Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations

Stage Hypnosis in the Shadow of Svengali: Historical Influences, Public Perceptions, and Contemporary Practices

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Lesa Lockford (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Ronald Shields (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Scott Magelsson (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Richard Anderson (Committee Member)


This dissertation examines stage hypnosis as a contemporary popular entertainment form and investigates the relationship between public perceptions of stage hypnosis and the ways in which it is experienced and practiced. Heretofore, little scholarly attention has been paid to stage hypnosis as a performance phenomenon; most existing scholarship provides psychological or historical perspectives.

In this investigation, I employ qualitative research methodologies including close reading, personal interviews, and participant-observation, in order to explore three questions. First, what is stage hypnosis? To answer this, I use examples from performances and from guidebooks for stage hypnotists to describe structural and performance conventions of stage hypnosis shows and to identify some similarities with shortform improvisational comedy. Second, what are some common public perceptions about stage hypnosis? To answer this, I analyze historical narratives, literary and dramatic works, film, television, and digital media. I identify nine common beliefs about hypnosis and stage hypnosis, and I argue that the Svengali archetype, introduced in George du Maurier’s1894 novel, Trilby, may have helped shape such perceptions. Third, does the relationship between contemporary practice and public perceptions matter to stage hypnosis as a performance phenomenon? To answer this, I interview volunteer performers and stage hypnotists and analyze my experiences as an audience member and volunteer performer, to determine how differences between perceptions and practices might influence the ways in which stage hypnosis is experienced and/or performed.

In general, my findings suggest several things. Prior perceptions about stage hypnosis did not correlate with interviewees’ perceptions about their ability to become hypnotized or with their ability to participate in performances. Their prior perceptions did appear to influence their affective experiences of their performances, however; when their experiences did not match their expectations, disappointment, confusion, and/or discomfort often ensued. Furthermore, my research suggests that as a performance event, stage hypnosis forges a contract with the audience which implies that what is presented on stage is real and that the volunteers’ behavior is caused by hypnosis. Thus, certain performance conventions seem to both reinforce and perpetuate audience expectations in order to create an entertaining event.