Beautiful Pagans: When a Best-Selling Author and a West End Actress made a Spiritualist Performance

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Abstract

The Story of Sensa: A Mystery Play in Three Acts had just four recorded performances, one in 1914 at the Court Theatre, Sloane Square and three in 1919 at the Etlinger Hall, Paddington. The work of Mabel Collins (?1850/1 - 1927) - a prolific author known for her best-selling fiction and her spiritualist non-fiction - and Maud Hoffman (1870 - ?) - an American actress with a successful London stage career – The Story of Sensa was an adaptation of Collin’s earlier work The Idyll of the White Lotus (1884). Scant production evidence survives, but the play script indicates a close alignment between Collins and Hoffman’s vision and the Symbolist theatrical practices of the 1890s, then appropriated and diluted in the stage work of W.B. Yeats, who knew Collins. The play’s action and aesthetics staged what would now be identified as clear fin-de-siècle theatrical elements for pre- and post- First World War audiences.
Mabel Collins was a leading anti-vivisectionist, pro-suffrage (she had co-authored a suffrage drama Outlawed in 1911) and a vegetarian. Renowned for her expulsion from the Theosophical Society and legal action against Helena Blavatsky, she was also known to suffer from extended periods of fragility and ill health. Outside of the formal structures and meetings of the Theosophical Society, Collins continued to publish works on spirituality and the occult and was a well-known medium. In many ways Collins could be read as an embodiment of the New Woman caricatures that circulated around the turn of the century. Concurrently, Mabel Collins was a skilled writer, journalist and editor, and a praised public speaker. Maud Hoffman, also a theosophist, was a beautiful and celebrated actress, with an eclectic range of roles behind her. Household names in their day; both have been lost to history.
The Story of Sensa raises multiple questions concerning gender, creativity, the occult, the avant-garde, performance and identity during the (extended) fin de siècle. Through this case study, and its leading personalities, this chapter will propose that the complexity, longevity and wide-reaching effects of the fin de siècle remain underestimated.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEdinburgh Companion to the Fin de Siecle
EditorsJosephine Guy
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh UP, Edinburgh
ISBN (Print)1474408915
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2017

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