Dr Dee

Last Friday evening, after my afternoon shift at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, I took the chance to go and see something a bit different, in the shape of English National Opera’s production of  Dr Dee at the Coliseum. I hadn’t really known what to expect of this beforehand, actually, but needed to find a bit of distraction in London and was fortunately able to persuade my lovely friends Joao and Kim to come with me to try it out.

Dr Dee is based on the life of John Dee, the famous Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer, courtier, and spymaster. Written by Mr Damon Albarn, former lead singer of the popular beat combo Blur, it’s not exactly an opera but more of a renaissance-style pageant depicting the life of this mysterious character in a series of dramatic tableaux. Not being at all naturalistic in style it would have been quite difficult to follow what was going on without the programme notes, but each episode was brilliantly realised with dramatic staging, dancing and stunning visual effects. Rufus Norris was responsible for the overall direction of the piece. Hat’s off to him. I wasn’t really expecting the music to be so interesting, either; mixing pop vocals with orchestral music from the period could have been awful, but actually I warmed to it very quickly.

An influential polymath, Dee was, for a time, a trusted confidante of Elizabeth I and he was recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham to set up a network of informants and decipher Catholic codes in the build-up to the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada. Dee is also purported to be the inspiration behind Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. What’s particularly interesting about him from an historical perspective is that lies at the crossroads between magic and science. A gifted mathematician, Dee developed an obsession for the occult after meeting a very dodgy character called Edward Kelly, who persuaded Dee that he could talk to angels in their own language with the help of a crystal ball, a technique known as scrying. Dee eventually went mad and was alienated not only from Elizabethan society but also from his own family. Had he lived at a slightly different time, he could well have ended up burned as a heretic. His story reminds us that the distinction between rationality and irrationality has not always been so clear. Alchemy and the occult could co-exist in many great minds alongside mathematics and empirical study so it should not surprise us that science and pseudoscience both seem able to thrive in modern culture.

The run of Dr Dee at ENO has now ended, but I’m definitely glad I plucked up the courage to go and see it. It’s a truly imaginative work and produced a memorable theatrical experience.

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5 Responses to “Dr Dee”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Coincidentally, I attended a performance at the English National Opera around a week earlier, but in my case it was Britten’s Billy Budd, which I found absolutely excellent.

    Really excellent.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’ll add that I’ve always found John Dee a really odd figure. He was a polymath of prodigious talents who mastered a wide range of academic disciplines that included mathematics, that branch of philosophy we today call science, geography, history and languages. Yet he had no critical judgement. He failed to distinguish between truth and fantasy. As a consequence, he wasted his time and talents on alchemy, astrology, spiritualism and the occult. He could have achieved great things, but chose instead to embrace what from our modern perspective seems like silliness.

    There are, however, a few of his activities that are worthy of respect. He assembled an excellent collection of books and manuscripts – one of the largest private libraries in England at the time – and some of the collection has survived. He also campaigned for the establishment of a national library for England which could have rescued many of those manuscripts that had survived the dissolution of the monasteries and were then still in circulation; that idea was not adopted by Queen Mary and many manuscripts were sadly lost.

    • “He was a polymath of prodigious talents who mastered a wide range of academic disciplines that included mathematics, that branch of philosophy we today call science, geography, history and languages. Yet he had no critical judgement. He failed to distinguish between truth and fantasy. As a consequence, he wasted his time and talents on alchemy, astrology, spiritualism and the occult. He could have achieved great things, but chose instead to embrace what from our modern perspective seems like silliness.”

      Sounds like Newton, except that Newton achieved great things. I think Newton wrote much more on religious, esoteric and occult topics than he did on science and maths.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, Newton did a lot of speculative work on alchemy and on minority religious issues, though his writing was mostly kept personal and was not published. Dee, however, spent a lot of his time on astrology and spiritualism.

      Perhaps we could describe alchemy as being chemistry without any understanding.

      Newton and Dee were born 115 years apart. How much the difference between them was due to Newton’s much better critical facilities and how much was caused by the growth of sceptical thinking in wider society over that time is unclear. I suspect both factors were very important.

      • Perhaps less of Newton’s science would have been published if people such as Halley hadn’t encouraged him to publish stuff.

        I agree: probably both the general move away from mysticism (still not completed today, of course) and Newton’s superior faculties.

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