The Alchemical Wedding

The Alchemical Wedding centres on the obsession man has with the most precious of all precious metals - Gold - and its potential transformation from base metals. The most legendary of these experiments is that of the sixteenth century magus John Dee and his assistant and medium Edward Kelly - an experience which plunged them and their wives into a dark voyage and obsession that has haunted occultists and poets ever since.

Now drawing on new research Stephen Lowe offers an extraordinary interpretation of four people locked together in an astonishing magical marriage of heaven and hell.

The Alchemical Wedding premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse, with the following cast:
  • Edward Kelly - Antony Byrne
  • John Dee - William Hoyland
  • Jane Dee - Alexandra Mathie
  • Joan Kelly - Siri O'Neal
Director - Jonathan Church
Designer - Stuart David Nunn
(Prizewinner 1997 Linbury Prize for Stage Design) 
Lighting Designer - Nick Beadle
Assistant Director - Abigail Anderson
Sound Designer - Gina Hills
D.S.M. on the Book - Rhian Thomas 


Stephen Lowe has devised a fascinating play- mystical lust in old Bohemia. 
Daily Mail. 

The characters are finely drawn, and the play raises some interesting issues becoming gripping as the events of the second act unfold. The use of language is very fine. 
Hampshire Chronicle. 



1966 was a magical year- even for Birmingham! On my first day as a drama student at the university, I met a magician who claimed to be the son of Aleister Crowley and for the next three years I searched for magical theatre in the day, and at night explored the theatre of magic , working as his "controller" in "deep trance" seances. It was there I first heard of the alchemist John Dee, and his seer, Edward Kelly. And the bare bones of the story remained with me until my own Prague Spring begin to warm them back into life.

Dee was considered by his peers to be the nearest the Elizabethans attained to the Renaissance Manthe first translator of Euclidean mathematics, mentor to the young poet Edmund Spenser, cartographer, philosopher, inventor, advisor to the most powerful at Court including the Chancellor, Lord Burleigh, and Elizabeth's spymaster, Walsingham, as well as personal friend and astrologer to the Queen herself. 
In his forties he became obsessed with alchemy, a subject that engaged many of the leading minds of the time, and not merely for reasons of avarice. In many ways their passion was closer to the modern scientific exploration into the potential power of nucleur, and quantum, physics. And for Dee it also possessed a strong spiritual dimension. The successful transmutation of base metals into gold was only the external manifestation of a greater miracle- the transformation of man's consciousness from the base to the Divine. Man as God. 
Having scoured the earth for alchemy's final secrets, Dee turned to higher powers for enlightenment. To the Angels. He discovered a "crystal" at Glastonbury (where else?) and lacking himself the ability to divine. employed a young "medium" called Edward Kelly. KELLY's past was undoubtedly shady- some stories brand him as a counterfeiter, others as impostor, and necromancer ,but his "medium abilities " were universally praised. Dee transcribes in his Magical Diary "seances" where Kelly recited visions, like extraordinary poetic precursors of Spenser's Allegorical Faerie Queen or Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Their two main "spirit-guides", the Archangel Michael, and a young virginal child, Madimi, led them not merely into an inner world of mystery, metaphor, and magic but on a literal journey across a divided Europe to arrive in 1586 at the court of the mad, alchemical Emperor Rudolf II, desperate for gold to maintain his uncertain power. 
Here Dee and Kelly felt they were on the final rung of completing the "Magnum Opus"- the 'Great Work'. It was then their child-spirit Madimi suddenly and shockingly matured into a sensual woman and announced God demanded one final sacrifice of them. They were to undertake a COVENANT to share their wives in common - a rather unusual request in the middle of what had been scientific research! KELLY adamantly rejected it, as simply a trick of the Devil. DEE's magical diary records how, putting their faith in the Lord, he , his young wife, JANE, and JOAN, KELLY's wife, "persuaded" KELLY to comply. The notorious "wife-swapping incident" took place, after which the great experiment seems to have dissolved into acrimony and thin air, DEE eventually returning to London (empty-handed) and KELLY remaining in Bohemia, to finally die in one of Rudolf's prisons.

History's judgement on DEE has been simple, harsh and consistent for over four five hundred years. Here was a great man who ended as a buffoon, in a contemporary Commedia play- an old Pantalone tricked and cuckolded by his wily and virile young servant, and who, too late, saw that all the seances were a fraud, invented and improvised by Kelly. Indeed, five years after DEE's return , another member of Walsingham's "spy" group will write a play utilising considerable elements of Dee's story. In Doctor Faustus Dee is damned, and Kelly informs the role of Mephistopheles.

The judgement has stood as a warning to us all- beware alchemy, sex magic, and (most importantly) the devious nature of one's servants.

But the judgement is wrong, or at the very least needs appealing against.

In 1991, I visited the Street of Gold in Prague, reputed to have been the home of the alchemists, and the old story returned like a ghost. I began to re-read the magical diary, and, more importantly, Dee's separate daily diary that continued beyond the Covenant, as well as new research coming out of Bohemia itself, and I found myself wandering into a very different play- not medieval morality, but a modern mystery. And it was the women who began to guide me.


History, as normal, paid scarce attention to the wives.

What on earth did they feel about this extraordinary angelic request? Certainly Dee's diaries indicates their alarm and distress before finally acquiescing, but then his daily diary goes on to mention something no-one has since even remarked upon. Five weeks after the Covenant, DEE writes in Greek that his wife confesses to have " lost the moon" . And all hell literally seems to have broken lose, ending with KELLY parting from Dee to pursue his own alchemical career, leaving his own estranged wife behind. She in turn refuses to speak with the Dees, and there is clear tension between the DEEs themselves. And there are hints of a terrible winter of discontent until exactly forty weeks after the night of the Covenant JANE DEE gives birth to a son, who they name (paradoxically if seen as the child of the Devil, Kelly), Theodore, The lover of God. And at the christening, KELLY and his wife are present and all seem finally reconciled. Indeed KELLY then appears to help them escape from Rudolf's clutches by convincing the Emperor that Kelly alone possessed the alchemical key. And on his return, DEE desperately petitioned ELIZABETH to secure KELLY's release, and is distraught on news of his death. Hardly the reactions of a cuckolded old buffoon. Or of a devil incarnate.

What really happened to these four people, lost in an experiment of love and angels, lust and devils, locked into a marriage of Heaven and Hell? Well, I am a dramatist. I follow human beings not theories, and have tried to create my own theatrical "seance" to free them from the false judgement of academics or the fantastic ravings of occultists. Why? Because here seem to be human beings caught in a strange, posssibly insane and certainly painful search for some kind of love. And perhaps they might lead us a step nearer into its mystery .

ALCHEMICAL WEDDING by Stephen Lowe (Revised version of Telegraph article.) 


The writing of the play

The extraordinary collaboration between John Dee and Edward Kelly has interested Stephen Lowe for 32 years. It began when he was a drama student at Birmingham University in the '60s. On his very first day, he met a magician who said he was the son of Aleister Crowley "[the most notorious and influential magician of the 20th century, who made no distinction between black and white magic and lived his life according to the creed "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law"]". "For four years, I worked with him, dreaming on a magical theatre, studying Brecht and Stanislayski by day, and at night working as his controller in deep trance seances."

During this time, Stephen came across the obscure writings of a great number of mystics, and first heard of John Dee and Edward Kelly. In time, he wrote a post-graduate thesis "on the influence of the Golden Dawn on the many artists surrounding it". ("The Golden Dawn was a secret, international society of occultists, around the turn of the last century, who were fascinated by the Cabbala, Jungian psychology and, to some extent, the Celtic revival, and whose members included W BYeats, Annie Horniman, MacGregor Mathers-and Aleister Crowley.") Spookily, the magician "believed himself to be a reincarnation of Edward Kelly (and practically every-one else)", and in 1970, Stephen decided that it was time their occult investigations discontinued. In any case, he had been somewhat put off by news of the murders perpetrated by the Manson "family" in 1969, which seemed to indicate where such experimentation could lead.

So things stood until 1990, when Stephen Lowe visited Prague to deliver a lecture at the city's Charles University. There, discussions with the Czech National Theatre's translator, Martin Haslik, about The Tempest-which Shakespeare wrote for the marriage of James I's daughter to Rudolf II's heir-and a visit to the Street of Gold, where the alchemists are said to have lived, rekindled his curiosity about the subject. In particular, he found himself thinking again about the verdict that historians seemed unanimously to have conferred upon John Dee and Edward Kelly. John Dee was the inspiration for Prospero in The Tempest, but he also provided the subject for Marlowe's Dr Faustus, who sells his soul to the Devil. Others, taking a more comica lview, have regarded him as "a great man who failed to see he was in a story by Boccaccio or a classical play by Plautus... Dee's reputation is buried under derision, as the wise old man become a mere Pantalone." All this time, historians have taken a consistently dismissive and contemptuous attitude towards both men, but Lowe realised gradually that this view only took into account half the picture.

He began to undertake extensive research, in the course of which he carefully re-read Dee's "magical" diary and daily diary and came across clues to a different story, which all his predecessors seemed to have missed. Together with new source material which was just then emerging from the Czech Republic (the Elizabethan Bohemia), this led him to a quite new version of the events that took place in the strange year of 1586-7, between the two men and, all importantly, their wives.

What he found was evidence of an altogether different experiment, in which all four participated. Basing every part of the story on fact, Lowe set out "to bring to their journey what Kelly and his vision offered to their own magical theatre: a vision, a poetry, perhaps a truthful insight; to bring their ghosts to life, to talk to angels". Trying to find a path between the dryness of academia and the "wilder shores of occultists", he has brought to the stage what he sees as the human angle of these bizarre events.

John Dee

"All historians agree that John Dee was possibly the greatest thinker of the Elizabethan period," writes Stephen Lowe." He was the nearest to what one could define as the Renaissance Man-a friend of Erasmus, a lecturer at the Sorbonne at 21, the first translator of Euclidean mathematics, tutor to the young poet Edmund Spenser, a cartographer of extraordinary skill, inventor of mechanical mysteries, close friend of the most powerful at Court including the Chancellor, Lord Burleigh, and Elizabeth's spymaster, Walsingham, as well as personal friend and astrologer to the Queen herself." Dee's fascination with alchemy, which came to him in his late forties, was not at all surprising. Far from being simply a shady practice of greedy men, as portrayed in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, alchemy could also be pursued as the most far-reaching science of its time, much like quantum, or nuclear, physics today. It occupied many of the best brains in Europe. To Dee, as doubtless to many of these men, the possibility of manufacturing gold was little more than a by-product of a much greater transformation: that of base human clay into divine beings; in other words, the re-casting of people in the image of God. Frustrated by the lack of research material in the corporal world, Dee decided to turn to the angels for inspiration. He found a crystal-at Glastonbury, of course-which, he believed, could be the agent for communication with the major spirits. The problem was that he himself was not skilled in divination, or "skryving". At that point, he needed the help of someone like Edward Kelly.

Edward Kelly and the séances

Kelly came from a humble background, but probably went to one of the new Elizabethan grammar schools that were soon to be instrumental in nurturing the talents of a generation of outstanding theatre practitioners. His background was shady-there are stories which cast him as a counterfeiter, and others in which he is seen as a necromancer (he apparently dug up a corpse and tried to make it speak)-but he was probably unparallelled in the art of "skryving". He and John Dee embarked on a series of seances, Kelly speaking with the spirits and Dee transcribing their exchanges into his magical diary. Stephen Lowe describes these seances, with their visions, as being "like extraordinary precursors of Spenser's Allegorical World of The Faerie Queene, or Shakespeare's later A Midsummer Night's Dream".

Dee's alchemical activities produced his downfall at Court and in English society generally. Propagandists accused him of necromancy, and, in 1583, Dee found it prudent to leave England, even though this meant leaving his library at Mortlake-not just the finest in England, but probably in Europe. On his departure, it was destroyed by the mob, who looted and burnt it. With only their visions to sustain them, Dee and Kelly embarked on a physical journey, with their families, to Prague, to join the court of the Hapsburg emperor, Rudolf II.

Europe in the late I6th century

Stephen Lowe writes,"Europe was to offer no simple haven of security. It was in a maelstrom of social and political change, riven by massive schisms on all sides. Only now, at the end of the twentieth century, is there perhaps a period of equal cataclysmic change in Europe. All certainties were under pressure in the fire of the al-chemical melting-pot. The Protestant ideology (with its new economic beliefs) was at war with the savage counter-reformation of the Catholic Church, as in turn both were to conflict with the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire, that had advanced into present-day Serbia and Croatia.

"New empires were emerging. Spain, fuelled by gold from the new world, threatened everyone, especially England, whilst in Italy the Papacy set about consolidating itself as a political force. The central Hapsburg Empire struggled for a new vision as the German states began a fight for national identity. France and the Low Countries were awash with conflict after the blood bath of the St Bartholomew Day massacre and the internecine battles between Huguenots and Catholics. And new thought, of which Dee stood at the centre, both scientific and cultural, technological and philosophical, challenged the old orders and stabilities."

The Court of Rudolf II

Emperor Rudolf II was obsessed with alchemy. He was also mentally unbalanced, which well suited the time and place. Prague, where he had recently set up court, was at the central point of this maelstrom, on a crossroads between the Protestant north and the Catholic south, and Renaissance Europe to the west and the Islamic Ottoman Empire to the east. With the aid of alchemy, Rudolf hoped, he could unite the world and become the new Messiah. Without it, he was doomed: he was almost on the edge of bankruptcy. He saw alchemy, therefore, as his saviour; not for him its spiritual overtones: he wanted the gold. With these aims, he filled his court with an appropriately chaotic collection of people: some of the greatest thinkers of Europe-such as the scientists Tyro de Brahe and Johannes Kepler (a founder of modern astronomy)-along with some of the greatest cranks; artists, including Alcimbodo, the surrealist, of whom Inigo Jones was a disciple; men of various religions, including Jews, Christians and Muslims; philosophers; inventors; magicians and pranksters.

Rudolf's need for gold was urgent. His glamorous, magical court was a place of fear and uncertainty, and Dee and Kelly were in as much danger as any if they did not produce the goods. Even while under Rudolf's protection, they were threatened by the Inquisition, and forced to move for safety toTrebona Castle, in nearby Bohemia. Here, under the eye of the "drug-ridden, hedonistic, alchemical" Count Rosenberg, they continued their seances, and it is here that the events of the play take place.

Julia Elliot, based on an interview and article by Stephen Lowe 

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