Hello, dear readers, if readers there be after all this time! I have emerged from my PhD studies, greyer and (I hope) wiser than before, heavier by dint of all that study, the collective traumas of these two years, and the weight of one diploma.
I really hope that I can get back to blogging now that the degree is done. Of course, I’m teaching a ton, coordinating Writer’s Forge over at Signum University, editing Corey Olsen‘s new book, planning TexMoot, encouraging people to save the planet, and trying to figure out what to do next with my life. So we shall see. Meanwhile, maybe you’d like to read a little about my studies? If so, here is my Dissertation Précis for your amusement.
TL;DR: Several British and Irish playwrights practiced ceremonial magic, and the highly theatrical rituals they mastered influenced the plays they wrote and the modernist networks of which they were members.
From Thaumaturgy to Dramaturgy: Staging Occult Modernism
Between 1890 and 1945, several British and Irish dramatists were initiated into occult secret societies, including Aleister Crowley, Florence Farr, John Todhunter, Charles Williams, and W. B. Yeats. They were highly influential in theatrical, spiritual, and modernist networks; yet scholarship has failed to adequately acknowledge the importance of alternative spiritualities in modernist literature. My dissertation contributes a more complex, nuanced, and realistic understanding of modernism, especially drama, complicating received metanarratives about one-way cultural evolution towards secularization and literary “progress” favoring Ibsenesque and Shavian realism. Far from hiding away as atavistic reactionaries, occult playwrights posed the same questions as their avant-garde peers, presenting systems of symbolism designed to offer meaning-making strategies in the face of contemporary conditions. I demonstrate that, rather than withdrawing from the main streams of culture, occult playwrights staged modernism’s religious concerns.
An important change in modernist studies is the “religious turn” or “postsecular turn,” which acknowledges that questions of religious belief and praxis are essential to the time period itself, to our understanding of it, and—crucially—to the literature it produced. A common mode of coping with the swift changes of modernity was to turn to spirituality, whether that meant clinging to traditional beliefs, inventing new ones, or adapting (putative) ancient traditions as alternatives to institutionalized religion. Modern occult authors developed systems of imagery drawn from the Perilous Realm, Quest lore; fertility rituals; and the Sephirotic Tree of Life. Choosing natural, organic, interconnected images, they offered meaning-making narratives for the conditions of modernity they and their peers faced. In doing so, they democratized hermetic and Qabalistic materials to varying degrees in their plays.
W. B. Yeats was a thorough-going Hermetist, and while his plays were quite obviously mystical and mythical on the surface, he actually smuggled real rituals from the Order of the Golden Dawn and doctrines from his later Vision materials on to the stage, unbeknownst to his audiences. Primarily through close reading of his prose essays on magic, genetic criticism of The Countess Cathleen (which he revised heavily after initiation into the R.R. et A.C.), and a look at realism in Words Upon the Window-Pane, I argue that Yeats believed plays were means of revelation that could literally create new realities on the astral plane, call down spirits, beget elemental beings, and put the audience in touch with their higher self or Daimon.
Charles Williams was a Christian whose Masques of Amen House, Judgement at Chelmsford, and Terror of Light snuck occultism into secular or ecclesiastical contexts, but he ultimately rejected initiatory Gnosticism. Williams’s early dramas staged Rosicrucian rituals; like Yeats, he later developed his own distinctive religious system. His was based on his signature doctrine of coinherence, substitution, and exchange, and he forged dramaturgical techniques to communicate these beliefs and initiate his audiences in their practice.
Finally, Aleister Crowley openly performed magic on stage as religious ceremonies. Because he freely announced his intention of breaking down the boundaries between magic and theatre, his works provide a opportunity to debate the efficacy of staged theurgy. Via an application of the principles of Speech Act Theory to his most important invocational drama, Rites of Eleusis, I show that lines spoken by actors on stage can have the perlocutionary effect upon the audience that the playwright intended. I offer the first speech-act reading of theatrical language that takes into account the perlocutionary force of all drama.
Thus, my study moves from esoteric magic secretly smuggled on stage to exoteric ritual performances for the public. Each of these three—Yeats the Hermetist, Williams the Christian, Crowley the Satanist—believed he was an inspired poet-prophet-priest writing ritualistic plays and dramatic rituals that could help audience members get in touch with their higher selves. In a distinctively modernist move, each of these writers individualized or democratized the occult, creating new thaumaturgical systems and developing dramaturgical techniques and contexts through which to disseminate their nouveaux theologies. Rather than taking an anti-modernist stance to the alienating conditions they faced, initiated authors offered systems of symbolism to regenerate their rapidly changing world. They believed that one way to survive and thrive was to train one’s astral imagination for conversation with the divinity within. Going to the theatre was one of the best ways to do that.