A learned practitioner of magic gives the craft life by exposure

On Books

December 28, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

Magic's not what it used to be, in the days before television when music halls, vaudeville circuits and Earth's largest theaters could be packed by a great conjurer. But for some of us the fascination lives on. And for us comes a delightful new book -- Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear, by Jim Steinmeyer (Carroll & Graf, 384 pages, $26).

Steinmeyer is a modern master. Fascinated from childhood, he collected books, commercial tricks and then worked as an assistant to a number of established performing magicians. But "humbled by my employers' performance skills," he writes, "I quickly realized that I'd better stick to offstage operations, working in the wings or inventing and designing material that could be used by magicians in the spotlight."

He recognized that all really successful magicians were first and foremost extraordinarily gifted actors, which he felt he was not. So he concentrated on collaborating with others and has written a number of previous books, working with extraordinary thoroughness from elaborate studies of documents, published articles, autobiographies, diaries, patent filings and interviews.

He begins and ends this book by describing his own performance of a disappearing donkey act, based on a technique invented by the English master illusionist Charles Morritt (1860-1936). It had been developed further by Harry Houdini, who in 1918 made an elephant named Jennie disappear from a wagon on the stage of the Hippodrome in New York City, the source of the book's title.

The aspect of magic that he concentrates on is "optical conjuring," which, of course, is the origin of "blue smoke and mirrors" much of which played stage roles.

He writes with wit: "It's ironic that I'd spent years studying donkeys and elephants, but never ventured into the realm of political chicanery. My interests were strictly confined to the most honest type of trickery, the magician who advertises that he will deceive you and then does."

All trickery

I found the book utterly persuasive in its presentation of all "magic" as trickery. I doubt that I had thought otherwise since roughly the age of 8, but if you believe in magic -- except perhaps in the human heart -- you'll get no encouragement from Steinmeyer.

If, on the other hand, you aspire to be an amateur magician -- or a professional one -- this book could be immensely practical.

The tricks it exposes and the illusions that are disclosed can be fascinating, but the book's greatest strength is its overwhelmingly consistent insistence that it is in the theatricality that the real work of genius occurs.

"The success of a magician lies in making a human connection to the magic," Steinmeyer writes, "the precise focus that creates a fully realized illusion in the minds of the audience. ... The audience is taken by the hand and led to deceive themselves. ... 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." And he says he's not a student of politics!

It is a seriously wrought book. There are 26 diagrams, all drawn by Steinmeyer, and 30 photographs. Preceding the text is a "Cast of Characters" -- 25 established professional magicians, going well back into the 19th century and none alive today.

Of those, not many were even remotely familiar to me. Harry Houdini (1874-1926), of course, is known today -- and people who have read of him may remember the name of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), a French master known in his time as the "Father of Modern Magic," from whom Houdini took his name.

When they were active, however, all were renowned, especially in the United States, Britain and France. Each contributed some new twist to the art. Most of those innovations were mechanical -- the ingenious use of mirrors, of large plates of glass positioned to show the audience ghostly images of assistants working behind, beneath or above the stage. Many involved cabinets or containers, many large enough to hold people and animals, also arranged with mirrors and other devices that provided illusions of disappearance.

Steinmeyer carefully explains scientific technicalities. In the first example, the appearance of ghosts on London stages and later in other cities from 1862 by an invention that was perfected by a scientist and then became the device of hugely successful popular entertainment. It involves projected light, mirrors and a huge plate of glass on stage, tilted so as to show the mirror-projected image of an offstage object. I have no doubt that anyone who is interested and has the time and resources could bring it off, using only this book.

Intrigue, enchantment

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