There is little information about how Ben Jonson's The Alchemist was received by critics and the public. Most scholars acknowledge that Jonson's plays were not generally well received. The audience was often loudly critical, and Jonas Barish noted that several of Jonson's plays were hissed from the stage. This is not necessarily because the plays were not entertaining or topical, but rather, the play's reception reflected the audience's acceptance of the author. Jonson is usually described as arrogant and difficult; that may be a generous report. Jonson inspired little neutral comment. Critics and contemporaries either loved and worshipped Jonson or they hated and scorned him.
Since plays were not reviewed during the period in which this play was composed, response to a play may be determined by examining how often it has been produced in the years since its creation. Another way to gauge a play's popularity is through anecdotal evidence, letters, diary, and journal entries from the period. Unfortunately, in the case of The Alchemist, there is little evidence of this kind available. There is also little information about how long any play remained in production and on the stage during the early part of the seventeenth century. Although all plays were licensed by a government official, the Master of Revels, these records have not survived. The details of performance that are so readily available in the twentieth century, length and dates of performance and the theatre in which a production played, are not available for the period during which Ben Jonson wrote.
The topic of The Alchemist was a familiar one to Elizabethan audiences. The idea of a con man or swindler who, with or without a partner, seeks to part a gullible fool from his or her property derives from an old tradition in literature. It is a well-known story in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The most familiar of Chaucer's stories of a fool conned by a woman and man is "The Miller's Tale," the narrative of a young wife and her lover who swindle a greedy older husband of his wife's fidelity. Thus, the plot of The Alchemist would have been anticipated and enjoyed by Jonson's audience. Indeed The Alchemist proved to be popular during the seventeenth century.
Alvin Kernan observed in Jonson & Shakespeare, that this Jonson play reappeared on stage throughout the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, the play's language and its allusions had become too alien for audiences. During the nineteenth century the play was rarely performed, but many of Jonson's plays have been reappearing on stage during the twentieth century.
Most often, the reasons cited for not performing Jonson's work center on the difficulty of the language and the obscure nature of the references. It is interesting to note that while William Shakespeare's plays are enjoying a resurgence of interest on film (they have never been gone long from the stage), none of Jonson's plays has ever been filmed and few are produced on stage outside England. Shakespeare was Jonson's friend, but he was also his greatest rival. That appears to be just as true four hundred years later.
The Alchemist was not Jonson's only use of the con game as a play's primary topic. In Volpone (written five years before The Alchemist ), Jonson creates an elaborate swindle devised by a man and his servant. The premise is the duping of several individuals who, thinking they will be left a substantial estate, shower the charlatan with expensive gifts. Of course the protagonist is not dying, the victims will not inherit...
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anything, and the entire plot is revealed and order is restored in the conclusion. The central idea, the farce, needs only a full compliment of cheaters and victims to be successful.
Like The Alchemist, Volpone is set in contemporary London. This is one way in which Jonson differed from his contemporaries, especially Shakespeare. Shakespeare's plots were drawn from stories and from history. They were set in another time or in another land, but they did not relate the events of the London outside the theatre's walls. It is difficult to assert exactly why Jonson's popularity with theatre audiences lagged so far behind Shakespeare's. But Jonson was enormously popular with James I and Charles I. Jonson's masques (masques differed from plays because they were characterized by elaborate costumes, scenery, and stage machinery; they were very expensive to produce) were very successful, and Jonson is best known for revitalizing a genre that dated from the Medieval period and reintroducing it in the seventeenth century. It is ironic that the excessive and progressively expensive cost of the masques were one element of what ultimately led to the closing of the theatres (in 1642) and the deposition of Charles I during the English Revolution.