Fifth in a series. You’ll probably want to start with Part 1.
The first thing you see when you open a script to read a play is the list of characters. Without the people on stage, you don’t have a play. You can’t tell a story. You won’t have any action, and you won’t have a plot.
The second assignment in my Drama 30 Playwriting class was to develop a cast of characters for a one-act play. That part was easy, or so I thought. The Scientific American committee that investigated the medium Margery was only a handful of people. They were interesting folks and could play out their story on a single set.
But the more I learned about them, I realized there was more to the story than I had thought. This project faced both scope creep and character creep.
A cast of characters
There they are, on the right, the central characters in our story. At center is, of course, Mina Crandon, aka “Margery,” the title character and subject of the investigation.
She’s looking directly at her antagonist, the hero or villain of the story, depending on how you look at it. Ever the showman, Harry Houdini loved to be the center of attention. You can see that in this picture even though she was the center of the portrait.
To the far right is the man who brought them all together: Orson D. Munn. The second-generation publisher of the Scientific American magazine offered a generous cash prize for genuine psychic phenomena. But the medium would need to convince his panel of experts first.
That panel included psychic researchers, a physicist, a couple of psychologists, a magician or two, and their alternates. Houdini was the only escape artist. He also had been a side show psychic back in his vaudeville days, and knew the tricks of the trade.
Looming over Margery’s head–a tall fellow, he reportedly had to lean into the frame when he stood on the step behind them–is another major character, J. Malcolm Bird. He was associate editor of the Scientific American and was its staff liaison, although he was not on the committee proper. Instead, he served as its secretary, organizer, and, as he often put it, stage manager.
Bird literally wrote the book about the Margery case. One of them, anyway.
On the record
Margery’s husband, Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, shown at right, provided much of the supporting material for Bird’s book. But he wrote his own as well: “Margery, Harvard, Veritas,” with Margery and Mark W. Richardson, a member of their circle. Crandon shared both books liberally with leading academic libraries.
Meanwhile, Houdini beat both of them to press with his pamphlet, “HOUDINI Exposes the tricks used by the Boston Medium ‘Margery’ to win the $2,500 prize offered by the Scientific American.” He, too, distributed to the research libraries. I found a digital copy available for download from the State Library of Victoria, Australia.
Below you see another spread from Bird’s book, in which he questions whether Houdini was writing about the medium or about himself.
When I started to research the play, I found all three at Dartmouth’s Baker Library, tucked away on a dimly lit section of the open stacks of the Annex. None is particularly scholarly. But it is fun to read the smear and innuendo.
Baker Library also contained “The Case For and Against Psychical Belief,” published by Clark University. It contained a chapter on “The Margery Mediumship” by Crandon. Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, another member of the committee, wrote “A Review of the Margery Case” for that book.
Beyond the books
The multitalented Prince–preacher, philosopher, physicist–was Bird’s successor as head of the investigation. He was, ultimately, the swing vote on the committee and wrote a lot about it. Others were Harvard psychology professor Dr. William McDougall, magician Hereward Carrington, and Dr. Daniel F. Comstock, formerly of M.I.T. I did not have much material from these supporting players, so I didn’t include them in the cast.
But the stacks were only the start. I hauled my typewriter into Baker’s reference room to take copious notes from journals and popular magazines of the time.
That’s when I began to realize the challenges this case would pose as a one-act play.
First, despite what Houdini might have implied in his pamphlet, the Margery story did not start and end with him. Far from it. He was there for the most dramatic and well-publicized chapter, the Scientific American contest. But her mediumship started in 1923, well before the contest of 1924, and continued for years after Houdini’s death in 1926.
Second, her adventures in 1923 included a visit to sit with psychic researchers in Europe. Those included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle and his wife had adopted Spiritualism, a belief in communicating with the dead, after their son died of flu at the end of the Great War. Despite their differences, Doyle and Houdini had been great friends. They split around 1924, when Houdini criticized Doyle in a chapter of his expose, “A Magician Among the Spirits.”
Doyle waved the flag for Margery before, during, and after the Scientific American sittings. So, clearly he had to be part of the story even though he never sat with the committee.
A cast of hundreds
Third, the Scientific American contest wasn’t the end of the investigations. At least two other panels studied Margery in the following years. Bird names more than 100 people who sat with Margery during 1923-25.
That doesn’t take into account all the mediums who tried and failed to win the Scientific American prize. It doesn’t count the members of the subsequent committees, or the Society for Psychic Research, the American Society for Psychic Research, the Boston Society for Psychic Research …
I knew from experience that most plays have parts for no more than a dozen or so characters. Because professional shows must hire actors, and amateur shows must find them, a small cast often works best. Larger shows and musicals might get by with double-casting the smaller parts. That would not work here, where all the parts were crucial and most were in every scene.
Mixing it up
One other problem: Diversity. Today, when companies seek out casts that are ethnically and racially diverse, this play poses a problem. The real-life characters were all white, except possibly some of the Crandon’s house servants. Of the central characters, Houdini was the only outlier. He was Jewish, born in Hungary, and the subject of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant bias.
But at the time, a bigger problem was gender. Most amateur theatricals attract more women performers than men. That meant scripts needed to include roles for women. True, the role of Margery would be a plum for any actress. But even in those early days of coeducation at Dartmouth, where there were three times as many men as women, it would be a casting problem.
Other than Margery, all the core characters were men. There were women in the bigger story, of course. Mina’s friend Kitty Brown was there from the beginning. The committee sat with several psychics, both men and women. The Crandons had a maid named Lydia. Bird’s wife stayed with him for a while as guest of the Crandons. Sir Arthur’s wife precipitated the rift with Houdini when she channeled his mother through automatic writing. And, although I can’t find any evidence that she was part of this case, one of Houdini’s favorite ghost-busters was Rose Mackenberg, spirit detective.
But to include any of them in the original one-act play would mean going beyond the scope of the committee’s seances. I was already stretching things by including Sir Arthur. And my research showed that I already had more than I needed–or perhaps wanted–to put in front of an audience.
Next time: The more you know…