A friend of mine once had a very lavish birthday party for which she hired a professional magician. I was a little skeptical, as I have never much enjoyed stage magic. It usually strikes me as a bit cheesy or dull, not to mention repetitive. Once you've seen one card guessed and one thing vanished, you've seen the whole show; the rest is just variations.
This guy, whose name I forget but will ETA in if I figure it out, was different. His tricks were still variations on tricks I'd seen before. But his performance was wonderful and his persona was like nothing I'd seen before. It was all based on understatement and faith in the audience to appreciate the artistry of competence and skill.
He didn't make dumb jokes or big promises. He wore a slightly old-school-looking dapper suit. He had beautiful hands and moved in the precise, no-motion-wasted, polished manner of a martial artist or open kitchen chef or Olympic gymnast. Every time he moved, you could see the thousands of hours he had to have spent doing and re-doing that exact movement until it looked effortless and was perfect. He embodied "in the moment."
I don't recall his exact tricks, though I do remember that they were clever and done with charm, sometimes funny (in an understated way), sometimes "how the hell did he do that?" We all gasped and laughed and were enchanted. But the main enchantment was watching an incredible craftsman at work. He didn't brag; he didn't have to. His skill was evident. He could have been a carpenter, and we'd have been just as blown away watching him join wood... perfectly
. And that was his persona: the craftsman.
I don't think it was an accident that he was performing for a bunch of Hollywood professionals in Los Angeles, and that he also worked at the Magic Castle, which is where magicians go to see each other perform. Whatever else you can say about Hollywood, it appreciates the effort and difficulty of making things look effortless. It was the perfect match of performer and audience, and I don't know if he, or that persona anyway, would have worked elsewhere.
I realized then that stage magic isn't about the tricks at all. It's about the performer and the performance. And the audience. All else aside, that guy's "Watch me flick one finger perfectly
" deal would have been literally impossible to do in a large arena. We were in a small room with the farthest person no more than 30 feet away from the front row. Any bigger, and you wouldn't have been able to see what made him great.
I told him afterward that he'd done the first magic show I'd enjoyed at all
, and that I'd not only enjoyed it, I'd loved it. I tried to explain why; hopefully it made sense. He did seem sincerely pleased. In an understated way.Hiding the Elephant
makes a similar point about performance and audience vs. tricks. But the book is at least 50% about the tricks. It's nonfiction on American stage magicians and their tricks in the 1800s (Houdini’s time), written by a modern designer of magic illusions who is not a performer himself. Interesting perspective, mixed execution.
He says from the start that while he’ll explain how some tricks are done, he’s not going to spill secrets on anything that hasn’t been previously detailed in print, though some of his sources are not well-known. He does, however, detail some original research he did into how Houdini made an elephant vanish onstage— a trick which impressed other magicians more than the audience, as Houdini’s showmanship as an illusionist was lousy compared with his dramatic skills as an escape artist.
Each chapter begins with him discussing some concept of magic, often couched in autobiography, which leads in to his chapter on a specific historic magician. These intros are beautifully written and fascinating. The historical material is noticeably more dryly written and often quite technical. It turns out that most magic tricks of that era were indeed done with mirrors aided by elaborate stage tech. If you care about the details, he explains many of them with diagrams and careful explications of the physics, engineering, and math which create the illusions. I read a lot of the book thinking, “Mia Lee would love this.”
If the whole book was like the chapter intros, I would have loved it too. If there had been more focus on the magicians’ personalities and the cultural factors playing into stage magic, and less on technicalities, I would have liked it more. There was a reasonable amount on the former (Houdini comes across as a real jerk), enough so that some chapters were moderately juicy reading, but ultimately the book felt much more bloodless than I expected when I began.
I suspect there are histories of that era of stage magic I would like better, but I don’t know which they are. It isn’t a subject I have that much inherent interest in. On the other hand, it did inspire me to re-watch The Prestige
, and that was every bit as good as I remembered. Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear