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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 28.3 (2006) 23-38

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Contemporary Forms of Occult Theatre

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City held an exhibition between September 27 and December 31, 2005, entitled The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, in which more than 120 photographs taken between the 1860s and World War II were displayed. Most of the photos in the exhibition were taken to either support or debunk spiritualists who claimed to be able to communicate with spirits, levitate, or use their bodies as a passageway for objects sent from the spiritual realm into the physical realm. Among the photos depicting mediums in the process of allegedly contacting the dead or expelling otherworldly substances from various orifices were photos showing performance spaces and audiences. The Perfect Medium therefore shed some light on performances associated with Spiritualism, one of many occult movements to have emerged during the Occult Revival.

The occult and performance are also known to have interacted during the time of the Occult Revival in European Symbolist theatre. Symbolism drew so liberally from occultism during the fin-de-siècle heyday of modern esotericism, that Daniel Gerould and Jadwiga Kosicka use the term "symbolist drama" interchangeably with "occult drama."1 Pre-symbolist and symbolist playwrights such as August Strindberg, Villiers de l'Isle Adam, and Maurice Maeterlinck dramatized the effect of invisible forces upon everyday events. The belief in the existence of such forces is central to the occult. Some symbolist playwrights were members of occult societies. W.B. Yeats was a member of the London-based Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Andrei Bely was a member of Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophical Society. These playwrights drew from their studies in esoteric studies, including alchemy, tarot cards, ceremonial magic, and Rosicrucianism in order to help them depict spiritual events in dramatic form.

This connection between the occult and experimental theatre did not wane with the decline of symbolism or the end of the Occult Revival. In "Alchemical Theatre," Antonin Artaud argues that theatre is capable of transforming human beings in a manner that is analogous to the transformation of matter through the alchemical process. In 1942 a young Peter Brook hired Aleister Crowley—a leader of the Occult Revival who continues to be influential among occultists today—to give suggestions for the conjuring scenes in his production of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. Michael Chekhov [End Page 23] studied Rudolf Steiner's teachings about eurythmy—a movement-based art intended to render the spiritual visible—and these influenced his theories of acting. In 1974 Snoo Wilson's play about Aleister Crowley, The Beast, had a successful run at The Place in London. In the 1980s Richard Foreman staged productions that revealed secret worlds lying behind physical existence, just as the symbolists had done. In her 1998 play, Crave, Sarah Kane quotes Aleister Crowley's motto, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law. Love under will." The occult still serves as a dramaturgical tool in contemporary theatre, and this is no secret.

Less is known about the occultists who use theatre to give expression and form to their esoteric teachings. In June 1978, The Drama Review published an "Occult and Bizarre" issue that contains two articles (J.F. Brown's "Aleister Crowley's Rites of Eleusis" and Robb Creese's "Anthroposophical Performance") in which Brown and Creese examine the relationship between Crowley's and Steiner's beliefs and the theatre they produced with the same seriousness that a scholar of medieval theatre might discuss the relationship between Christian theology and cycle plays. Brown talks about Crowley's incorporation of ceremonial magic, music, poetry, and drugs into his 1910 production of the Rites of Eleusis, which took place at Caxton Hall in London. He also mentions the critics of English tabloids who labeled Crowley's productions as blasphemous and sexually depraved. Creese's article discusses the performance of Rudolf Steiner's four Mystery Dramas, The Portal of Initation, The...


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