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A: James Bridie Pf: 1930, Edinburgh Pb: 1931 G: Drama in 3 acts S: Edinburgh, 1828–9 C: 7m, 5f, extrasDr Robert Knox is a leading Scottish anatomist who conducts important and innovative dissections of the human body. However, his reputation suffers through his association with Burke and Hare, two disreputable characters who supply him with corpses. His assistant Walter Anderson has a row with his fiancée Mary on this very matter, and Walter goes drinking in a tavern, where he is consoled by a cheap tart. Next day he is horrified to discover that Knox is dissecting the tart's corpse, and is further disturbed when it becomes clear that Knox is not interested in the provenance of the body. It is not long before it becomes common knowledge that Burke and Hare have not just robbed graves but have murdered to obtain bodies. Burke is arrested and hanged, and mobs converge on Knox's home. He flees to Mary's home, prepared to shoot on the crowd if need be. However, he is rescued by his students, and Knox coolly delivers his prepared lecture on the human heart.

A: James Bridie Pf: 1930, Edinburgh Pb: 1931 G: Drama in 3 acts S: Edinburgh, 1828–9 C: 7m, 5f, extras

Although Bridie does not probe the topic very deeply, The Anatomist is significant in being the first major play to debate a preoccupation of 20th-century drama, the social responsibility of the scientist (cf. Brecht's Life of Galileo, Dürrenmatt's The Physicists, Frayn's Copenhagen). As Bridie said in his preface, the play shows ‘the shifts to which men of science are driven when they are ahead of their times’. At the time of the premiere of The Anatomist there was someone else arguing the same Nietzschean belief that great men must not be limited by common morality: Adolf Hitler.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

Reference entries

James Bridie (1888—1951)