Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist embraces the idea of perfection—both in the play and in society at large. “A lot of intelligent people during Jonson’s time believed the basic theory behind alchemy: that everything in the world is working towards perfection,” says Dr. Karl Kippola, director of the play and an assistant professor of theatre at AU. “Jonson takes this idea and relates it to his characters, and more broadly to humanity. I think he saw alchemical science as an interesting analogy to what was going on in society at the time.”
Opening at AU’s Greenberg Theatre on February 13, 2014, the seventeenth century play is considered one of the great satirical comedies of English theatre. The Alchemist mocks society—and alchemy’s—fixation on “getting rich quick,” poking fun at people’s desire to reach higher levels of wealth without any work. “The Alchemist brings science into a popular art form, but I don’t think Jonson was trying to comment on the science itself,” Kippola says. “While there were legitimate uses for alchemy, Johnson was primarily interested in it as a way of making fun of people who were trying to reach a higher level of perfection than they really deserve.”
A combination of science, rudimentary chemistry, and mysticism, in Jonson’s time many people were drawn to alchemy for its supposed ability to change, or transmute, metal into gold. The Alchemist personifies this attraction by following three con men that attempt to swindle people out of their money, one of whom poses as an alchemist. “In a lot of society, alchemy was seen as this dirty, grungy profession,” says Dr. Matthew Hartings, an assistant professor of chemistry at AU. “There were some serious people trying to do transmutations, but there were also a lot of other people who were using alchemy as a way to con money from people. Alchemy is used in the pejorative quite a bit in the play, which really reflects this view from society.”
Aside from satirizing alchemy and people’s shallow draw to its offerings, Kippola believes The Alchemist resonates with a deeper ideal in society. “I think it appeals to human nature to dream of achieving a high position without necessarily doing any hard work to achieve it,” says Kippola. “I think alchemy represented this hope of an ideal, perfect future. It allowed people to dream about bettering themselves through wealth.”
A field that nurtured the development of modern day chemistry, for many years the two were nearly synonymous—until alchemy’s reputation turned sour. “There were some amazing scientists practicing alchemy—people who developed how we perform science and chemistry today,” Hartings says. “However, because so many alchemists were using their craft to con people, scientists really wanted to shed the label of ‘alchemy.’ They wanted their work to be seen as important and valuable, so they created the separate field of chemistry.”
Though historically alchemy was a scientific process, the field was also inundated with artistic, religious, and magical ideas, creating a blend of scientific and humanities-based thought. “During Jonson’s time there wasn’t a huge backlog of scientific evidence, and much of scientific discourse was dominated by religious thinking. Alchemy was seen as having a real mysticism—there was always this attempt to use alchemy to reach divine places,” says Hartings.
Historically integrated with the arts, alchemy has surfaced not only in theatre, but in paintings, literature, and allegorical storytelling. Hartings believes alchemy’s melding of science and the humanities is why the profession appears so often in the arts—and a big reason why alchemy is a field unique to any other. “When alchemy was practiced, there was a scientific side and a mystical side, but you needed both to solve the problems you were faced with. This combination led to alchemy being used in many different art forms,” says Hartings. “Alchemy sort of melded things into one field of thinking, which is unique because we don’t practice science and the humanities like that anymore. Today we really separate them into two different fields.”
While alchemy’s blend of magical and artistic ideas certainly added to its mysticism, Kippola feels its connection to science itself is what makes the field so enigmatic. “I think that unless you’re a scientist, there is something very magical and unknown about the field. I think we trust and rely on science as a way of explaining what we don’t understand,” Kippola says. “It’s interesting to look back on alchemy and see its faults, but also see how people had the same faith in it as we do in science. They had to put their faith in something or somebody, so they chose to put their faith in alchemy.”
The Alchemist will open at AU’s Greenberg Theatre on February 13 at 8 pm Performances will follow on February 14 and 15 at 8 pm and February 15 at 2 pm.