Theatre: The mirror has two faces

Madame Blavatsky shook 19th-century society with views startlingly similar to current New Age thought. Now Clare Bayley has put her philosophies on stage
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She was admired by Yeats, wined and dined by Bernard Shaw, rehabilitated by Annie Besant, was an inspiration to Mondrian and Kandinsky, mocked by Eliot, denounced by Truman Capote, defended by Kurt Vonnegut. The name Madame Blavatsky has gone down in the popular imagination as a by- word for charlatanism: the fraudulent clairvoyant, the fake mystic. And yet, as the roll-call of her supporters suggests, she was a far more complex case than that.

She would have been the most fascinating dinner companion. Her life was outrageously exotic and she travelled prodigiously. Born into a cultured, aristocratic Russian family in 1831, the daughter of an army officer and a successful novelist, her travels were precipitated by a loveless marriage at the age of 17.

Three months after the wedding, she stepped onto a boat in the Black Sea, sent her servants ashore and then set off, alone, to Constantinople.

For 10 years she dared not return - or maybe she used this as an excuse to pursue her real interests. She was fascinated by the occult, and her interest took her to the Dervish communities, where she earnestly studied their arts; to Egypt where she developed an interest in Sufism; to India, where she took an interest in Hindu theology; and finally to Tibet, where a good 60 years before Alexander David Neal - the supposed first Western woman to enter the country - she encountered Esoteric Buddhism.

Along the way, frequently disguised as a man, she learned about snake- charming, shamanism and voodoo (in New Orleans) and even fought with Garibaldi's army at the Battle of Mentana. All these escapades are completely undocumented, we rely solely on Madame B's own word for verification. But even if she made up every bit of it, what an audacious imagination she must have had. To have invented such things is almost as impressive as to have really experienced them.

By 1875, she was settled in New York and ready to release some of her acquired wisdom to the world, via her newly-formed Theosophical Society. What she had to say was radical to the point of heresy. There was, she said, an ancient body of esoteric wisdom that underlies all the great world religions and philosophies. The basic commonality between them all is a universal brotherhood of humanity, and a direct connection with the divine will from which we all come. The mistake made by each world religion, and its priests and interpreters, is in believing itself to be the one true faith rather than part of a whole.

Just over a decade after the publication of The Origin of Species, Christian society was still reeling from the undermining of some of its most fundamental beliefs. But Madame Blavatsky took the idea of evolution a stage further, by endorsing the doctrine of reincarnation. Darwin only saw half the picture, she argued, since we are all on an immense journey of spiritual, as well as physical, evolution. She was one of the first people to introduce the tenets of Eastern mysticism into mainstream Western consciousness. For that alone she deserves credit. But the controversy arises from the medium of her message, as much as from the message itself.

By 1875, she was claiming that she had been in contact with a secret Brotherhood of adepts, or Masters, who were the guardians of mankind's spiritual life. Seeing the gross materialism that was gripping the Western world - and by extension, the colonised East - they had decided to release some of their knowledge into the world, in an attempt to set mankind back on a more spiritual track. And they had chosen Madame Blavatsky to be their mouthpiece.

She claimed that they communicated with her sometimes in person, and sometimes in their disembodied "Astral" form. Their instructions and revelations to her were frequently communicated by letter, and these now reside in the British Library. Of course, they did not need to rely on the postal service, but precipitated the letters through the ether. They would appear from thin air, in rooms, on trains, in desks.

It is here that Blavatsky's story starts to be really contentious. In New York and later in India, where she and the Theosophical Society eventually settled, she was producing "phenomena" at an amazing rate. There are accounts of her making a rose spontaneously bloom, summoning music from thin air, finding (in a flowerbed) a brooch that had been stolen from its owner many years before, producing an extra teacup (from nowhere) when an unexpected guest turned up at a picnic. They may have owed more to skills learned from wandering showmen rather than Eastern shamen, but she claimed they were part of a spiritual initiation, with a profound underlying seriousness.

They were certainly impressive. Initially they attracted followers like a light attracts insects at night, but eventually they caused her downfall. In 1884, her former housekeeper denounced her, claiming that she employed servants to produce the phenomena with the aid of trap doors, sliding panels and other classics of theatre illusionism. She claimed that the existence of the Secret Brotherhood was a fiction, that Blavatsky herself wrote all the letters, and that live appearances of the Masters were staged by servants wearing costumes. The housekeeper, who had recently lost her job, was paid handsomely by the Christian College for her revelations.

This coincided with an investigation into the phenomena by the Society for Psychical Research. The Hodgson Report took the accusations at face value and officially declared Blavatsky a fraud in 1885. The Theosophical Society survived the slur, growing in membership and influence to a peak in the 1920s, but Madame Blavatsky herself never fully recovered her reputation. Most tragically of all, her name is associated in the popular imagination not with her scholarship, her interest in Eastern religions, her passionate advocacy of the equality of all people, sexes and races in the divine scheme of things, but instead with fake magic and cheap tricks.

But we haven't heard the last of the remarkable Madame Blavatsky. Her books have never been out of print. Recently, a Society for Psychical Research member published a detailed paper discrediting the Hodgson Report. Underpinning many of the New Age's more outlandish beliefs lie a shadowy Brotherhood of Masters, whose biographies are entirely in accordance with Blavatsky's own descriptions. If she was a fake, what a stupendously grand- scale deception she pulled off. But suppose, just suppose, that all along, she was telling the absolute truth.

Clare Bayley's `Blavatsky' opens at the Young Vic Studio, London SE1 (0171-928 6363) on 14 Sept