Thursday, December 3, 2009


Magicians guard an empty safe.

In fact there are few secrets they possess that are beyond the capacity of a high-school science class, little technology more complex than a rubber band, a square of mirrored glass, or a length of thread: When an audience learns how its done, they quickly dismiss the art: "Is that all it is?"

The real art is how the rubber band is handled with the finesse of a jewel cutter, how the mirror is used or concealed precisely, how a masterful performer can hint at impossibilities that are consummated with only a piece of thread. Magicians understand the careful interactions of secret and performance and have learned to appreciate the art for these subtleties. But casual observers, eager to diagnose the gimmick, or solve the deception, focus on the uninteresting part and are quickly disappointed, the same way that one can always turn to the final pages of a mystery novel.

The success of a magician lies in the making of a human connection to the magic, the precise focus that creates a fully realised illusion in the minds of an audience. the simple explanation is that seldom do the crude gimmicks in a magic show - those mirrors, threads or rubber bands - deceive people. The audience is taken by the hand and led to deceive themselves.

Jean Robert-Houdin was famous for the opinion that a magician is actually just "an actor playing the part of a magician". It was an especially important decision in separating the loud mountebanks on the street corner making balls appear and disappear beneath three metal cups from Robert-Houdin's elegant Parisian deceptions. Today it servers to remind us that a magic show is a piece of theatre, and the Frenchman's analogy can be extended: A magic effect is a short play that simulates a supernatural occurrence. Like any real play there are characters and a developing plot. There is a progression, or an arc, to the action. There is a surprise and a resolution, which not only completes the audience's expectations, but builds upon them.

Just as no actor would attempt to walk on a stage, instantly begin crying, and expect to move an audience to tears, no real magician thinks that a performance consists of flapping an Inverness cape and - poof! - causing a lady to disappear. It only works that way in comic books. A great magic performance consists of a collection of tiny lies, in words and deeds, that are stacked and arranged ingeniously to form the battlement for an illusion. It's a delicate battle of wits - an audience that welcomes being deceived, then dares to be fooled, alternately questioning, prodding and surrendering. A great magician always seems to play catch-up to their thoughts but secretly must stay two steps ahead - not only solicitous and anticipating, but suggesting.

Hiding The Elephant

How Magicians Invented the Impossible

Jim Stein Meyer

Arrow Books 2005

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