Theosophy in the public eye

Both Lomaland and Krotona were designed as easily accessible retreats from urban life. Their proximity to metropolitan centers connected them with the broader, non-Theosophical public. To that end, late-nineteenth century developments in railroad infrastructure and roadways, added to existing maritime ports in both Los Angeles and San Diego, provided new means of travel throughout the region. Tingley and Warrington therefore catered to a mobile public, and they themselves frequently traveled throughout the region. Both their travel and others’ visits to Lomaland and Krotona brought attention to these communities in several ways. Local newspapers often reported when a leader or prominent member of the Theosophical community visited town, especially if that leader held an event. Similarly, visitors to the communities would frequently publish accounts of their experiences for both Theosophical journals as well as in local and national newspapers. While Theosophy’s first- and second-generation leaders toured the world, gaining public and press attention through events and appearances, second-generation leaders expanded the means through which they attracted the public’s attention to the sites themselves. Beginning with the cornerstone ceremonies, any event or notable visitor to Lomaland or Krotona was a highly generative means to draw eyes, and bodies, to these Theosophical communities. Southern California cities provided Theosophists with a growing public comprising new permanent residents, novelty and health-seeking tourists, and celebrities.

Among the most successful ways Lomaland and Krotona attracted this public was their performances of theater, music, and dance. Pointing to Blavatsky’s references to Shakespeare and Greek tragedies, both Tingley and Warrington made performance a central pillar of their communities. Between 1899 and her death in 1929, Tingley produced multiple performances of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides, as well as an original work, The Aroma of Athens, and several of Shakespeare’s plays including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night (Lingan 2014, 29-62). All of these plays were performed by members of the Lomaland community on site at their Greek-style outdoor amphitheater. While Lomaland residents were, with few exceptions, the primary performers in Tingley’s productions, these performances were open to the public and drew large crowds. The pinnacle of these public performances was the April 1915 production of The Aroma of Athens, a symposium Tingley created that combined dramatic readings of Greek texts, music, and dance (Anon. 1915, 376).

The performance was an elaborate spectacle, but it was the crowd that sparked the attention of a reporter from a local newspaper, the San Diego Union. They wrote:

Between 1500 and 2000 persons watched the performance, and possibly never has such a gathering of motor cars as were packed in the grounds during the evening. They varied from the make joked about to the huge, imported limousine. Perfect system in parking made it possible for each owner to find his motor without a moment’s loss of time. The parade on the San Diego ward journey was fascinating to watch. Hundreds of eye-like searchlights wound down the canyon road and presented a scene to the observer like one long, swift-moving serpent of life (1915, 377).

For the author of this article, the journey to the site and the spectacle of the modern crowd in their cars was as fascinating as the theatrical production itself. The author, in effect, transformed the audience members and their vehicles into participants in the performance. There is no mention of the spiritual in this author’s account, indicating that although Tingley was compelled by what she believed was the spiritual significance of drama, these performances did not announce themselves as religious events. Viewers could, and did, enjoy Lomaland dramas as works of secular entertainment.

At Krotona, Warrington was overt about drawing a secular crowd to enjoy a religion-themed performance. In 1918, Warrington oversaw the production of a theatrical adaptation of Sir Edwin Arnold’s poem about the life of Buddha, The Light of Asia (Ross 2004, 280-92). The Krotona production brought together notable figures from across the performing arts, featuring an original score by composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, choreography by dancer Ruth St. Denis, and a lead performance by actor Walter Hampen (Anon. 1918, 112). Performances ran for three weeks and inaugurated the 500-seat outdoor theater in Krotona’s gardens. The duration of the run, the ample seating, and the inclusion of celebrity figures indicates that Warrington intended The Light of Asia to be not merely enlightening entertainment for and by the Theosophical community, but also a public spectacle announcing Krotona’s place in the burgeoning culture of Los Angeles. Indeed, speaking to the Los Angeles Times about the production, Christine Wetherill Stevenson who co-produced of The Light of Asia, described Southern California as “rapidly becoming the playground of the world” with Los Angeles en route to “become the pleasure capital of America” (Stevenson in Anon. 1918, 112).

Both Lomaland and Krotona staged elaborate public performances in outdoor amphitheaters with the hope that by witnessing these theatrical productions, viewers would consciously or subconsciously internalize Theosophical values. But what they chose to perform underscores a central difference in each community’s interpretation of Theosophical ideas. At Krotona, as may be expected from the ASTS, with international headquarters in East India, Theosophists were particularly interested in Indian religious traditions. Warrington hoped The Light of Asia would introduce the founding story of Buddhism to an unfamiliar public. While his goal was not to convert viewers to a new religion, he did intend to showcase the virtues of non-westem religious traditions by spectacularly telling the story' of Siddhartha, Buddhism’s founding ascetic prince. Furthermore, Warrington sought to demonstrate what he believed to be the fundamental ties between Buddhism and Christianity. He wrote:

In presenting “The Light of Asia,” it is possible to show a Christian community some of the choicest teachings on the Lord Buddha. Moreover, it is possible to show how he actually prophesied the coming of the Christ. This has a tendency' to give a feeling of sympathy and of intelligent interest, and this attitude when it becomes widespread means the tearing down of the walls of difference between the members of the great family of religions, all of whom can trace their origin back to the same divine parent.

(Warrington in Ross 2004, 307)

The irony of how Krotona chose to introduce a broader public to Buddhism is that they interpreted a popular, western telling of the life of Buddha - Arnold’s poem - rather than original sources.

Tingley, conversely, was deeply invested in restaging western dramas. Rather than attempting to shape the spiritual values of the audience by introducing them to eastern religion, she hoped that by beholding Greek dramas in a venue designed to evoke the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, viewers could viscerally connect to Classical antiquity and thus to an ancient source of human divinity. This is not to say that Lomaland Theosophists did not study and value eastern religions (indeed, Tingley named the school the Raja Yoga Academy), nor to discount Krotona Theosophists’ attention to ancient civilizations (beyond the Greek-derived name “Krotona,” Warrington dubbed the community a “modern Athens”). But Tingley’s Theosophy, which shaped the entire UBTS, placed heavy emphasis on ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome whereas Warrington and the ASTS looked to India for lessons that could be applied to western spirituality.

Conclusion

The divergence in references used by the UBTS and the ASTS points to one possible reason Southern California Theosophists were unable to sustain a level of activity and interest past World War II. While Theosophists proselytized, were prolific propagandists, and strove to make Theosophy the universal religion, Theosophy encourages combining religious traditions in ways that are non-dogmatic and individualized, ultimately resulting in few mandates for espousing Theosophy. The movement’s fundamental belief in seeking universality among all living beings and commonality across religions created a dichotomy for potential members: they were simultaneously, and paradoxically, galvanized to join while being encouraged to set their own course. Theosophy’s waning since mid-century should not suggest a lack of significance. To the contrary, Theosophy is a “grandparent” movement to New Age. Southern California Theosophists’ broad, often public, explorations of multiple religious traditions helped establish the region’s reputation for esoteric experimentation. In what was already fertile ground, Theosophists planted seeds for subsequent generations’ explorations in melding multiple religious traditions to form unique, hybrid spiritualities that assimilated into seemingly secular culture.

Notes

  • 1 While this framing of Theosophy into different generations is common among scholars, my use of the term “second generation” derives from Olav Hammer’s scholarship on the movement. For reference, see his chapter, “Theosophy,” in The Occult World, ed. Christopher Partridge, 256-8.
  • 2 This is not to say that the Temple was insignificant. To the contrary, as Paul Ivey demonstrates in his book on the community, members of the Temple movement contributed to several aspects of culture, notably modernist music and medicine. See: Paul Ivey, Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
  • 3 For reference: San Diego’s population increased from 2,637 in 1880 to roughly 40,000 in 1897 but dropped to 17,700 by 1900. Los Angeles, by contrast, had around 50,000 residents in 1890, but rather than decline over the decade as in San Diego the population doubled by 1900. Retrieved from US Census Bureau Administration and Customer Services Division, “US Census Bureau Publications - Census of Population and Housing,” https://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html. An example of how the region was understood as a whole as it relates to the history of Theosophy is that reporters of The Los Angeles Times covered Lomaland’s activities as if they were part of greater Los Angeles.
  • 4 Fuller histories of the modem Theosophical movement and its various branches include Bruce Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived, 1980; Joscelyn Godwin, 1994, The Theosophical Enlightenment, State University of New York Press, Albany; and Michael Gomes, 1987, The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement, Quest Books, Wheaton; Olav Hammer, 2016a, “Theosophy,” and 2016b “The theosophical Current in the Twentieth Century,” in The Occult World, Christopher Partridge ed., 250-59, 348-60.
  • 5 Much ink has been spilled over the possible relationship between Theosophists’ Root Races and Nazi Aryan race theory. A survey of current literature indicates that scholars do not doubt, or attempt to paper over, the clear corollaries between Blavatsky’s theories and Nazi ideology. Both are founded in nineteenth-century attempts to create taxonomical definitions of different races based on largely specious historical and anthropological evidence. Scholar Isaac Lubeslky urges readers of Theosophical texts to consider Blavatsky’s language carefully and within the intellectual historical context in which she was writing. He contends that Blavatsky was but one author contributing to, and building upon, this period’s interest in theorizing the relationship between race, nationhood, and divinity. See: Isaac Lubeslky, “Mythological and Real Race Issues in Theosophy.” In Handbook of the Theosophical Current, edited by Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein (Boston: Brill, 2013), 335-56.
 
Source
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >