- “Shadow of a Mesmeriser”: The Female Body on the “Dark” Stage
Believing entirely in a sort of hitherto undefined, and possibly undefinable, physical influence, by which the nervous system of one person may be affected by that of another, by special exercise of will and effort, so as to produce an almost absolute temporary subserviency of the whole nature to the force by which it is acted upon, and therefore thinking it extremely possible, and not improbable, that many of the instances of mesmeric influence I have heard related had some foundation in truth, I have, nevertheless, kept entirely aloof from the whole subject, never voluntarily attended any exhibitions of such phenomena, and regarded the whole series of experiments and experiences and pretended marvels of the numerous adepts in mesmerism with contempt and disgust—contempt for the crass ignorance and glaring dishonesty involved in their practices; and disgust, because of the moral and physical mischief their absurd juggleries were likely to produce, and in many instances did produce, upon subjects as ignorant, but less dishonest, than the charlatans by whom they were duped.
Fanny Kemble is the author of this formidable sentence, which appears in her Records of a Later Life, published in 1882. 1 Kemble here credits the theory of mental mind-control, indeed granting it her entire belief; but the practice, as she observes, reeks of the theatre at its worst. Kemble’s direct experience was of a theatre far from the worst—she grew up in the most highly esteemed of all theatrical families of the day—and yet by the time this sentence was published she had long ago given up the stage for its base practices. Theory told her there could be dramatic “truth” and an enlightened art of the theatre, just as there could be a true science of the forces by which the mesmerist usurps the will of a subject; but in practice the theatre engaged the ignorance, credulity, and base instincts of its audience. 2 Theatre, as she saw it, ennobled lying, the transient, and all that undermined the ideality of an immortal artist such as Shakespeare. The mesmerist operated in the same murky regions. [End Page 189]
The spiritualistic mediums, too, come under Kemble’s censure for confusing their temporary resurrections of the dead with the actor’s art of animating myth. 3 By way of the medium—the adept, the operator—forces unknown could manifest themselves beyond all rational accounting, including proving that the one (medium) could be the locus of two (beings) and that the will could become a player on the dark stage of the local Svengali. Kemble witnessed these practices and channeled the brilliance of the rationalist tradition into her unstopped prose, seeking to circumscribe this mode of performance that has, at its core, her own almost reluctant belief, just as it had the belief of many thousand others. Rationalism ought to be able to handle this disturbing stuff, place it on a solid, if not scientific, foundation; and yet the fact that these powers in their very mystery drew such obvious pirates as the typical animal magnetiser led her to favor long sentences for describing the art.
The period Kemble is alluding to in this section of her epistolary memoirs is the 1840s and 1850s, when all at once spiritualism swept over the United States and Europe with the force of a mass delusion. From the year 1842, when there first came reports of spirit rappings in the house of the Fox sisters in Rochester, New York, it became virtually impossible to enter into any discourse—scientific, religious, artistic, moral—without addressing the immanent darkness within Enlightenment. Philippe Ariès, in The Hour of Our Death, interprets the fascination with spiritualism as an expression of what he calls “The Age of the Beautiful Death,” a nineteenth-century framework within which the spectacle of death was shaped theatrically as a joyous vision. He sees this attitude as based on a “rising belief in the autonomy of the spirit,” and so as a post-mortem expression of individuality. 4 If autonomy had come to seem a less and less clear concept in life, sort...