The magic and mystery of Dr Dee.
Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris have let the subject of their opera Dr Dee – part of London 2012 Festival – become an obsession, says Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate.
By Jonathan Bate
The Diamond Jubilee river pageant was modelled on the aquatic comings and goings of Queen Elizabeth I, and the airwaves are humming with talk of the New Elizabethans. The Olympic opening ceremony will be based on the “isle of wonder” motif from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Clearly, the time is ripe for the emergence of a modern Prospero. Step forward, Damon Albarn. He is in for an interesting summer. Blur will headline the closing ceremony concert in Hyde Park, but in the meantime he is busy with English National Opera.
I have a rendezvous with him and the director and co-creator Rufus Norris. Not at the London Coliseum, but up the road at the British Museum, where we are in the midst of installing the summer show Shakespeare: Staging the World. They have taken time out from the rehearsal room to come and look at a piece of shiny black stone about the size of a table tennis bat with no handle.
Albarn — slight, quietly spoken, intensely thoughtful — tells me he was so excited at the prospect that he woke at four in the morning. Norris, equally excited, says he could “spend a year in the museum” and it still wouldn’t be enough. The co-creators of Dr Dee are about to lay their hands on the scrying glass through which John Dee, court magus to Queen Elizabeth I, conversed with angels.
Mathematician, astrologer, antiquary, political visionary and possible original for Shakespeare’s Prospero, Dr John Dee was one of the most extraordinary of the Old Elizabethans. He staged an undergraduate drama in which a giant scarab beetle carried an actor to the roof of the college hall as if by magic; he lectured on Euclid at prestigious universities across Europe; was offered the chair of mathematics in Paris before he was 25; became one of the first Englishmen to see the significance of the new astronomy of Copernicus; collected the greatest private library in the land; made serious attempts at the alchemical conversion of base metal into gold; invented the idea of the British Empire; perfected the art of navigation; reformed the calendar; pioneered the art of cryptography; and so impressed Queen Elizabeth that she went to his private house in Mortlake to watch him perform experiments.
Yet he died in poverty and obscurity in 1609, having devoted much of his later life to necromancy and angelology. His adventures in this department were marred by his involvement with an alleged con man, Edward Kelley, who plays an important part in Albarn’s opera.
I ask Albarn and Norris where they first heard about Dr Dee and they explain that the project began with the involvement of the graphic novelist Alan Moore. We agree that Moore is indeed a kind of modern Dee: not only does he have a long grey beard, he is also interested in magic and has a quasi-mystical sense of the deep cultural identity and ancient legendary history of England. Or should that be Britain? Or Albion?
One of the questions we explore in the British Museum show is the relationship in Shakespeare’s time between the different parts of our islands. Elizabeth I was a great English monarch, whereas her successor James, already King of Scotland, sought to invent a new united kingdom called Britain. The attempt to forge a distinctively “British” identity relied on speculation about ancient Celtic kings, the Arthurian line of descent and other matters in which Dee had taken a deep interest.
I challenge Albarn over the subtitle given to his project when it was first staged at the Manchester International Festival last year: “An English Opera”. At first, he thinks that I am objecting to the word “opera”, but I’m not worried about that. I want to know whether he’s thinking about England or Britain. Is he interested in Dee as the originator of the idea of a British Empire? He gets the point: Dee was there right at the beginning, in the time of the first Elizabeth, and here he is at the very end, certainly the end of Empire and perhaps the end of Britain, in the time of the second Elizabeth, and “there’s a certain melancholy about that”. He still looks “right back to Arthurian legend and Stonehenge as symbols of our spirituality”. This whole tradition —which runs from John Dee to Blake’s Jerusalem —“is an interesting place to inhabit and a frame for a songwriter”.
I suggest that although the Renaissance alchemist’s attempt to turn base metal into gold was doomed, there is true alchemy in the creative artist’s transformation of raw materials into musical and poetic gold. Is Albarn a kind of magician himself? “No, well … I love … I’d like another term for it.” That was exactly what Dee said, I reply: he hated it when people called him a “conjuror”. He refused to dissociate magic from science, astrology from astronomy. “Make no distinctions,” murmurs Albarn, turning to Norris and suggesting that they incorporate the phrase into the opera.
The work of artistic alchemy is going on before my eyes, so it seems the right moment to look closely at the objects in the display case. Albarn gazes at the wax tablet upon which John Dee inscribed a seven-pointed star, following the instructions given by the spirit Uriel at a scrying session in Mortlake on the afternoon of Saturday, March 10, 1582. I gaze at Albarn and I see that he is wearing the same heptagram round his neck.
A museum assistant carefully unscrews the glass, while Albarn dons a pair of blue latex surgeon’s gloves. He is handed the second object, that shiny black stone the size of a table tennis bat. It is a piece of obsidian, naturally occurring volcanic glass, shaped to be held in the hand, carved in the form of a mirror. You can see dim, smoky reflections on its black surface. It is a trophy of the kind brought back from Mexico to Europe by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Dora Thornton, exhibition curator, explains that Dee probably did not know that the Mexican god of destiny and divination, Tezcatlipoca, was thought to use obsidian mirrors as “speaking stones”.
“But he would have intuited that,” says Albarn, who is now totally absorbed. He pulls out a piece of ancient bone that he has recently plucked from a remote cave in the Rift Valley and shows how he polished it with obsidian to make another talisman, giving him access to ancient ways of thinking. “The light’s all wrong,” he says, as he picks up Dr Dee’s magic mirror and holds it close to his eye. He takes it into a dark corner of the exhibition space, turns to the wall, and communes in long silence.
When he brings it back, I ask him if he saw anything other than a smoky reflection of his own face. “I have no interest in myself,” he says firmly. “I’m looking way beyond that — the face is just a defence mechanism on the shininess. It’s below that – there’s the magic if it’s happening.” “Was it?” “That’s not really something I understand enough to be able to put into an interview.”
He says that he would love to know more of the history of the object. I suggest that it has many histories: its geological origin, its use in ancient Mexico, its journey to Europe, its place in Dee’s life, its modern history as a cult object in the British Museum, and now its place in the evolution of his own art. It’s the first thing I’ve said that has really impressed him: he fixes me in the eye and says: “I want to explore all those histories.” I have a hunch that he will.