Animal magnetism

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Animal magnetism can refer to three things:

  1. Franz Mesmer's theory and its professional use of the human condition involving focused attention, reduced peripheral awareness, and an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion, in healing practices, and associated metaphorical uses of the term.
  2. Any of several exhibitions of Mesmerism, Animal magnetism or Hypnotism presented as theatrical events by showmen over the years.
  3. A stage play by Elizabeth Inchbald

Mesmer and the term Animal magnetism

Animal magnetism[1] is the English version a German term "Lebensmagnetismus", a concept evolved by the German doctor Franz Mesmer in the 18th century to refer to what he believed to be an invisible natural force possessed by all living things, including humans, animals, and vegetables, a force that could have physical effects, including healing. Based on sub-conscious suggestion, the healing practice was often seen by the public as a "laying on of the hands" by a supernaturally or mystically endowed person.

Mesmer tried unsuccessfully to achieve scientific recognition of his ideas, but his treatments, referred to a "mesmerism", were to become the forerunner of the more acceptable practice of hypnosis as a medical tool.

The terms "neuro-hypnotism" (nervous sleep) and thus "hypnosis" and "hypnotism" (all derived from the ancient Greek word for sleep: "ὑπνος" or "hypnos") were first coined in French by Étienne Félix d'Henin de Cuvillers in 1820 and popularized in English by the Scottish surgeon, James Braid, in response to an 1841 exhibition of "animal magnetism", by Charles Lafontaine, in Manchester[2].

The term is of course the source of the notion of someone being "mesmerised" and the colloquial reference to an individual's sexual attractiveness or charisma as his/her "(animal) magnetism".[3]

The term is also found as a reference to Magnetoreception, the animal sense which detects magnetic fields to perceive direction, altitude or location, or metaphorically and colloquially, an individual's sexual attractiveness or charisma.[4]

Animal magnetism as a performance or theatrical event

Exhibitions of Animal magnetism by "mesmerists" were presented as theatrical events by showmen over the years, from the very inception, in much the same way as various hypnotists would travel and display their skills at what later became known as hypnotism, in staged events and public performances, even to this day. Often part of vaudeville and music hall programmes, as well as afterpieces to plays.

The practice of specifically using mesmerism and hypnosis as a stage act, evolved out of the early shows conducted by Mesmerists and other performers in the 18th and 19th centuries, employing a variety of contrived names for their "powers" or the "science" they were displaying, including "Magnetic Demonstrations" (by the travelling Swiss showman Charles Lafontaine, 1803–1892), "Electro-biologism" (e.g. by the American, George W. Stone), "Stage Hypnosis" (in the late 19th and 20th centuries).

See the Wikipedia article on Staged Hypnosis for more details on this[5]

In addition, many literary, dramatic and cinematic works also feature hypnotists as characters and/or and the (mis-)use of mesmerism or hypnotism as part of the plot of the particular work. (For example the name of "Svengali" and various stage and film versions of Gerald du Maurier's famous novel Trilby come to mind in this regard. Two prominent South African examples are the figure of "Maestro" in the play Crossing (1993/2000) by Reza de Wet, and the Afrikaans writer, Eugene N. Marais as portrayed in Katinka Heyns's award-winning film, Die Wonderwerker ("The Miracle Worker", 2012)

Animal Magnetism as the name of a play

Animal Magnetism is farce in three acts by Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821)[6].

Also occurs with a subtitle as Animal Magnetism, or A Cure for the Hydrophobia.

The original text

First performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1788(?), and printed in Dublin, for P. Byron, Grafton street.

Performance history in South Africa

1831: Performed by All the World's a Stage under the management of Mr Booth in the African Theatre 29 October, 1831, billed as Animal Magnetism, or A Cure for the Hydrophobia. Served as afterpiece to Der Freischütz, or The Seventh Bullet (Weber).

1846: Performed as Annimal Magnetism (sic), as part of the opening production in the Victoria Theatre (the renamed Garrison Theatre) in Pietermaritzburg, on 21st August 1846, along with Douglas (Home).

Translations and adaptations


F.C.L. Bosman. 1928. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel I: 1652-1855. Pretoria: J.H. de Bussy. [7]: pp. 217-8.

Schauffer, Dennis 1978. The Establishment of a Theatrical Tradition in Pietermaritzburg, Prior to the Opening of the First Civilian Playhouse. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal.

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