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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Alchemist through the ages; an investigation of the stage history of Ben Jonson's play Carter, James Cunningham


This study was made to trace the stage history of The Alchemist and to see what effect theatrical productions can have in developing critical awareness of Jonson's dramatic skill in this popular play. Therefore an attempt has been made to record all performances by major companies between 1610 and 1970 with cast lists and other pertinent information about scenery/ stage action and properties. The second part of the thesis provides a detailed analysis of four specific productions considered in light of their prompt books, details of acting and production, and overall critical reception. Garrick's adaption, which dominated the stage during the eighteenth century, reflected the genius of its producer but also demonstrated the skill with which Jonson balanced the plot. Garrick featured the part of Drugger, one of the minor gulls, but Jonson's plot structure remained intact as the ridiculing of human greed and stupidity continued to be the dominant characteristic. William Poel's production, on the other hand, emphasized the rapid plot development by use of a pseudo-Elizabethan stage, and he laid heavy stress on the elocution proving that the alchemical jargon was an essential element of the play and should not be cut because audiences could not understand it. The Ashland production (1961) also demonstrated the effectiveness of the pseudo-Elizabethan stage in presenting the fast moving comic action. It emphasized the farcical nature of the play and the repertory casting revealed the skill with which Jonson balanced his characters. The Old Vic production (1962), directed by Tyrone Guthrie, assumed that Jonson had to be modernized to be understood by contempory audiences, but his tampering with the text distorted and weakened the play in a number of ways. Finally, in the concluding chapter, an attempt has been made to provide an analysis of The Alchemist based on insights provided by the preceding material in an effort to show that literary criticism of a play is often closely linked with theatrical experience. The complex interweaving of subplot with subplot, the finely etched characters, the colourful language, the important themes—all are as theatrically effective today as they were in 1610. The stage history of The Alchemist demonstrates that it is one of Ben Jonson's most popular plays, and the reasons are visibly evident upon investigation of some of the theatrical productions

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