- The Theatre of the Occult Revival: Alternative Spiritual Performance from 1875 to the Present by Edmund B. Lingan
Edmund B. Lingan, Christine Ferguson, modern theatre, occult art, occult theatre, magic in theatre, nineteenth century theatre, nineteenth century magic, nineteenth century occultism, modern magic, modern occultism
As Henrik Bogdan importantly reminds us, the diverse currents of historical and contemporary Western esotericism are irreducible to their textual productions alone.1 If we want to know how occult belief was not only understood but experienced by historic actors, we need to look beyond the printed page toward the arenas of ritual and performance. Edmund B. Lingan's The Theatre of the Occult Revival makes a very welcome contribution to this necessary redirection, constituting the first ever monograph-length study of what Lingan terms the "alternative spiritual performance" produced by occult revivalists and neopagans from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Here readers will find discussions of the theatrical practices of well-known and foundational figures in the Anglo-American occult revival—Katherine Tingley, Rudolf and Marie Steiner, Aleister Crowley, and Gerald Gardner—alongside those of the up-and-coming feminist-pagan collectives and performers such as Serpentessa and the Vegas Vortex. What unites these admittedly varied and historically distinct actors is, in Lingan's assessment, that "all valued theatre as a tool for promulgating their ideas and producing spiritual experience within human beings" (2). Deploying the combined methods of fieldwork and archival research, Lingan demonstrates how the theatrical and philosophical mandates of alternative spiritual practitioners have increasingly merged.
This project of theatrical proselytization and sacralization manifests in various ways across the one hundred and fifty-year period that Lingan's study [End Page 120] covers. He identifies it first in the dramatic criticism of early occult revivalists such as H.P. Blavatsky, Eliphas Lévi, and Edouard Schuré, which singled out Greek tragedy and the medieval mystery tradition as unique and highly coded repositories of a suppressed but never wholly lost ancient wisdom tradition. Later occultists such as Tingley and the Steiners put such theories into practice, staging classical, medieval, and Renaissance plays along Theosophical and Anthroposophical lines, while also writing and directing new works based on these precedents that could more explicitly dramatize their specific spiritual messages. This occult practice of appropriating and reinventing the (dramatic) past has subsequently been continued, as Lingan evinces, in Crowley's Thelemic performances, in British Rosicrucian theatre and Wiccan ritual, and in the activity of what Lingan refers to as "the Neo-Pagan Performance current" (163). Throughout the study, Lingan enhances his analysis with rare archival photographs of historical performances alongside images of their restagings by contemporary heterodox groups such as the General Anthroposophical Society in Dornach, so that the images establish a fascinating continuity in occult performance conventions over the last century. This compelling visual documentation forms no small part of the book's considerable appeal, and will help to ensure its value as a reference work for researchers who do not share Lingan's access to the sometimes restricted performance communities his study addresses.
Although largely focused on the activity of the stage or ritual site, The Theatre of the Occult Revival sometimes ventures beyond the proscenium to focus on the spectatorial attitudes and modes fostered within Europe's modern occult milieu. His chapter on the Steiners, for example, concludes with a discussion of their discouragement of applause during Anthroposophical performances on the basis that such a reaction would suggest "that the audience was receiving a form of entertainment rather than a communication to the higher self" (98). This episode hints at a vexed relationship between spirituality, amusement, and aesthetic production that I found myself wanting to hear much more about. To what extent did theater have to be something other than popular culture and—or—"art" before it could be considered ripe for esoteric repurposing? Did it need to eschew the trappings of the market? Are spectators of occult performance required to be passive devotees whose commitment to higher thought...