Anatomies is a play for 7 men and 4 women set in Edinburgh, Scotland, and London during the 1820s. The unit set represents all locations; action is uninterrupted in each of the two acts; and players may enter and exit from just about anywhere. “The actors move, the set doesn’t.” We hear the sound of a hurdy-gurdy as the lights come up and we hear McGonigle, a ragged old street singer, as the stage fills with people. (Nigro provides lyrics and music for the five songs that McGonigle sings throughout the play.) Dr. Knox comes on last and, when the song ends and light focuses on him center stage, he begins his lecture toward the audience on the importance of studying human anatomy by dissecting cadavers. He whips back the sheet covering the naked corpse of “an extremely old, incredibly hideous man,” and raises a cutting instrument as McGonigle sings another verse of the song and moves into darkness. Lights fade on Knox and come up on Burke, Hare, Mrs. Hare, and Helen Macdougal drinking at a table in Log’s Lodgings. They talk about an old man dying in an upstairs room and, after leaving to check on him, Mrs. Hare returns to tell the others that the old man is dead, didn’t pay his rent, and has no money. She suggests that her husband can take the body to the university where they pay for dead bodies. Burke agrees to help put the body in a potato sack and carry it to the university. Lights dim on them as McGonigle wanders across the stage singing another song.
Lights then come up on Ferguson and Jones, medical students, cleaning up in the lecture room. Jones teases Ferguson about his girl friend, Mary Patterson, a whore, and Daft Jamie enters with a flower for Ferguson to give to Mary. Knox enters and, when Jamie tells him the flower is for Ferguson’s secret fiancé, Knox advises Ferguson against marriage. Burke and Hare come in with the sack; Knox looks inside and sends Jones off to get money. Praising free enterprise, Knox has Ferguson and Jones pick up the sack and carry it into the upstage darkness after Burke and Hare leave. Back at Log’s Lodgings, Burke, Hare, and Macdougal are drinking as Hare suggests that they could dig up freshly buried bodies in cemeteries, but Burke says it would be dangerous to compete with the “resurrectionists.” Mrs. Hare tells them another roomer is in bed with a fever; Hare suggests that out of pure Christian charity and in service to the free enterprise system they could help those who are already dying by saving them from the gutter where their bodies would be eaten by birds and rats. Hare thinks a pillow held tenderly over the face should do, and Mrs. Hare says they can save money on sacks by using her mother’s tea chest. Hare points out that they’ll provide the freshest corpses in town and won’t need to buy shovels.
We hear the hurdy-gurdy as the light fades on them and comes up on Ferguson and Mary,”a strikingly beautiful young woman with long, reddish blond hair.” She and Ferguson talk about the soul and God and Ferguson shouts at her as Knox enters. Knox remarks, after Mary leaves, that she is “extraordinarily attractive in every respect” and warns Ferguson to stay away from her. Burke and Hare come in with the wooden tea chest containing the third corpse they have delivered. Knox says he is tired of elderly types and promises more money for something younger. Left alone, Burke and Hare talk about attracting younger clientele, perhaps whores. As they start to unload the body from the tea chest, light fades on them and we see and hear McGonigle singing as he walks down the street into the darkness. Mary and her friend Janet enter Log’s Lodgings followed by Burke and Hare. Ann Macdougal, a relative of Helen’s from the country, comes in saying she has had bad dreams and noting that several people have left suddenly in the night. After Ann leaves, Janet tells Mary that she drinks too much and Macdougal grabs a knife and tells the girls to get out. Janet leaves, but Burke takes the knife from Macdougal, suggesting that perhaps later she can show Mary the tea chest. Burke and Macdougal leave and Mary takes off her dress and climbs into bed, telling Hare to hurry before she falls asleep. Hare strokes her hair then picks up a pillow as light fades on them and we hear McGonigle singing the last verse of the second song as the act ends in darkness.
The sound of McGonigle singing the third song begins the second act as lights come up on Ferguson and Jones in the anatomy room getting ready for a lecture. On the table is a woman’s body completely covered by a sheet. Jones turns down the sheet and sees the face of the corpse and, shocked and horrified, covers the face as Ferguson turns to the table. Janet enters to ask if they have seen Mary. Ferguson looks under the sheet and, from his reaction, Janet knows the worst. Knox enters, is told the corpse is Mary, and assures Janet that he sees no signs that she was murdered. Janet says he is a smug, evil bastard and includes Ferguson and Jones as the lowest form of human sewage. When Janet leaves, Ferguson says he will kill the first man who touches Mary. Knox tells Jones to post a notice that the scheduled lecture/demonstration is cancelled. Lights fade, McGonigle sings, and lights come up on Knox explaining to the audience why he is unable to cut open “a magnificent specimen of young womanhood” for them. Light fades on him and we hear the hurdy-gurdy as Ann and Daft Jamie enter Log’s Lodgings. Ann says she knows nothing about Mary and is planning on returning to the country that night. Burke offers Daft Jamie a drink, but Ann sends him to the church to look for Mary. Burke says he thinks something is looking in the window at him. Ann goes off to pack and Macdougal tells Burke they cannot let Ann leave because she knows too much. When Ann returns with her bag, Burke grabs her around the waist, holding her mouth and throwing her on the bed, pushing her face into the pillow until she stops struggling. He pulls the tea chest to the bed and starts removing Ann’s dress when Daft Jamie walks in and asks Burke what he is doing. He throws Burke across the room and picks Ann up. Burke jumps on his back and all three fall to the floor as Macdougal enters followed by Mrs. Hare and Hare. Hare wrestles Daft Jamie away from Ann. She ends up in Burke’s arms as Mrs. Hare bangs Daft Jamie on the head with a frying pan until he falls on top of Hare. When Daft Jamie wakens, Mrs. Hare bashes him again and again. Holding Ann, Burke says no one will ever hurt her again and, as the light fades, we hear McGonigle singing the first verse of the song that began the play.
In the anatomy room, Knox tells Ferguson and Jones that their friends have brought two more specimens. When Jones says that one is a young girl and the other Daft Jamie, Knox orders that Daft Jamie’s head and feet be cut off and burned. Ferguson says that the men who are bringing them the bodies are murderers, but Knox says there is no proof, that civilization is made of murder, and that God is the homicidal maniac who constructed the universe. He asks Ferguson if he wants to be a rich, successful surgeon or end up in the streets or at the end of a rope. When Jones asks what they should do, Ferguson replies that they will cut off the head and the feet. They move into the shadows as McGonigle sings the second verse of the first song and lights come up on Burke and Macdougal as Burke tells her that a family that had been staying with them ran out when they found the dead body of old Mrs. Docherty under a pile of straw. Macdougal says they have to get rid of the body, but she runs off when the police knock on the door. Burke finishes his drink and goes to let in the police as lights fade and McGonigle sings the fifth song.
Janet then rushes into the anatomy room to tell Knox, Ferguson, and Jones that the police have arrested Burke, Hare, and the two women. She says that Hare has confessed and implicated Knox. After Jones takes Janet out of the room, Knox tells Ferguson that business will go on as usual because he has powerful friends in the judicial system. After they leave, we see Burke and Hare in isolated circles of light, Hare testifying about their past deeds and Burke describing how he will be hanged but Hare and the two women will go free. Hare says it was a good business while it lasted and that Knox was a job creator. Lights fade on them and come up on Ferguson and Jones. Jones says thing turned out better for them than they might have, that they still have their careers while Knox, now a “great monster” to the public, has run off to London. After Jones leaves, Ferguson drinks and Mary appears behind him, asking why he has put a scalpel on the table. He says he may cut his throat but she tells him he can be a doctor and do much good in the world. She says his science should teach him a bit of humility in the face of the vast incomprehensibility of the universe and he may come to learn that the “little creeping thing you are and everything else is holy.” She touches his hair as light fades on them and we hear eerie carnival music as Knox, much older and disheveled, introduces himself as part of a travelling circus, lecturing on the question of whether there is an inevitable war between the search for knowledge and basic human decency. He notices that some of his small audience has already left, and then that more leave. He holds out what he calls a small square of human flesh, calling it God. He asks if anyone is out there as the light fades on him and we hear McGonigle singing the song that began the play.