Issue 26 Magic Summer 2007
Edwin A. Dawes
At some time or other we have all decided that life is one long disillusionment. It is a platitude, and like all platitudes it seems that each of us discovers it anew.
The problem of the exposure of theatrical magic secrets has a long history. Reginald Scot, author in 1584 of The Discoverie of Witchcraft, the first book in the English language to explain how to perform conjuring tricks, was “sorie that it falleth out to my lot, to laie open the secrets of this mysterie, to the hindrance of such poore men as live thereby.” Practitioners during the next four centuries carefully guarded their secrets, but they were lone players and there was no guild to protect their interests, magic societies being entirely a phenomenon of the twentieth century.
The constitution of every magic society includes a central injunction forbidding its members to expose willfully the modus operandi of tricks to the lay public—transgression can lead to expulsion. However, a gray area might exist around a specific allegation, in which case the society’s ethics committee may have to adjudicate on the interpretation of the rule. An area of common contention is the publication of books and magazines. Those written expressly for the magic community serve an important pedagogical role and, even though they may occasionally circulate in the public domain, do not present a significant problem. It is books written for the general public that can create considerable dilemmas for ethics committees.
One of the greatest magic causes célèbres in Britain occurred in 1936 when the famous magician David Devant, the first president of The Magic Circle (1905-06), was asked to resign on account of his article “Illusion and Disillusion,” abstracted from his new book Secrets of My Magic and published in the December 1935 issue of the Windsor Magazine. In 1919, at the height of his career, Devant had been forced to retire due to a progressive disease that by 1936 had resulted in almost total paralysis and confined him to a wheelchair. He had authored an autobiography, My Magic Life, in 1931 and Secrets of My Magic was a sequel, explaining the magic he had invented.
In response to The Magic Circle’s request for his resignation for contravention of Rule no. 13,1 a wounded Devant defended himself in an interview published in the Sunday Express newspaper: “The tricks I had exposed were my own, so I did not think I had broken any rule. I owe it to posterity to give to the world my secrets before I die. I don’t think I shall live much longer. Exposing tricks or illusions—providing they are not someone else’s new invention—is good for the profession. It stimulates public interest in magic and forces magicians to seek new tricks rather than to stagnate with some that are centuries old. The Magic Circle seems to think that it is the mechanics of a trick that are the secrets of its success. In my view, it is only the artistry of the performer that can make it magic.”
The lack of a fixed definition of what constitutes the secrets of magic is the fundamental problem that underlies the whole debate. Explanations of mechanical devices and principles used in tricks and illusions are clearly relevant, as are techniques of sleight-of-hand, but, in support of Devant’s view, Stanley Collins, an erudite and excellent conjurer, maintained elsewhere that the true secrets of conjuring have never been written because they depend on the indefinable qualities of charisma, presentation, and showmanship, and never was that truer than of David Devant himself. Despite his stance, Collins remained firmly opposed to exposure of any kind.
In defining exposure, magic societies’ rules apply equally to the originators of tricks. As a distinguished member of The Magic Circle, Devant should have known this, especially as he had experienced a similar problem in 1910 following the publication of his series for “Tricks for Everyone” in the Royal Magazine during 1908–1909. His forced resignation created a deep division in the Circle, and he was subsequently reinstated as a member in 1912. Such was the case again in 1936, for whereas the Council decided it had no option but “with the greatest regret” to uphold its rule, the following year, when Devant had been admitted to the Royal Home for Incurables at Putney, he was elected to Honorary Life Membership, which he graciously accepted.
John Mulholland, top American magician and editor of the conjurer’s monthly The Sphinx, wrote in 1942: “Although definitely against exposure, I regretfully believe that it can never be stopped as long as substantial sums of money can be had for exposing.” If confirmation be needed, the Masked Magician, revealed as Val Valentino, who alienated himself from the magic community in 1997–1998 by exposing currently used tricks and illusions on the Fox Network, did so for a reputed $200,000. Exposure on television, a medium that through its pervasive and ambient nature can allow a viewer to stumble inadvertently across magic secrets (as opposed to the intent and curiosity required to seek out relevant material on magic to research its secrets), has thus been regarded as a very serious threat to safeguarding the heritage that the magic societies of the world seek to preserve. The distributive power of the Internet presents additional and perhaps insurmountable challenges in this regard.
Much is at stake, therefore, in how the rules around magic exposure are interpreted, not least the enduring concern, voiced by Reginald Scot, for the basic livelihood of working magicians. Equally at risk, however, are the aesthetics of the form itself, exposure being, in the words of American illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer, something of a “formula for disappointment.” If the viewer knows how a trick is done, then a fundamental link in the chain of showmanship, technical cunning, and spectatorship is broken, and the elements of surprise and mystery—the basis of the experience of theatrical magic—are lost.
Edwin A. Dawes, Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry at Hull University, UK, is an Honorary Vice-President of The Magic Circle in London, as well as the society’s Historian, its Ethics Committee chairman, and a member of the Hall of Fame of the Society of American Magicians.
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