Liverpool's Baltic Triangle is a former industrial area of old warehouses and factories, where the streets have names like 'Flint Street' and 'Brick Street'. There's a new venue here called Camp and Furnace, created by combining an Edwardian foundry, a former coachbuilders and an industrial blade-making factory.
This was where the Seekers assembled on 22 November 2013, to see Daisy Eris Campbell's stage version of Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger.
Although I'd seen a couple of scenes from the play at the Horse Hospital, I had little idea how Daisy would adapt the whole book.
|Poster by Jimmy Cauty of the KLF|
'Cosmic Trigger deals with a process of deliberately induced brain change through which I put myself in the years 1962-76. This process is called "initiation" or "vision quest" in many traditional societies and can loosely be considered some dangerous variety of self-psychotherapy in modern terminology. I do not recommend it for everybody, and I think I obtained more good results than bad ones chiefly because I had been through two varieties of ordinary psychotherapy before I started my own adventures and because I had a good background in scientific philosophy and was not inclined to "believe" any astounding Revelations too literally. Briefly, the main thing I learned in my experiments is that "reality" is always plural and mutable.'
The book is mostly a freewheeling philosophical monologue with multiple digressions, as Wilson moves between various 'models' or 'metaphors' for mutable reality. He describes his experiments with Crowleyan magick, Discordianism, eastern mysticism, hallucinogenic drugs, conspiracy theories, Timothy Leary's theories on brain circuits, and telepathic communication with extraterrestrials from the Sirius system (or a giant white rabbit spirit).
If I had to turn Cosmic Trigger into a play I wouldn't have a clue where to start!
Oliver Senton is magnificent as Robert Anton Wilson. He captures his Buddha-like serenity, and is also very funny. 'I'm thinking, perhaps LSD and Crowley is a good combination!' gets a big laugh.
The play has the best use of multimedia I've seen, with Scott McPherson's beautiful CGI projections serving as animated sets. One of the first scenes takes place in the Playboy office, where Wilson meets Robert Shea (Tom Baker), co-author of Illuminatus! The walls are covered with pictures of Playboy bunnies and, in the background, we see a sillhouette of a bunny girl walking past (a first appearance of RAW's rabbit spirit?). In another scene (above) the space is transformed into the ashram at Millbrook, where Wilson meets Timothy Leary (Andrew McBean).
This encounter leads to a fantastically staged acid trip, in which Wilson is swallowed up by a gigantic typewriter and Albert Hoffman, the LSD pioneer, cycles past on his bicycle (Hoffman experienced the very first acid trip while cycling home).
Here's the scene in which Wilson, on the right, meets Greg Hill a.k.a. Malaclypse the Younger (Josh Darcy). Hill introduces Wilson to Discordianism, a religion disguised as a joke or a joke disguised as a religion. It's based on worship of Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos and confusion. Instead of dogmas, or absolute beliefs, Discordians have 'catmas', which are 'relative meta-beliefs'. One of the first catmas is the Law of Fives, which states that everything is related to the number five, given enough ingenuity on the part of the interpreter.
'You will have achieved Discordian enlightenment when you realize that, while the goddess Eris and Law of Fives are not literally true, neither is anything else....There is just as much evidence of chaos and play in the universe as there is of law and order; you just have to start looking for it.' Cosmic Trigger
Here Wilson is initiated into Discordianism by Wilson and Kerry Thornley a.k.a. Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst
(Lee Ravitz). Wilson holds Eris's golden apple of discord and a hot dog, because of the catma, 'A Discordian is Required during his early Illumination to Go Off Alone & Partake Joyously of a Hot Dog on a Friday'.
Thanks to this video, you too can be initiated into Discordianism by Robert Anton Wilson himself.
'In researching occult conspiracies, one eventually faces a crossroad of mythic proportions (called Chapel Perilous in the trade). You come out the other side either a stone paranoid or an agnostic; there is no third way I came out an agnostic.' Cosmic Trigger
The journey through Chapel Perilous is dramatised in the play with the contrasting journeys of Wilson, the agnostic, and Kerry Thornley, who begins as a light-hearted prankster but descends into stone paranoia. You can read the extraordinary story of Thornley in this article, by Adam Gorightly, who gave a talk about Discordianism in Liverpool.
The play also tells the story of Ken Campbell's epic production of Illuminatus! in Liverpool in 1976. Ken was beautifully impersonated by Josh Darcy, and Daisy played her own mother, Prunella Gee, who was Eris and Mavis in the 1976 production. This led to a possibly unique theatrical event, in which Daisy re-enacted her own conception - watched by her mother who was sitting in the audience!
We saw several scenes from the play, using sets recreated from Bill Drummond's original designs. Here's Hagbard Celine (above), Discordian anarchist captain of the world's largest submarine, the Leif Erikson. He was flamboyantly played by Andrew McBean.
Daisy's 15-year old daughter, Dixie McDevitt, also had a role in Cosmic Trigger, as Robert Anton Wilson's wise daughter, Luna. The last part of the play deals with the greatest tragedy of Wilson's life, the murder of Luna in October 1976, during the course of a burglary. We see the parents' grief, and the process by which Wilson is able eventually to forgive Luna's killer.
Reality may be plural and mutable, but it is also beyond our control.
The different strands of the story were brought together in scenes in which Wilson attends the 1977 National Theatre production of Illuminatus!, and is persuaded to take part:
'The cast dared me to do a walk-on role during the National Theatre run. I agreed and became an extra in the Black Mass, where I was upstaged by the goat, who kept sneezing. Nonetheless, there I was, bare-ass naked, chanting 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law' under the patronage of Elizabeth II, Queen of England.' Cosmic Trigger
This Black Mass was re-enacted in Daisy's play, but without the sneezing goat.
The late great Ken Campbell also appeared, through the magic of Scott McPherson's wonderful animations (right), as one of the Masks of the Illuminati.
According to Wilson's wife, Arlen, seeing Illuminatus! saved Robert Anton Wilson's life. He had been a broken man following Luna's death. But after Illuminatus! he began to write again, and the first book he wrote was Cosmic Trigger, which is dedicated 'to Ken Campbell and the Science-Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, England'.
As an epilogue, the older Wilson, now using a zimmer frame because of the after-effects of his childhood polio, sums up his attitude to life in the words of the 1986 preface:
'My own opinion is that belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence. The more certitude one assumes, the less there is left to think about, and a person sure of everything would never have any need to think about anything and might be considered clinically dead under current medical standards, where absence of brain activity is taken to mean that life has ended.'
The very last scene takes place in Wilson's home in 2007. Wilson is baffled to find a cheque for $23 coming through his letter box, followed by more cheques. Searching online, he finds an appeal for funds by Douglas Rushkoff:
'Robert Anton Wilson will one day be remembered alongside such literary philosophers as Aldous Huxley and James Joyce. But right now, Bob is a human being in a rather painful fleshsuit, who needs our help. I refuse for the history books to say he died alone and destitute, for I want future generations to know we appreciated Robert Anton Wilson while he was alive.'
An avalanche of envelopes pours into the room, and Robert Anton Wilson stares at them in delighted disbelief.
Ken Campbell's mantra in directing Illuminatus! was 'But Is it heroic?' There was a real sense at Camp and Furnace, in the theatre and the bar during the two (23 minute) intervals, that we were privileged to be witnessing something truly heroic.
Above: Aleister Crowley (Tom Baker) and Wilson stand on either side of Carl Jung, who set the whole chain of synchronicity going with his 1927 dream of Liverpool.