threat of disease (plague) or political conflicts (war). For example, at the beginning of the era came the threat of the Invincible Armada ; Spain was at the time the kind of military threat comparable to Napoleonic France in the early nineteenth century, Hitler’s Germany during the war, or the US military now. There are numerous references to Spain at the end of the play : first, a reference to the Invincible Armada, when Dame Pliant mentions : “Never since eighty-eight could I abide them” (the Spaniards). Then a bit later comes a reference to Don Quixote by Kastril. Don Quixote had been published in 1605, and was probably already known in England by 1610 ; the second volume was only published in 1615, five years after the first performance of the play. Similarly to our note on Volpone about Montaigne’s Essays, European best-sellers seem to have found their way pretty well into England at the time.
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