A Page from History: Lomaland’s Greek Theater made an ideal setting for ‘The Tempest’ in the ‘20s
“To pass over the threshold of the steps leading down into the beautiful stage ... gave one the impression of being transported from mundane things into a world created by dreams. It was to step from a cosmopolitan world to a desert island, so completely was the setting prepared.”
That was how a San Diego Union review described a contemporary production of William Shakespeare’s fantastic allegory “The Tempest.”
The year was 1926. The setting was the Greek Theater at Lomaland in Point Loma, and the production was staged by the Raja Yoga Players under the direction of Katherine Tingley. She was the leader of the Theosophical Society, originally formed in 1875 as “an unsectarian body of seekers after truth who endeavor to promote brotherhood and strive to serve humanity.”
Though “cosmopolitan” may have been a reach, San Diego in the Roaring ‘20s was no longer the sleepy and dusty little outpost it had seemed in the 1890s. Electricity, good paved roads and public transportation had become commonplace.
You may be familiar with the tale of Lomaland, the Theosophical estate established not quite 30 years earlier on the top of the peninsula.
No? Surely then you’ve heard stories about Madame Tingley, the vigorous visionary spiritualist leader who moved the headquarters of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society from New York City to a remote locale high on a hill above the Pacific Ocean — a place she had once visited ... in a dream.
The hilltop we are referring to is now home to Point Loma Nazarene University.
In 1897, Madame Tingley was able to purchase 130 acres just north of the government reservation on Point Loma, with an option to acquire an adjoining 40 more. Her plans were elaborate for any age, but with her remarkable energy and a cadre of willing and like-minded Theosophists in tow, the Lomaland community quickly began to take shape.
The first order of business was the remodeling of the just-completed Point Loma House hotel and sanitarium. The diamond-shaped structure would become known as The Homestead at Lomaland and would soon house Tingley’s unique school, the Raja Yoga Academy, where music, art and drama were integral parts of the curriculum. Construction of the beautiful Temple of Peace followed.
In summer 1901, work began on what became known as “the crest jewel of Point Loma,” the Greek Theater. The theater was the first of its kind in the United States and, many have felt, the most beautiful such theater in the world. Its setting in a natural canyon above the Pacific is hard to match.
Tingley’s own composition, “The Aroma of Athens,” was the first production staged in the Greek Theater. “Aroma” was reprised in 1911 in the first Greek Theater production open to the public and the first use of outdoor electrical stage lighting in the United States.
A production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1915 was the first Shakespearean drama performed in the Greek Theater. It was a tremendous hit and was reprised several times over the next decade, along with “As You Like It” (1917) and “Twelfth Night” (1918).
“The Tempest” in 1926 was a new production for the Raja Yoga Players. It was designed to be a blockbuster. One of the last plays composed by Shakespeare, “The Tempest” is unique in his oeuvre on several levels. The story has no literary precedent. Castaways shipwrecked on an uncharted island by a magical storm confront their foibles and treacherous inclinations, unknowingly monitored and manipulated by the benevolent magician Prospero, his diligent indentured spirit Ariel and a host of fairies, sprites, nymphs, gnomes and goblins.
The Greek Theater was an ideal venue for “The Tempest.” “Perhaps nowhere else in the world could such a scene as described by the immortal Bard of Avon be so graphically reproduced, with every detail brought out in effect so realistic,” Don Short wrote in the San Diego Union. “While the lightning and wind whistling had to be artificial on this particular night, the real trees were there and the roar of the surf of the mighty Pacific beating against Point Loma headlands are real and were heard with distinct impressiveness.”
As always, the roles in the production were filled by Lomaland residents, particularly students of the Raja Yoga academy and university. Madame Tingley never identified individual actors in her productions, preferring to shield their privacy.
“Katherine Tingley is a great dramatic director; the students of the Theosophical university under her leadership are uncommonly gifted actors,” theater critic Austin Adams declared.
The Beach News wrote: “It was a production that New York or London could not have surpassed, and it was staged right here on our own Point Loma by Point Loma students under the direction of the leader of a worldwide movement who has chosen Point Loma as her international headquarters. Truly, these facts are fraught with deep significance for the artistic future of this community.”
The Raja Yoga Players’ production of “The Tempest” was such a success that it was reprised the following year, along with another production of “The Eumenides.” Madame Tingley would again offer “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1928, the final work performed at the Greek Theater by the Raja Yoga Players. Tingley died the following year in Sweden, shortly after being involved in a serious auto wreck in Germany.
With the demise of its leader, coupled with the stock market crash later in 1929, times became increasingly tough for the Theosophical community at Lomaland. Musical and theatrical productions were abandoned as the organization shuffled its priorities and had to sell its properties to satisfy creditors. The Raja Yoga school continued to operate through the 1930s, but by the early 1940s, the group had moved its base to more affordable digs in Covina.
The beautiful buildings at Lomaland fell into disrepair and the community became a thing of the past. Yet the Greek Theater remains, as magical a venue as ever, little used in recent times.
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). OBHS board member Kitty McDaniel contributed to this article.