A fair few of you may not have heard of Robert Anton Wilson. This is tragic. A fair few of you may have heard of people influenced by Robert Anton Wilson. This is not so tragic. We’ve all read at least one comic by some guys called Alan Moore or Grant Morrison right? Some of us of a certain age – my age – may even have heard of a short lived band from the Rave era called KLF.
Bob’s legacy is on closer scrutiny, a reasonably large and varied one, and yet the man himself, his life,and his works seem relatively obscured in a dwindling counterculture. Again this is tragic. Particularly now, when Bob is as relevant now as he ever was. Moore’s cerebral comic book musings and dabblings in magic? No doubt encouraged by Bob’s own experiments and his unwavering sense of model agnosticism. Morrison’s dabblings in the occult and his often kooky and utopian outlook? Again Bob’s experiments in consciousness expansion which reinforced his own indefatigable optimism. The climate of current affairs you could say is lifted off the pages of his and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus Trilogy.
I wrote before of Grant Morrison’s writing being a medicine. Taking that analogy Bob’s writing is the codeine to Grant’s ibuprofen. I myself first encountered Bob through Grant when I read The Invisibles and looked into its influences nearly twenty years ago. At the time I was undergoing a sort of nervous breakdown, which I grew to interpret as a form of shamanic initiation. Imagine my joy upon reading Bob write about his similar journey through what he called Chapel Perilous. Experiences like that can have a profoundly isolating, and therefore unhealthy, effect on an individual. Finding someone who has not only walked the same path but is able to write about it without swallowing wholesale, and therefore spouting, obscure mysticism or frigid dogma really is a rare and beautiful thing.
Bob and synchronicity go hand in hand. About a year ago I was listening to Ken Campbell’s Illuminatus Trilogy audio adaptation. Somehow I stumbled on a link to a video of an event celebrating Bob’s life. The second half of the evening featured Daisy Eris Campbell, daughter of Ken whose own life is deeply enmeshed with Bob’s. Daisy was conceived backstage during her father’s staging of the Illuminatus Trilogy. In tribute to both Bob and her father Daisy was adapting Cosmic Trigger for the stage. Bob wrote fiction and nonfiction alike and Cosmic Trigger is one of the most heartfelt works of the latter category I have ever read.
Daisy previewed a few scenes as part of that talk and it was clear even then that the play, and of course the players, would not only document Bob’s journey toward, through and out the other side of Chapel Perilous. They would do so with as much warmth, humour and ingenuity as Bob did living and writing it. Then Daisy asked us whether Bob had touched our lives? Yes I thought to myself. Could we pledge towards making Cosmic Trigger a reality if he did? Of course I did not hesitate in finding Daisy on Twitter and pledging even before any real crowdfunding plans had been made concrete. Time passed and the play became an event, a happening, a convention of sorts to be held in Liverpool, the Pool of Life as Jung called it.
Alan Moore gave a fifty minute interview on Bob and his works and this was distributed, amongst other items, as a reward to those who funded via Indiegogo. That however would not be the end of Moore’s involvement in the play.
Fast forward then to the 28th of November 2014. Overcoming a sense of mild agoraphobia, I dragged myself to the Lost theatre in London to see the finished work. Like one of the protagonists in the Illuminatus Trilogy I was filled with sense of curious trepidation. I didn’t know what lay ahead but I knew I, and the existential angst of the last few days, would be transmuted. As I, and around a hundred affable others, took our seats, the excitement became almost tangible. Moore’s voice boomed into hearing narrating to us the descent of Ishtar into the underworld. Here was a pocket of people. All of us audience, cast and crew alike united by Bob. This unspoken bond between us all was an integral part of the play. Characters moved through the audience and the audience themselves became part of the production. The blurring of boundaries was accentuated as real incense, sage smudges and various other kinds of herb were burned throughout the course of the show.
The book and to some degree the play are Bob’s account of the weird turns his life took before, after and during the writing of the Illuminatus Trilogy. His Discordian initiation, his meeting with Timothy Leary, his experiments with Crowleyean ritual and yoga, all the various paradigm shifts he undertakes. The most powerful parts of the book and consequently the play come towards the end when his daughter is brutally murdered. This was a part of the book I had forgotten until Luna appeared at the beginning of the play. A flash of remembering coupled with my own joys and fears as a father almost brought the tears that were eventually shed in the final act.
Oliver Senton’s portrayal of Bob, his humour, his untimely grief and its eventual overcoming all accentuated the power of Bob’s outlook on life. So easily like so many of us Bob could have lapsed into empty apathy but he carried on. As the play shows Bob outlived many of the counterculture icons who also just happened to be his friends. Under the rigours of solitude, old age and lifelong pain due to childhood polio he remained good humoured, and curious until the end. The play imbues us with this positive energy as much as any of Bob’s books, essays or lectures.
Additionally Cosmic Trigger is a fine example of why theatre is such a unique and valuable form of art and entertainment: actors in multiple roles, living set pieces, musical numbers, and that ever shifting boundary between the viewer and the viewed. When adapting a book like Cosmic Trigger all of these elements help to not only enliven Bob’s account of his experiments in conspiracy, magic and futurism but also to accentuate the almost mythic surrealism these things bring into one’s life. Furthermore it helps to accentuate Bob’s overall message. Life should be fun, life should be an adventure, life should be magic, and any obstacle no matter how insurmountable it may seem is helpless before endeavor, intelligence, and love.