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Irving’s Tempters and Stoker’s Vanishing Ladies: Supernatural Production, Mesmeric Influence and Magical Illusion

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Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Gothic Stage

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Abstract

In February 1865, three actors, Irving, Philip Day and Fred Maccabe, from the Theatre Royal in Manchester, re-enacted the public séances of William and Ira Davenport, with the intention of exposing the fraudulence of the celebrated American mediums. These actors exposed how the Davenports’ feats, which included the generation of ‘spirit’ manifestations, such as the playing of musical instruments from inside a wooden cabinet within which the brothers were tied up, were in fact conjuring tricks. In his 1930 study of Irving, Edward Gordon Craig, Terry’s son, presents the event as a seminal moment for the young actor: ‘Having shown how the Davenport brothers did their little trick, he went home to his lodgings, and slowly there dawned an expression on his face […] as he recalled the gaping faces of the sturdy spectators he had that day seen watching him unveil a mystery’ (1930: 109). By rehearsing their tricks he came ‘by easy stages to the far more profound thoughts of Mesmer, and to the most surprising powers of Cagliostro’ and perceived that ‘he possessed something of these powers too [which] he developed in himself to an astonishing degree’ (1930: 110).

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Notes

  1. Henri Garenne describes how to recreate the trick: ‘Provide a wooden cabinet, about five feet in height, standing upon four short legs, and by about five feet in length by four feet in depth. Inside have a number of small hooks, upon which hang sundry musical instruments, a drum, tambourine, guitar, a bell, and anything the performer fancies. In the door of the cabinet towards the top, have a hole cut out, through which can be seen and heard the various manifestations. The performer takes care to have all the instruments smeared with some luminous liquid, so that the instruments can be seen by him when shut up in the cabinet. Having been tied up, and the doors of the cabinet being closed, the lights are turned down and the performer immediately releases his hands, takes off his coat and vest, and slipping his hands again into the loops calls for “light,” when the door of the cabinet is opened and he is seen without his coat or vest. The doors being again closed, he releases his hands again and commences making a noise, first with one and then with another of the various instruments. Replacing his hands in the loops, he calls again for “light,” and when the doors are opened he is still seen bound securely’ (1886: 290–1).

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  2. For a comprehensive study of the phenomenon of Trilby and its cultural context, see Pick (2000).

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  3. See also Terry (1908: 241).

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  4. The Strand Magazine of March 1901 features an article on Britain’s most popular pictures and lists two of Doré’s paintings, Christ Leaving the Praetorium and The Vale of Tears. The latter painting, with its barren landscape, evokes the Brocken scenery of Faust. De Cordova (1901: 242–51).

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  5. Alexander Hermann, who appeared at the Egyptian Hall from 1870 to 1878, embodied the ‘public’s image of a magician, with a goatee beard and Mephistophelean appearance’. Dawes (1979: 155).

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  6. In the 1912 edition of the text, Margaret survives to marry Ross. For discussion of the changes between the 1903 and 1912 editions and their implications, see Hughes (2000: 35–53).

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© 2013 Catherine Wynne

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Wynne, C. (2013). Irving’s Tempters and Stoker’s Vanishing Ladies: Supernatural Production, Mesmeric Influence and Magical Illusion. In: Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Gothic Stage. The Palgrave Gothic Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137298997_3

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