The Secret Doctrine is a new play dealing with a skeptic’s investigations into controversial 19th-century occultist and proto-New-Ager Helena Blavatsky. It has its origins in an unrelated screenplay that playwright, SFU professor, and filmmaker Patricia Gruben was working on.
“I was doing research on a different character,” Gruben tells the Straight, “and Blavatsky just kept showing up in every book and article that I read. At first, I tried to push her out of my mind because she wasn’t really my subject, but she was just so fascinating and compelling and charismatic that she kind of took over.”
Gruben and Canadian actor Gabrielle Rose are on their lunch break from a rehearsal at SFU Woodward’s, where The Secret Doctrine—named after Blavatsky’s most famous book—is set to open Tuesday (July 2). “I always had Gabrielle in mind [for the role of Blavatsky] when I was working on the play, because I had seen her in so many different roles,” Gruben says, pointing to films by celebrated Canadian directors like Atom Egoyan, Bruce Sweeney, and Carl Bessai. Similarly, Blavatsky also “played many different characters—sometimes she’s charming and sometimes she’s hateful and sometimes she’s cold…”
“She’s got so many layers to her she’s irresistible,” Rose finishes.
Rose, Gruben, and director Ines Buchli have been developing the play together for some time, with all three on hand to workshop it in 2012. One senses that they have arrived at a deep respect for their subject, even if they acknowledge aspects of her work were likely fraudulent.
“She wanted to promote universal brotherhood, she believed in the equality of all mankind, which was a unique stance to take in the day and age that she was brought up,” Rose says. ‘She lived in India, where there is a huge caste system, and the British had taken over and put everybody below them. So it was a pretty strong political stance she took; there’s that aspect to her nature, and there’s the scientific aspect of her nature.”
Facets of Blavatsky’s writings even anticipated developments in 20th century science, including quantum mechanics. “I think she had a brilliant mind, was probably innately a great scientist,” says Rose, but “her talent was to be a magician, a circus performer, an incredible orator, an entertainer in many ways. So that’s how she kept herself afloat—by producing miracles and phenomena.” The most controversial of these were her communications with the Mahatmas, or Ascended Masters, with whom she claimed to be in contact. Rose explains: “The idea was, if you wanted to communicate with a Mahatma, you wrote the Mahatma a letter, Helena would divine it, and then at some point in the near or far-off future, the Mahatma would answer your letter, and these letters would drop from the ceiling. I mean, it’s funny now, but she didn’t have the technology that we have to create miracles, so she had to make holes in the ceiling and drop the letters down… She must have written thousands of them!”
The multimedia aspects of the play—including visual and lighting effects by Robert Gardiner and a multichannel audio environment with music by Martin Gotfrit—will help put audience members in a state of mind that is receptive to Blavatsky’s “miracles”, as will a freestanding, meditative installation called The Veil of Nature, which you can sign up to visit online, or just drop by to visit, between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., on the fourth floor of SFU Woodward’s.
Gruben encourages people to come to the play with an open mind, the better to “put yourself in the experiment”, as Blavatsky phrases it. Asked if, in the end, Gruben finds herself identifying more with her skeptic—played by Frank Zotter—or with the play’s believers, she says, “The play is really about that debate, about trying to resolve those contradictions. I continue to be dogged by them.”
The Secret Doctrine plays from Tuesday to Saturday (July 2 to 6) at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.