Monday, January 23, 2023

Animal Magnetism

Elizabeth Inchbald made her playwriting debut with The Mogul Tale in 1784, but her 1788 play Animal Magnetism had a longer-lasting influence on the stage.

There have been multiple stagings of the play in recent years, including one done last year at St. Hugh's College, Oxford and now available to watch on YouTube. I got to see a different staging tonight, which was performed by the Red Bull Theater Company at the Players Club and streamed online.

José Zayas, who directed my adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol in Saratoga Springs directed the staged reading for Red Bull, so I knew it would be well done. I also knew it would feature Carson Elrod, who has shone brilliantly in past Red Bull productions, including The Alchemist.

Like The Mogul Tale, Inchbald's Animal Magnetism is a farce that draws inspiration from the science of the late-eighteenth century. In The Mogul Tale, Inchbald portrays aeronauts who ascend in a balloon in England and (apparently after getting caught in a jet stream) come down in India. Her later farce deals instead with mesmerism, which was called at the time animal magnetism.

Today, we equate mesmerism with hypnosis, but Franz Mesmer—who originated the practice—believed he was manipulating an invisible fluid that penetrates all organisms. In Inchbald's play, the quack Doctor Mystery describes it this way:

This fluid is like a river, that—that—runs—that—goes—that—gently glides—so—so—so—while there is nothing to stop it.—But if it en|counters a mound or any other impediment—boo—boo—boo—it bursts forth—it overflows the country round—throws down villages, hamlets, houses, trees, cows and lambs; but remove obstacles which obstruct its course, and it begins again, softly and sweetly to flow—thus—thus—thus—the fields are again adorned, and every thing goes on, as well as it can go on.

Doctor Mystery, however, is actually La Fleur, the valet of a marquis who loves the play's heroine. He performs fake deeds of mesmerism in order to foil the heroine's guardian. Needless to say, the marquis and the heroine end up together, and La Fleur gains the affections of her maid.

Much of the play's humor comes from the two women pretending to be under the influence of mesmerism. Dickens, who practiced mesmerism himself, found the play hysterical, and it was frequently performed alongside his friend Wilkie Collins's play The Frozen Deep.

Animal Magetism is based on a French play, Le Médecin Malgré tout le monde by Antoine-Jean-Bourlin Dumaniant. It is not Inchbald's only adaptation, though. Perhaps her most famous play, Lovers' Vows, was adapted from a melodrama by August von Kotzebue.