Lord Dunsany, Aleister Crowley, and the Occult Revival

Nicholas Daly

I suppose I came to this project through the Popular as much as the Occulture side of it. For a while I have wanted to write something about Lord Dunsany’s work as a playwright.  These days he is largely remembered for his short stories and novels, especially for his work in what we would now call fantasy, and his influence of such different writers as H.P. Lovecraft and Ursula K. Le Guin.   But years ago I read a passing reference to the fact that at one point in the 1910s he had five plays running simultaneously in New York.  This seemed hard to believe, but if only partly true it suggested an extraordinary level of popularity for work that is now largely forgotten.  When I learned that Christine and Andrew were developing a project on Popular Occulture I thought that this might the time to do some actual research on these plays, and to explore their possible resonances with the occult revival.

The more you look at Dunsany’s biography the more it would be surprising if his work did not have some connection to the occult, since he was friendly with the theosophist, writer and painter George Russell, who worked for his uncle, Horace Plunkett; he wrote his first play under the aegis of W.B. Yeats, a former member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, and still in that period involved in Stella Matutina; and his plays were directly influenced by Symbolism, which as Daniel Gerould and Edmund Lingan have described was itself a movement with strong affinities with the occult revival. The first of his plays is a short piece about karma, a concept that Dunsany probably borrowed (in a distorted form) from Madame Blavatsky. The Glittering Gate (1909) introduces us to two post-mortem criminals in an abstract space before an enormous door – the gate of heaven.  The pair seem to be condemned for all eternity to do exactly what they did in life.  Subsequent pieces explore a fascination with the East, with curses and luck, and with the direct intervention of the Gods in human affairs.  Perhaps the most interesting of the plays is The Gods of the Mountain (1911), which may have been influenced by the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley.  Crowley had corresponded with Dunsany about the latter’s fiction, and in 1909 had solicited from him a poem, “The Sphinx at Giza,” for his occult magazine, The Equinox.  Another former Golden Dawn member (and enemy of Yeats), Crowley had developed his own ideas about ceremonial magic — or Magick, as he termed it, but was also interested in the theatre.  In October of 1910 Crowley had staged the first in a series of recreations of the rites of Eleusis, at the Caxton Hall, in effect bringing his Thelemic ceremonial magick to the paying public.  Wearing gowns marked with mystical symbols, and carrying ceremonial swords, a group of men and women acted out Crowley’s The Rite of Saturn, to a violin accompaniment by Leila Waddell.  Crowley felt that he was outdoing the Symbolists in going straight to the occult material, noting that “nothing of Maeterlinck’s ever produced so overpowering an oppression as this invocation of the dark spirit of Time”.  It is very tempting to speculate that Dunsany was one of the select band who went to see Crowley’s performances, and that he drew upon it for his next play; certainly something seems to have taken his work in a new direction.  His The Gods of the Mountain opened at the Haymarket Theatre on June 1, 1911, and it is strikingly different from the earlier Glittering Gate in terms of its Orientalist setting, the stately pacing of the action, and the incantatory speech rhythms.  The most striking thing about it is that the Gods of the title actually appear on stage, as if summoned up by rite.  While Crowley’s actual Rites attracted a good deal of hostile press (“flappers in queer garments” was one reviewer’s estimate), Dunsany’s particular theatre of magic received favourable reviews, and attracted good audiences.

Dunsany’s subsequent work enjoyed considerable international popularity, and some of the short pieces became staples of amateur dramatic performance.  His story is just one that suggests that while we know a good deal about the links between the esoteric world and such modernists as Yeats, we have barely touched on the ways in which popular culture absorbed and transformed the energies of the occult revival.