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In the Throes of Crisis

by Knud Adams, Artistic Intern

Ensemble Member Eric Simonson's play Fake draws upon historical figures, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived during a time of philosophical and scientific revolution. This upheaval began in 1859, when Charles Darwin published his controversial theory of natural selection. Darwin's work instigated new scientific approaches to answering existential questions and complicated man's perception of his identity. While Darwin rejected religion and turned towards science, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sought to reaffirm his spiritual faith; however, the beliefs of both men were shaped by personal crisis and loss. Charles Darwin: "Our patron saint" Charles Darwin was raised in a religious household; he was baptized, he attended church weekly, and he boarded at an Anglican school. He went on to study at Christ's College, where he worked toward becoming a clergyman. After graduating, he seized the opportunity to sail with the HMS Beagle; he hoped to travel the world before continuing his religious career. During this life altering voyage, Darwin observed the natural phenomena that shook his already wavering belief in the creation story. By his return, he had committed his life to scientific investigation and the theory of natural selection. Darwin married a religious woman--his cousin Emma Wedgewood--and together they had ten children. While raising his family, he continued his scientific experimentation and drifted further from the church. His most beloved daughter died at age ten. This crisis shattered Darwin’s remaining faith, and he ceased attending services. Every Sunday, he left his family at the church gate to wander the surrounding countryside. Upon Darwin's death in 1882, his wife censored atheistic passages from his autobiography; for instance, he had written: "Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct." Although Darwin described his journey to atheism as being rational and gradual, history evinces that it was impelled by the loss of a child. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: "Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself" As Darwin's theories shook firmly held religious beliefs, many hoped spiritism would scientifically prove the existence of an afterlife; one such believer was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although Doyle's tombstone reads, "Knight, patriot, physician and man of letters," he is most remembered for his stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. Authoring dozens of mysteries, Doyle was somewhat of a detective himself; he investigated supernatural phenomena. After losing his brother, mother and son, he became obsessed by matters of the occult and spiritism. Followers of spiritism believed that trained mediums communicate with the dead, and they gathered for séances and spectacular demonstrations of hypnotism, automatic writing and poltergeist visitations. Spiritism spread widely across Europe and the United States during the later half of the nineteenth century; by 1897, it had attracted over eight million followers. Many of spiritism's most ardent supporters had lost a loved one; Mary Todd Lincoln held séances in the White House to contact her deceased son. Indeed, interest in spiritism spiked after the Civil War and World War I, both periods of great loss. Spiritist philosophers appropriated from Darwin's theories, postulating that spirits evolve in the afterlife by ascending through a series of purifying spheres before joining God. They used Darwin's model of natural selection to describe this purgatory-like journey. Darwin himself attended a séance in 1874, but he was unimpressed by the spectacle of sparks and levitating furniture. Later he wrote, "The Lord have mercy on us if we have to believe such rubbish." While Darwin remained skeptical of spiritism, other men of intellect, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were among its greatest champions; Doyle went so far as to launch an American lecture tour in which he shared documentation of séances and spirit photography. These convincing slides inspired screams, fainting and even suicide. Fantastical creatures, such as the Cottingley Fairies, also fascinated Doyle. These fairies were photographed by two young girls, who took turns posing with the elegant winged creatures in their backwoods. Doyle published the photographs and defended their validity. Fifty years after his death, the women admitted to fabricating the images with paper cutouts, but they insisted they had seen real fairies; they only created the fakes to get back at the adults who had disbelieved their genuine discovery. Doyle also touted his friend Harry Houdini as evidence of the supernatural. Although Houdini explained that his magic tricks were merely physical feats, Doyle insisted the magician possessed otherworldly powers. Their friendship ended when Doyle arranged a séance to contact Houdini's recently deceased mother. After a medium generated a heart-felt letter from his mother’s ghost, Houdini revealed that she had only spoken Hungarian and Yiddish, and he denounced the séance as a sham. Doyle and Houdini stopped speaking, and their enmity manifested itself in a battle of hostile letters waged through the press. Defying criticism, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remained a resolute believer until his death in 1929. While the death of his child hastened Darwin’s rejection of Christianity, Doyle’s loss inspired a lasting faith in spiritism and the afterlife. Wounded by personal loss, both men sought to reinvestigate fundamental questions of faith: "Who are we?" and "Why do we exist?"