Welcome to the Chemical Theatre

The Urban Chronotope in Peter Ackroyd’s Fiction

by Marta Komsta (Author)
©2015 Monographs 214 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 6


The book discusses the evolution of the urban chronotope in the selected novels by Peter Ackroyd, an acclaimed British author. The examined narratives illustrate the transformation from the postmodern tenets of historiographic metafiction into a unique urban mythopoetics by means of a semiotic analysis.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: The Urban Chronotope in Peter Ackroyd‘s Novels
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • Chapter 1. The Society of the Spectacle
  • The Great Fire of London (1982)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • Chapter 2. A Lesson in Anatomy
  • English Music (1992)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • The Clerkenwell Tales (2003)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • 5.
  • Chapter 3. Domus Obscurata, or the Darkened House
  • Hawksmoor (1985)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • The House of Doctor Dee (1993)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • Chapter 4. Coincidentia Oppositorum, or the Unity of the Opposites
  • The Plato Papers (1999)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • The Fall of Troy (2006)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • Chapter 5. The Eternal City
  • Three Brothers (2013)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Primary sources:
  • Secondary sources:
  • Index


I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ludmiła Gruszewska Blaim and Artur Blaim, the general editors of the series, whose invaluable advice and continuous encouragement helped me bring this project to completion. I also want to thank Zofia Kolbuszewska, John M. Krafft, and Grzegorz Maziarczyk as well as the members of the Editorial Board of the series, Joanna Durczak, Fátima Vieira, Antonis Balasopoulos, and David Malcolm, for their constructive suggestions.

My heartfelt thanks should go to my dear friends and colleagues from the Department of English Literature at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Justyna Galant, Elżbieta Perkowska-Gawlik, Katarzyna Pisarska, Urszula Terentowicz-Fotyga, and Andrzej Kowalczyk, whose aid and insights are duly appreciated.

Finally, I would like to thank my parents, Ałła and Henryk Komsta, for their loving support, enthusiasm and patience.

Special thanks to Maria Curie-Skłodowska University for funding this publication. ← 7 | 8 → ← 8 | 9 →

Introduction: The Urban Chronotope in Peter Ackroyd’s Novels


In the realm of alchemy, the Chemical Theatre is a potent symbol of balancing the seemingly incompatible. Described by Andrew J. Welburn as the “great imaginative theatre,” it denotes a process of interpenetration in which fundamentally antithetical elements, “different natures,” are allowed to co-exist within the net of various “references and allusions” (2). In his 1980 book, The Chemical Theatre (the title derives from a 17th-century collection of alchemical treatises), Charles Nicholl applies the same name to a process in which the alchemist attempted the “mounting of symbolical chemical events,” “his vessel” constituting “an arena in which invisible and magical potentialities were visibly enacted” (6).

But there is more to the concept of the Chemical Theatre than just a haunting name; it is also a powerful metaphor of transformation through merging, of perfection enabled by the unification of individual elements. In Peter Ackroyd’s 1992 novel English Music, one Timothy Harcombe recounts his childhood alongside the impoverished father, Clement, who struggles to support their dwindling household by conducting mediumistic séances at the Chemical Theatre, a dilapidated building in Hackney, London. The site of the old Theatre functions in the narrative as the locus of reminiscence: for the participants, the séance constitutes a ritual of remembrance in which they are allowed to reach out to the past and make peace with it. It is also a collective endeavour connected with the act of reclaiming their shared heritage, a ceremony of unification that enables each member of the audience to transcend mortality. The place ← 9 | 10 → of the Chemical Theatre shelters, then, the space of the transcendental complemented with the sacred time that contravenes linear temporality.1

For Peter Ackroyd, a London-based writer and biographer, the city constitutes his personal Chemical Theatre as a palimpsestic literary structure capable of sustaining the pattern of collective cultural continuity. It is also a clear reference to Ackroyd’s creative method based on incorporating numerous cultural associations within the framework of fiction, balancing the dense network of inter- and intratextual allusions with the metaphysical supra-layer of meanings. In effect, the city is the driving force behind his work, a multilayered meaning-generator which bestows identity upon those individuals who are endowed with the vision of cultural entirety. Born in 1949 in London, Ackroyd, whose readers are repeatedly challenged with a paradoxical combination of intertextual games of hide-and-seek with the metaphysical striving towards the divine, has become something of an institution on the British literary scene. Anyone attempting to face the writer’s immense (and ever growing) oeuvre should prepare for a complex and often confusing collection of novels, poems, scathing literary and film reviews (from the times when Ackroyd became the youngest editor in the history of The Spectator), short stories, essays, biographies, and rewritings of the classics of English literature (as well as children’s books and TV shows), produced at an almost frightening pace.2 His passion for research (symbolised by Ackroyd’s critically acclaimed London: The Biography, which has the ambiguous honour of being the book that almost killed its author) has given the writer the reputation as “our own, contemporary John Stow,” epitomizing an almost obsessive encapsulation within the letters of the ← 10 | 11 → past combined with the inveterate propensity for exploring various aspects of one’s historical heritage (Self, “Don’t have”). 3

His repeated attempts to establish multiple connections between the then and the now have allowed critics to classify Ackroyd as a writer belonging to the broad current of historiographic metafiction, a term coined by Linda Hutcheon for a typically postmodernist literary model that “in an ironic and problematic way […] acknowledges that history is not the transparent record of any sure ‘truth’” (129).4 Ackroyd has been incorporated into what has been branded “The New Historical Fiction” (Suzanne Keen) or “British Historiographic Metafiction” (Susana Onega), a literary trend emerging in Britain in the 1980s which “tells stories about [the] past that point to multiple truths or the overturning of an old received Truth, mixes genres, and adopts a parodic or irreverently playful attitude [to] history over an ostensibly normative mimesis” (Keen, “The Historical Turn” 171).5 Along with other texts of the same period by John Fowles, Graham Swift, A.S. Byatt, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro and Julian Barnes, Ackroyd’s novels have been described as “characterized by a foregrounding of the historical consciousness, most often through a dual or even multiple focus on the fictional present and one or more crucial ‘pasts’” (Janik, “No End”).6 ← 11 | 12 →

Nevertheless, the tenets of historiographic metafiction produce certain disadvantages that originate precisely from its supposed advantages, namely the insistence on the plurality of historical perspectives, heterogeneity, the sense of parody and playing “in” literature. According to Susana Onega, “[b]y depriving history of its pretensions to absolute truth, the New Historicists and the postmodernist creative writers after them have negotiated the reunification of self and world, but have apparently simultaneously deprived this reunification of ultimate significance” (“British” 52). The postmodernist derision of meaning has not been lost on Ackroyd, who persistently refuses to be branded a postmodernist. “I have never really internalized that belief,” he says in an interview, claiming instead that he belongs to “[a] certain kind of London Cockney tradition which combines farce, pathos and melodrama” (qtd. in Schütze 172). The sense of constituting part of a greater cultural whole is a recurrent trope in Ackroyd’s work based on the concept of “English sensibility” which the writer himself has repeatedly identified as the core idea in his texts (Ackroyd, “Englishness” 340). Conveyed by the image of the artistic “line of force,” the most pervasive element of the English cultural legacy, Ackroyd’s oeuvre foregrounds a process of intense cultural exploration in which the writer’s sense of Englishness is a compass guiding him towards the aspects of national heritage that he considers fundamental to its sustenance (Ackroyd, “Englishness” 340).

First and foremost, though, Peter Ackroyd is an urban writer, for whom the city, “the landscape of [his] imagination,” constitutes the central meaning-generating mechanism in his writing (“London Luminaries” 346). Hailed as “the Pearly King of [the] metropolitan novelists,” Ackroyd seems to have established an intensely intimate relationship with the city (Lewis 181); according to Barry Lewis, “London is never just a passive setting in [Ackroyd’s] books but a major presence and determinant of the events that unfold through the windings of time in its streets and suburbs” (181). One of the key aspects of Ackroyd’s approach to London is a particular sort of its dwellers: the artists whom he calls “Cockney visionaries.” Such men (and it would seem only men: William Blake, William Turner, William Hogarth, Dan Leno, to name a few) retain and pass forward a unique “London sensibility,” based on merging “pathos and comedy, high tragedy and low farce” (Ackroyd, “London Luminaries” 345). Considered together, these artists represent ← 12 | 13 → “a definite pattern of continuity” (Ackroyd, “London Luminaries” 346) correlated with a “London visionary tradition” (Onega, “Interview”).7 Ackroyd regards himself as an heir to the legacy of the city:

I often wondered where my novels came from – or rather, I knew where they came from, but I never understood why they took the form which they did. I am always accused of mixing the comic with the serious, of creating theatrical caricatures, of treating fiction as if it were some kind of intellectual or cultural pantomime. This puzzled me because I really couldn’t help myself. It just happened. Now, at last, I know why it happened. I was coming into my inheritance. (Ackroyd, “London Luminaries” 346)

The theme of retaining one’s heritage and drawing a pattern that provides the individual with a sense of belonging to a greater whole constitutes one of the fundamentals of Ackroyd’s approach to literature, broadening the perspective imposed by historiographic metafiction. At the same time, Ackroyd’s insistence on the significance of the relationship between the city and its inhabitants makes him one of the most significant urban novelists in Britain.


Despite a plethora of critical analyses, there are few more relevant comments on Peter Ackroyd’s oeuvre than Barry Lewis’ remark on the writer’s 1992 novel English Music, which the critic praised for highlighting “a close association with place, a love of theatrical spectacle, and an acute awareness of historical and cultural continuity” (66). It is, indeed, an apt synopsis of Ackroyd’s “territorial imperative” (qtd. in Lewis 128): the city becomes a stage upon which the writer’s games with history take place during the process of creating “transhistorical ← 13 | 14 → connectedness,” a pattern of cultural unity developed throughout English history (Onega, Metafiction 107).8


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
Chronotyp Postmoderne Semiotik
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 214 pp.

Biographical notes

Marta Komsta (Author)

Marta Komsta is Assistant Professor of English Literature at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin (Poland). She published on space as well as utopian and Gothic conventions in contemporary British and American literature and film.


Title: Welcome to the Chemical Theatre
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