23 November 2009


Amy Lehman. Victorian Women and the Theatre of Trance: Mediums, Spiritualists and Mesmerists in Performance. McFarland and Company, 2009.

There is a growing academic interest in the spiritualist movement and its alleged phenomena as a means of artistic expression, We have reviewed in the past several studies which have reviewed 'spirit photographs' in the context of the art and history of photography and their use of the conventions of photography and related visual arts. Now it is the turn of the performing arts.
Amy Lehman is on the faculty of the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of South Carolina, and here presents a study of the mesmeric and spiritualist trances as performances, showing how they often reflected the theatrical conventions of the 19th century, in particular those surrounding the role of women.

Trance allowed a permission (or excuse) for women to escape the passive, demure and subordinate roles that society expected of them. Thus under the influence of mesmerist John Elliotson, the 'normally' quiet and demure Elizabeth O’Keefe becomes a sassy variety artiste and comedienne, whose performance seems to foreshadow some of the saucy music hall acts of the latter part of the century. Under the influence of mesmerism the respectably bourgeois Anna Cora Mowat could let her wild side out by being possessed by her alter ego 'Gypsy'. Gypsy, with its connotations of wildness and liberation from the restraints of corseted respectability, was just one of the marginalised figures that such women personated, others included Katie King, the abused and ruined daughter of a pirate, Blacks and Native Americans (using classical dime western language).

As in today’s Hollywood, the line between show business and politics could be very blurred, for example the much married Cora Lynn Victoria Scott Hatch Tappan Daniels Richmond, who combined trance lectures with radical abolitionism. One could also think of the radical feminist and medium Victoria Claffin Woodhull here. Again possession by spirits could allow women into the forbidden political sphere.

It was not just such public platform performers who found liberation from respectability in mediumistic performances, Laura the very respectable daughter of the very, very respectable Judge Edmonds demonstrated in trance such a knowledge of low bars and the even lower boys who frequented them, that it could only be respectably explained by her being possessed by the spirit of a rough and roguish paper-boy who had been killed a streetcar accident!

As theatre audiences began to demand more realism and ever more dramatic special effects, mediums began to produce their own special effects in the theatre of materialisation. This was a theatre of erotic charge, where the proof of the spiritual nature of characters like Katie King was that they weren't wearing corsets! Lehman reprints the hilarious seduction of the ageing Robert Dale Owen, by a medium whose idea of being a private medium wasn’t all that unadjacent to that of a private dancer.

Dale Owen seems to have been too innocent to know that he was being seduced, but it is not at all obvious that the same can be said of William Crooks and Florence Cook (alias Katie King). It might be though that he was simply blinded by the belief that a mere woman, let alone “an innocent 15 year old schoolgirl” could fool him, the great scientist. As we in Magonia have often commented, it is this attitude which leaves any number of 'investigators' to be fooled by people they regard as their social and intellectual inferiors.

As Amy Lehman points out in her introduction, the theatre itself has origins within shamanism; a point made by Rogan Taylor in The Death and Resurrection Show back in the 1980s. The roots of theatrical roleplay, trance and dissociation may lie in the ability to become totally absorbed in a role. But this 'trance', this absorption surely is not just confined to the performer but also to the audience, who can be swept away by the performance, and who can laugh and cry and love and hate and feel love and grief for characters in what is 'nothing but' a performance'

Normally this absorption ends with the end of the performance, but not always. We know of performers now whose whole life (and even death) is one ceaseless performance. Perhaps there are also audiences who stay in this state of absorption, rather like the people who send flowers to the funerals of dead soap opera characters. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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