From thaumaturgy to dramaturgy : staging occult modernism.
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Higgins, Sørina. 1979-
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Between 1890 and 1945, at least nine British and Irish dramatists—including W. B. Yeats, Charles Williams, and Aleister Crowley—were initiated into occult secret societies; yet scholarship has failed to acknowledge the importance of alternative spiritualities in modernist literature. This 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. Many modern plays enact the imagination’s magical power to create reality, but this truth has been erased from literary history due to selectivity bias towards texts featuring fragmentation, alienation, and nihilistic despair. 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 provide three case-studies in support of my contentions that magic was modern, occult dramas were mainstream, and religion is essential to literary study. First is Yeats, the Hermetist, who smuggled magic into secular contexts. His Countess Cathleen and Words Upon the Window-Pane stage Golden Dawn ritual, enact his doctrine of the Daimon, and invoke audience members’ divine selves. Second is Williams, a Christian, whose Masques of Amen House, Judgement at Chelmsford, and Terror of Light snuck occultism into ecclesiastic contexts, but ultimately rejected initiatory Gnosticism. Finally, Crowley the Satanist performed spirit-summonings publicly in Rites of Eleusis. Each adapted esoteric tradition to their times, then invented new religions and innovative dramaturgical techniques for enlightening audiences. In a distinctively modernist move, each of these writers individualized the occult, creating new thaumaturgical systems and developing dramaturgical techniques and contexts through which to disseminate their nouveaux theologies. Given their genre-defying public performances of magic, I offer the first speech-act reading of theatrical language that takes into account the perlocutionary force of all drama, arguing that enchantments retain their illocutionary power when spoken on stage.