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Welcome to the Chemical Theatre

The Urban Chronotope in Peter Ackroyd’s Fiction


Marta Komsta

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.
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Introduction: The Urban Chronotope in Peter Ackroyd‘s Novels


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...

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