Steppenwolf Theatre Company

A century after her death, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky remains an enigma. A Russian emigre who cofounded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, Blavatsky was a controversial writer (Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine), an influential teacher who introduced America and England to Eastern philosophy and ancient esoterica (in a sense she’s the godmother of today’s presidential astrologers and psychic phone lines), and an occultist of extraordinary power. But was she a genuine medium and miracle worker in touch with the “unseen universe” or a clever hypnotist? A deluded victim of her own hype? Or–in the words of Dr. Richard Hodgson, whose report accusing Blavatsky of manufacturing supposedly supernatural phenomena nearly destroyed her–was she “one of the most accomplished and interesting impostors in history”?

Whatever else she was, Blavatsky wasn’t a dreary old drudge. But that’s how she comes off in Ara Watson’s pedestrian play The Mesmerist, which ineffectually dramatizes Hodgson’s 1884 investigation of Blavatsky. Watson simply fritters away one of the most interesting incidents in the long, scandal-ridden history of occultism: Blavatsky’s story has the intriguing potential to be a mystery about mysteries.

Blavatsky’s tragedy is a classic one: a gifted leader falls because she succumbs to the pressures of her position. Having established herself on the basis of her presumed psychic abilities, Blavatsky found herself forced to keep making more “miracles” to hold onto her fickle following. In India in the early 1880s, she announced her communication with master teachers on the astral plane. But Blavatsky’s “Mahatma letters” were exposed as a hoax by Hodgson, a young researcher from the Society for Psychical Research in London who extracted from Blavatsky’s assistant a confession that she had helped Blavatsky forge the letters. The scandal was especially painful for Henry Olcott, Blavatsky’s disciple and partner, who learned that she had personally mocked his gullibility; he expelled his former teacher and took over the Theosophical Society from her.

Watson hews fairly close to the facts, but she barely begins to address the story’s dramatic possibilities. Primarily interested in Blavatsky as a political rather than spiritual figure–Blavatsky’s interest in Eastern philosophy helped inspire Indian national pride, which led to independence–Watson gets off some funny but easy zingers about white-man’s-burden racism and Christian hypocrisy. But she never comes close to conveying the story’s deeper, emotionally charged issue: that the enduring search for spiritual truth can lead to both enlightenment and deception, sometimes simultaneously. She seems to question Hodgson’s skepticism–attributing it, in one of those “telling” anecdotes that underaccomplished playwrights use as psychological shorthand, to his boyhood fascination with the decaying corpse of a beloved dog his authoritarian father had killed.

Watson’s own skepticism inhibits her from treating seriously Blavatsky’s personal power, which must have been immense whatever its source. Even if Blavatsky was only an exceptionally accomplished mesmerist whose imagination could stimulate hallucinations in others, Watson’s unimaginative play gives no sense even of that. All we see is a dreary old slattern frumping around in an Indian housedress, kvetching to her flaky friends about “scientific materialism” and “religious sectarianism” and delivering platitudes about universal brotherhood.

Watson can’t even write a good mystery; an average episode of Murder, She Wrote is positively thrilling next to this tepid tale. The bland first act is so vague about the characters’ convoluted relationships–such as the long-established connection between Blavatsky and her assistant Emma Coulomb–that Watson’s forced to overload her denouement with plot revelations, which take the place of psychological development and social context. The result is neither suspenseful entertainment nor a moving study of the need for faith–and Blavatsky’s story, if it were well told, would be both.

Director Jim True has an affinity for tales of intellectual intrigue with a paranormal tinge; his previous directorial effort at Steppenwolf, Ghost in the Machine, was every bit the fascinating and elusive brainteaser The Mesmerist is not. Daunted by the script’s flaws, True and his cast meander around Kevin Rigdon’s pretty but strangely flat set (depicting Blavatsky’s home in Adyar, India), searching tentatively for dramatic crackle but stumbling onto only a few snaps and pops. The supporting actors offer strong characterizations: the always interesting Molly Regan as highstrung, neurotic Emma; Ranjit Chowdhry as Blavatsky’s student; Michael John Stewart as a mocking, possibly imaginary astral master; and as the awestruck, eventually disillusioned Olcott, the distinguished New York actor Bill Moor (veteran theatergoers may remember his droll Harold in the touring production of The Boys in the Band at the old Studebaker 20-some years ago). But they’re thwarted by the script’s exposition-heavy dialogue and simplistic psychologizing. Meanwhile, the story’s central conflict is dulled by Robert Simonton’s one-note, squinty-eyed tension as Hodgson and Lois Smith’s whiny, earthbound Blavatsky. Though she’s effectively pathetic as a woman whose world is crumbling around her, Smith never suggests an ounce of her character’s brilliance or charisma–the inner force that converted or deluded a legion of followers (perhaps including Blavatsky herself). Audiences hoping for an offbeat, emotionally resonant drama are more likely to be lulled into boredom by The Mesmerist than transported into a trance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.