“Animal Magnetism” at its best

Over two hundred years ago Elizabeth Inchbald wrote and published the three act farce Animal Magnetism.  Heavily criticizing Mesmer’s magnetized baths ananimalmagnatismd healing wands, this typical eighteenth-century afterpiece farce features befuddled lovers, lovers’ ruses, and battle of the sexes.  Two hundred years later, befuddled lovers remain but Animal Magnetism is now carefully housed in AAS’s “Dated Pams” collection.

Plays, libretti, playbills, and drama reviews can be found throughout AAS’s collections.  For more on our theatrical resources, read the online guide created by AAS curators and catalogers. A simple chronological search can be done in AAS’s Online Catalog using the subject search option and inserting the search term “plays” followed by the desired year of publication (for instance, “Plays 1809” or “Plays 1810”).  This search should retrieve most records for the desired year.  (Although care should be taken, as even this subject search will not retrieve all records for the desired year.  In addition to the search terms noted on the AAS site, searchers should add keywords like “farce,” “opera,” and “comedy”).

Inchbald’s farce can be found listed under genre heading “Plays 1809” and it is available on Shaw-Shoemaker Digital Edition. The play was written and published immediately following the introduction of Franz Anton Mesmer’s magnetic baths and wands into England from France.  Whereas dispossessed French people of all sorts embraced mesmerism once it was rejected as legitimate practice by the Royal Society of Medicine, Britons were immediately suspicious of mesmerism’s outsider status and its necessitating close contact between male doctor and female patient.
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Inchbald’s farce upends expectations.  Two female characters, Constance and her servant, discover the machinations of their guardian, the Doctor, who wishes to use animal magnetism to make Constance love him.  It is Inchbald’s distinctly British Doctor, denied a diploma by the Royal Academy, who finds magnetism appealing.  And it is the very French Marquis and his servant, Fluer, who purport to teach magnetism, who finally win over the women and conclude that: “there is no magnetism, like the powerful magnetism of love.”  Inchbald’s fumbling British Doctor, dispossessed by love and romance, can’t compete with the power of natural love and genuine closeness between male and female.  Passion could not be manipulated on the stage.

The farce was most likely first produced on an American stage in December of 1796 at the New Theater in Philadelphia. America’s Historical Newspapers, always a handy resource, reveals a widespread discontent with animal magnetism throughout the late 1780s and early 1790s and the final ban of animal magnetism by the Medical Society of the State of Connecticut on May 17, 1796.

The New Theatre, Philadelphia.  From <em>The New York Magazine</em>, 1794.  Courtesy of Lauren Hewes’ search efforts on the Catalogue of American Engravings.

The New Theatre, Philadelphia. From The New York Magazine, 1794. Courtesy of Lauren Hewes’ search efforts in the Catalogue of American Engravings.

By April 1807, the farce had become so popular that William Twaits, the eccentric London actor, was performing in the role of the Doctor in New York.  His last performance in January of 1808 was not the end of Animal Magnetism’s run on the U.S. stage.  But Americans had learned that animal magnetism could not sway men’s minds.  As one commentator in New York’s American Citizen noted when writing on the election for the Council of Appointment in February 1807:

Witchcrafts and sorcerers are no longer in vogue—and animal magnetism has been discarded by modern philosophers—Where then, we ask, since a coalition is denied to exist, has the secret of this mysterious coincidence of the views, votes, and measures of the parties in question?

Love may have been deemed a mystery in Inchbald’s farce, too powerful to be performed or manipulated on the stage, but nothing could control or explain party formation.

The stage, with its perfect amalgam of the arts, was perhaps the perfect venue for understanding why humans cannot be understood. As Deleuze and Guattari wrote:

It is through writing that you become animal, it is through color that you become imperceptible, it is through music that you become hard and memoryless, simultaneously animal and imperceptible: in love.

For further reference:

  • Fulford, Tim.  “Conducting the Vital Fluid: The Politics and Poetics of Mesmerism in the 1790s.” Studies in Romanticism 43, no. 1 (2004): 57-78.   A study of magnetism and mesmerism in English and French literature and politics during the late eighteenth century.
  • Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari.  A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.  New York: Continuum, 2004.

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