The idea for my current project came from an interest in the explosion of so-called ‘New Age’, ‘pyschic’ or ‘mystic’ explorations of the universe taking place over the last decade or more. The sheer quantity of online commentary on mystic phenomena and belief is stunning when you start looking for it. So too the multitude of therapeutic-cum-religious industries surrounding the ‘New Age’. As critic Victoria Nelson points out, too, since the 1990s a there’s been a slew of TV series and films featuring ghosts, vampires, the sixth sense, the supernatural, and the X-Filesesque paranormal. I’m intrigued by the parallels between this kind of DIY religion today and what took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, in Australia and elsewhere in the Anglo world. There was an efflorescence of interest then in non-materialist explanations of reality – but while today the internet, TV and film seem to drive so much of the interest in mystic things, back then it was popular performance: the specialty acts in minstrel or vaudeville theatre, sideshows and circuses, and a mixture of lectures, stereoscopic shows, public seances and mesmerist displays.
I’m interested in the fact that popular performance has long been a site in which alternative notions of reality and religion are played out for a number of reasons. The first is because it buys into the whole question of the relationship of popular culture to understandings of modernity. What is significant about the fact that popular performance has long staged ghosts, spirits, and kooky explanations for the universe, and that this was particularly the case in the period of oft-described ‘modern secularisation’ in late nineteenth and early twentieth century western culture? Are there lessons to be learned from this in terms of our own understandings of modernity and postmodernity today?
The stage and screen are crucial to understandings of the modern – most forcibly film when it appeared in the 1890s, but also vaudeville and theatre. Proliferating claims about reality were also a hallmark of the late nineteenth century: from the fascination with so-called Modern Spiritualism, to the controversy caused by scientific agnosticism, to the disavowal for theological orthodoxy by social Christian movements, to a plethora of claims about mesmeric fluids, Z-rays, mental telepathy and clairvoyance. Because of this, audience participation in performances which showcased new claims about reality gives us a window into the popular experience of modernity at the time.
The key to my approach here is an interest in how audiences related to the kinds of mystic theatre that I’ve mentioned so far. I’m not interested so much in what performers thought, or in what the hard-core devotees of certain movements such as spiritualism did or thought. My interest is in a broader demographic than that. I want to use audience participation in popular forms of mystic theatre to investigate how ordinary people were negotiating the celebrated stand-off between religion and science in the post-Darwin era, and what they understood the modern universe to be.