Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Hiding the Elephant - A review

Hiding the Elephant, by Jim Steinmeyer

Jim Steinmeyer has provided a very entertaining look at the history of stage magic from the early nineteenth century to the 1930s. This was one of the art’s golden ages – we are arguably living through another, though after reading Hiding the Elephant one might be forgiven for thinking it is in large part derivative of past achievements – and he gives us a lovingly crafted (and crafty) look at the personalities and some of their tricks.

His structuring device is Harry Houdini making an elephant vanish on the stage of New York's Hippodrome Theatre in 1918. It’s one of the most famous acts in the history of magic, but was received with general indifference by those who saw him perform it; the only people who could appreciate it were those sitting directly in front, which was a tiny proportion of the audience. Nevertheless it has intrigued magicians ever since. The author has investigated and puts forward his theory of how Houdini did it at the end of the book, along with a description of his own effort at doing the same with a rather more compact donkey.

While we are waiting for that, we are treated to a history of magicians and their cunning. Steinmeyer is as much interested in the personalities of the magicians who turned magic into an art form as he is in the technology, and gives a flavour of the intrigues behind the development of some of the greatest tricks, the schemes and professional jealousies, friendships and rivalries, the thefts of ideas and sometimes equipment, and despite all that a sense of camaraderie among fellow professionals.

The book’s scope is ambitious, and an extensive cast of larger-than-life characters parades through it. The dramatis personae are listed at the front, with pen portraits, and this is the first indication that this is going to be a complicated story, with names such as Goldin, Goldston and Thurston, Hermann and Kellar, to keep straight.

He covers well-known figures such as the Maskelyne dynasty and David Devant at Egyptian Hall, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, mainly remembered because Houdini borrowed his name, and Georges Méliès, known today as a film pioneer, and who makes a very brief walk-on appearance (it has to be said that the book’s focus is mostly Anglo-American). Others are undeservedly obscure, such as Charles Morritt and P T Selbit, and Steinmeyer provides a valuable service in bringing the achievements of a range of lesser-known performers to a wider audience.

To add to the complexity, Steinmeyer generally analyses the technical aspects of the tricks with just enough information to convey a sense of the mechanics, but descriptions can get quite complicated, even with the aid of line drawings. The chapters are choppy, with individuals, perhaps appropriately but not always elegantly, appearing and disappearing from the narrative, which never spends too much time on any one before going on to the next, and then back again often over several chapters. While written in a clear style for the general reader, it does help to have some background knowledge of the subject already. Yet despite the stylistic infelicities Steinmeyer has a good sense of momentum, keeping the reader wanting to know the secret of whatever he happens to be discussing.

Not least we get a sense of the stresses involved in having constantly to find the next big thing, while at the same time Steinmeyer shows how themes could be endlessly recycled, a vivid demonstration that still-drinkable old wine could be put in shiny new bottles. The emphasis is not so much on the mechanics but the presentation and showmanship of the performer, that is, it’s not about the idea of the trick as much as what you do with it. And some tricks were amazing, whether small or large scale: sawing a woman in half or levitating her for example.

A motif running through the book is the versatility of glass. In the nineteenth century, competing magicians combined advances in optics with mirrors that permitted people to disappear, or "ghosts" to appear, combining the art and science of reflected images to create attractions such as Pepper's Ghost, Proteus, the Oracle of Delphi and the Sphinx. As the cliché indicates, they really did do it with mirrors, though sometimes wires came in handy. One marvels at the ingenuity and leaps of imagination which some of these devices required for their conceptualisation and development.

The methods were often cruder though. The Davenport Brothers took advantage of the popularity of Spiritualism, touring with a ‘séance’ cabinet, and their strength was the ambiguity of their act. Steinmeyer looks at their career in terms of magic rather than the physical phenomena of Spiritualism, and finds that actually they weren’t that good because they did too much: by showing themselves untied they undermined their own illusion. It is ironic that Houdini, scourge of mediums, should seek out the aged Ira Davenport, and in his 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits exclude the Davenports from his general blasts against the purveyors of the paranormal, even though Ira and brother William had capitalised on it.

It is sad that so many of the artists so lovingly describes have been eclipsed by the myth created by Houdini‘s tireless self-promotion. In their own time Howard Thurston was as famous, but is largely forgotten today outside specialist circles. Houdini was a remarkable personality, but in terms of magical ingenuity and presentation he was not in the first rank – he was a great escape artist but a poor stage magician, and this is not a flattering portrait of him. Steinmeyer, though, clearly has a huge affection for most of those he covers, for all their personal frailties.

As one of the world's leading designers of stage illusions, Steinmeyer writes from a fund of practical experience, which gives his account not only the evocative warmth of a fellow professional, but also a practical appreciation that would be lost if the book had been written by an armchair theoretician. He too has confronted logistical problems and overcome them, and so has an insider’s understanding.

He also provides a little of the philosophy of magic, describing what distinguishes a good trick from a bad one. The result is an engaging and accessible (as far as possible given that some of the tricks are pretty mind-bending) guide showing “How magicians invented the impossible” – or at least gave the impression they had, which is truly magic.

Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible, by Jim Steinmeyer, London: William Heinnemann, 2003.