Have Magic and Illusion Had Their Day?
Are magic and illusion entertaining? Simon Cowell doesn’t think so and judging from the sample of magic
acts which make it onto the television for the ever-popular Britain’s Got Talent show I might be tempted to
agree. I don’t want to believe that magic is just a minor branch of an outdated mode of entertainment called
Variety but this argument is certainly not new even amongst magicians.
In the 1940s an American magician called Dariel Fitzkee wrote in his book, Showmanship for Magicians, a
vitriolic attack on the performance standards demonstrated by ‘the average magician’. In it he berates the
majority of magicians for being stuck in old fashioned traditions and for their lack of presentation skills.
Fitzkee’s central idea was that the only people entertained by magic were those doing it. In his view what
makes magic palatable entertainment and saleable to the general public is the showmanship surrounding it.
Understandably, magicians who perform for the general public often disagree violently with Fitzkee’s
stance. However, his book is still reprinted today and has almost become required reading for new
generations of aspiring magical entertainers and a reference book for professional performers.
To be fair, Fitzkee was writing at a time when the entertainment world in America was in a state of
revolution caused by the rapid commercial rise of the cinema and television. Theater networks were
closing and large touring variety shows were simply no longer financially viable. Fitzkee was right to point
out that singers, comedians and spectacular dance troupes will always outsell all the other types of acts put
together. This leaves magicians and illusionists very low in the variety show pecking order along with the
plethora of other speciality acts. In my view, however, he did miss something. Magic and illusion do have
a universal appeal which evokes a strong response in most audiences. That is why it has survived as an
entertainment format up until today and, some may say, it still flourishes.
This doesn’t mean that current practitioners can be complacent. Each new batch of performers must do
their market research and deliver the goods to their audience. Modern audiences of all ages tend to be far
more technologically minded, if not scientific, in their approach to life than they used to be. Even those
individuals in an audience who wish to be known as more spiritual and intuitive in outlook rely on and are
familiar with the use of technology for both survival and leisure. Spectators are not easily convinced by
illusions and they do not suspend disbelief for magicians in the same way that they would when watching a
play or film.
Psychologically speaking, modern audiences have much in common with those of the nineteenth century at
the height of the age of reason, enlightenment and industrial exploitation. Interest in the paranormal,
spiritualism, and magic peaked during this period and this phenomenon is mirrored today. Why should this
be so? The human condition which is the basis of our response to really strong magic and illusion was
neatly summed up by an eighteenth century French Literary Hostess, Madame De Duffand, in a quote well
known to students of magic psychology. On being challenged as to her belief in ghosts and the afterlife she
replied, ‘I do not believe in ghosts but I am scared of them!’
Modern psychologists describe this tension in terms of multiple intelligences. Intellectual intelligence
demands that we are logical and rational beings and today’s sophisticated audiences do not believe in
impossible events. However, our emotional intelligence responds to seemingly impossible occurrences and
may even wish that they were true. Strong magic always evokes its response emotionally. Thus, it is the
illusionist’s challenge to give the intellect no chance to act by convincing the spectator that there is no
rational explanation for an event whilst at the same time giving the illusion as much human meaning as
possible in order to evoke an emotional response.
How do you find out what modern audiences like? Experienced producers and directors have already spent
much time and effort through research and trial and error finding out. However, they are beyond the reach
of all but a few magicians. The audience themselves will tell you but most people are very diplomatic and
polite to the performer’s face. Probably the best way to receive objective feedback is to secretly eavesdrop
on some spectators after a show. Houdini went to great lengths and rigged up the waiting room of his
home with secret microphones. This early surveillance technology helped provide him with objective
feedback and also personal information on guests attending his fake séances. Magicians ignore such
feedback at their peril and inexperienced performers do many things which weaken the impact of their
magic as an entertainment in the eyes of modern audiences.
Some magicians present their illusions simply as puzzles to be solved by the spectators if they can. This is
a mistake as puzzles have little emotional appeal for most people. A minority find them intrinsically
entertaining but a large section of the community are bored, even irritated by puzzles. Magicians who
perform for other magicians often fall into the puzzle trap. They often compound the felony in the eyes of
a normal audience by making the puzzle a challenge to the spectators’ intellect. This means that every
effect will end with a winner and a loser. The performer wins if he fools the spectator and the spectator
wins if the performer is caught out. There is no place for this approach in a professional entertainer’s
repertoire. The job of entertainment is to engage the audience and make them all feel good about
Comedy and magic can be combined powerfully but magicians can often fall between two stools and do
neither properly. Tommy Cooper was a comedy genius who used magic as a vehicle. However, Tommy
Cooper didn’t need tricks to be hilarious and could reduce a packed nightclub to tears of laughter for thirty
minutes or more using just a garden gate isolated in the middle of the stage as a prop.
Magicians who are not skilled comedians run the risk of ruining their effects with inappropriately timed
attempts at humour.
The clearest indication of what an audience likes is their reaction and final applause. The most successful
magic effects are those presented as illusions for which there can be no apparent reasonable explanation.
The presentation sets up apparent test conditions which stretch the intellect. At the same time the
performer uses narrative and dramatic devices to give the effect meaning to the observers and involve their
emotions. Comedy and Pathos; the Paranormal and Occult; Money, Sex and Romance; Conflict and
Danger and Personal Participation are amongst the universal human themes used by successful magicians
and illusionists to give their performance meaning. Magicians have to find the themes that suite their
personality, style and character and work them into their effects. When they get this right the audience
Magic like any entertainment form has to periodically re-invent itself for modern generations in order to
survive. It adapted successfully to the medium of television with a combination of intimate close-up magic
and illusions on a grand scale. In the 1980s and 90s David Copperfield filmed a series of classic TV
specials which included Vanishing the Statue of Liberty in front of a live audience and Walking Through
the Great Wall of China. These were spectacular live-time non-camera trick illusions that are still talked
about today. In the UK David Nixon and then Paul Daniels kept Magic on TV for four decades with their
long running prime-time series.
Theatrical magic has found a world headquarters along the strip in Las Vegas where there are more magic
shows to the mile than in any other place on Earth. Until their accident, Siegfried and Roy boasted the most
spectacular and successful live Vegas show of all time. The Lance Burton and Penn and Teller shows still
headline and continue to enjoy undiminished popularity in their respective hotels.
In its latest reincarnations in the USA David Blaine has taken magic and illusion back onto The Street and
made it Cool with a new young audience. In the UK Derren Browne has reignited the public interest in the
human mind and parapsychology and Uri Geller must be very thankful for the fresh approach to this area.
To conclude I need to return to Fitzkee the showman and his war on the performances given by ‘the
average magicians’. The growth in popularity of Close-Up Magic has greatly enhanced the opportunities
for amateur and hobby magicians to perform. Some do it very professionally and some do not. As a
professional entertainer, I know that I start off in the minds of the audience just as good, or bad, as the last
magician they saw. This is why Dariel Fitzkee’s message is still as relevant today as it was in 1943 for me
or any magic performer trying to elevate their act. Magic and Illusion at their best are alive and well but
approach with care!
Up Close and Magic