Helena Blavatsky, a nineteenth-century Russian occultist and co-founder (with Henry Olcott) of the Theosophical Society--which sought, in part, to unite philosophy, religion, and science into a single worldview--was a fascinating and controversial figure. Not least for her attempts to deconstruct some of the binaries between East and West, the scientific and the spiritual. An early supporter of Indian independence (and women's liberation), Blavatsky assimilated various aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism into her theosophical thought, peppering her writings with Sanskrit terms and claiming that her teachers and spiritual guides were adepts, or Mahatmas, great souls who resided in Tibet, and with whom she communicated telepathically through sealed letters. She also anticipated later developments in quantum mechanics and nuclear physics when she wrote in her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, that the atom could be split. However, to many Blavatsky was just another hack medium out to trick wealthy patrons into subventing her lifestyle and retinue, and in an 1885 report to the London-based Society for Psychical Research, the Canadian-born, Cambridge-educated scientific researcher Richard Hodgson concluded that Blavatsky's paranormal powers were fake, and that she was a fraud.
The relationship between Hodgson and Blavatsky forms the core of Patricia Gruben's new play, The Secret Doctrine, currently playing at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre until this Saturday as part of the School for the Contemporary Arts' Faculty Series. Based on years of research, and building on Gruben's longstanding interest in Indian cultural history, the project originally began as a film script (Gruben is Associate Professor of Film Studies at SFU). And, indeed, the play retains a cinematic feel, both in terms of its scenic sweep and pacing (the plot moves from London to India and back again in a succession of quick, montage-like episodes) and its scenographic design (courtesy of Robert Gardiner's wonderful set, lighting, and video projections). Then, too, there is the all-star cast assembled by Gruben and her team, including Simon Webb as Olcott, Frank Zotter as Hodgson, Allan Morgan as Blavatsky's student and patron Allan Hume, and Gabrielle Rose as Blavatsky. Cloaked in layers of sweeping velvet (the costumes were designed by Christine Rimmer), and smoking a succession of herbal cigarettes, Rose plays Blavatsky with just the right mix of hauteur and vulnerability, successfully preserving the mystery around the legitimacy of her supposed powers, while also communicating the tedium and toil of constantly having to defend herself against the so-called rationalism of white men.
To this end, the heart of the play rests with Hodgson, whose scientific mind is constantly at war with his feeling heart, and whose fervent pursuit of Blavatsky starts to look a lot like obsession, even love. Gruben emphasizes this by making his "exposure" of Blavatsky deeply equivocal, prompted as much by the jealousy of a rival for Blavatsky's attention as by Hodgson's own betrayed faith. Fitting, then, that the Society for Psychical Research would retract his report some 100 years after it was published. And that Gruben's play ends with him literally seeing the light.