From Thaumaturgy to Dramaturgy: A Dissertation Summary

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.

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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.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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28 Responses to From Thaumaturgy to Dramaturgy: A Dissertation Summary

  1. Congratulations!
    Looks like you’ll need to change your “About” statement, as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Joe R. Christopher says:

    Welcome back, So/rina! Of course, I’m losing my school office (a number of years after my retirement), so my production will probably go down at this point, and I will be watching your trajectory mainly. But you do interesting things, and so I will happily watch.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. hannaheag says:

    So many congratulations! Wonderful to hear of your completed project and defense. I hope you are finding some truly delightful ways to rest and celebrate.



    Liked by 2 people

  4. TC says:

    Welcome back, Sørina, and congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sarah Thomson says:

    Congratulations, Sørina. I hope you do find some time to continue blogging.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. megmoseman says:

    Congratulations! Your dissertation sounds fascinating, and I selfishly hope you’ll manage to keep posting

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Congratulations! Discovered your blog as part of my discovery of Charles Williams and having seen you on YoutTube speaking about him. Hoping you will indeed blog again!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. gastonnerval says:

    Congratulations! Looking forward to reading more from you on this most underrated of writers!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. JD says:

    I KNEW there was a reason I didn’t like Charles Williams.

    No, but seriously, this is definitely compelling stuff that I could see having far-reaching implications for drama of the period.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Congratulations on your degree, Sørina!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I read still! Deepest congratulations, Sørina!

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Belated thanks for this! Wow – what an undertaking: again, congratulations!


  14. Pingback: The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse | The Oddest Inkling

  15. Dr. Nancy Topolewski says:

    Reading your dissertation summary brought back happy memories of writing and submitting my dissertation, which bore the ponderous title, “Under the Mercy: The Doctrine of the Atonement in the Novels and Theological Works of Charles Williams (1886-1945),” running the figurative gauntlet of the oral defense, and finishing the last mechanics of being awarded the Drew University in 1993. Years ago, one of my professors commented that earning a Ph,D, was fundamentally a matter of sheer physical survival. My experience gave proof to that assertion. Similarly, your post verifies that you’ve emerged from the process with ten Inky fingers intact, still able to write concise English prose, and even after spending so many years in the company of your three Magic Men, remaining interested in the literary corpus of our mutual Oddest Friend CW. Many congratulations on this sterling achievement! I hope you can take the time to savor the relief of a significant academic journey now complete, even as you move on to other adventures in scholarship.

    Liked by 1 person

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