T.A. Waters – Columnist: T.A. Waters

T.A. Waters

ON THE WATERS FRONT a column of information and opinion by T. A. Waters THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS COLUMN ARE THOSE OF THE WRITER, AND MAY NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE STEVENS MAGIC EMPORIUM OR GEMINI. Column Five: UNSYMPATHETIC MAGIC As regular readers of this column will have gathered by now, it does not appear on a regular basis. Here, courtesy of the beneficence of Joe and Amy, I can write when divinely (or otherwise) inspired, rather than to a deadline.

When I read Neale and Burger’s MAGIC AND MEANING, it offered a good deal of food for thought and speculation — but I didn’t get a focus on how to approach the subject until I perused Mr. Racherbaumer’s most recent GeMiNi column, the first part of which is devoted to a certain public hostility to magic. Since Jon’s column began with a couple of quotes, I can do no less: “The more a trick serves a real need, the less the concern of both audience and performer about deception.” — Robert Neale “Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?” — Joseph Butler So much for divine inspiration, from a divine and a theologian born two centuries apart. It is not accidental that people of these intellectual pursuits should be concerned with trickery; deception is often used to create an illusion of the impossible, and the existence of an impossible phenomenon implies the existence of Powers and Entities not bound by natural law.

There will, however, be no discussion of gospel magic in this column. Some time ago, in posts to this board, I recounted the answer given to me by a young woman who hated magic, when I asked her why: “I don’t like being lied to.”

When she looked at a magician, that was all she could see: someone telling her a box was empty when it wasn’t — someone saying a card was lost in the deck when it wasn’t — and so on; to her it was an endless litany of lies and — importantly — nothing BUT lies. As there are some laypersons who have a deep- seated hostility toward magic, so there are an appreciable number of magicians who have not just hostility but open anger toward mentalists. This may sometimes be exacerbated by actually performing a mentalism or mental magic piece — if it goes badly, it affirms their feeling that mental stuff is not entertaining, and if it goes well the rage is directed toward the audience for “….going gaga over that dumb slate trick that anybody could do, more than the card stuff and the floating ball I’ve been working on for years!” (And, yes, as well as I can remember it after seven or eight years, that’s a direct quote — it WAS a dumb slate trick, too.) But why DID the audience react that way? Why didn’t the woman mentioned earlier have the same repelled reaction when she read a novel or went to a movie, or for that matter heard a romantic song lyric? These are, after all, as much a fiction as any Ace Assembly; often as untrue as any Floating Lady or Flying Gentleman; as much a deception as the fluttering dove transmuted into fluttering silken scarf.

Well — when was the last time you heard someone complain about the STAR WARS trilogy on the grounds that there really aren’t spaceships like the ones piloted by Solo and Skywalker? It may sound like a more than ordinarily stupid question, but the implication of the answer — probably never — is far from trivial. You see, the reactions of magicians to mentalism and the reactions of laypersons to magic are very much of a piece: the magician watches mentalism for the ‘trick’ aspect — and since often the technique of mentalism is very simple, thinks “But there’s nothing TO this.” In the same way, the layperson looks at magic and, because it seems to have no purpose or relevance except as a puzzle, thinks “But there’s nothing TO this.” What we’re talking about here is subtext — a sense of meaning beyond the immediate experience. We listen to Bonnie Raitt and Gloria Estefan sing to us of their broken hearts and unhappy loves — and while we may know that both women are happily married, we don’t perceive them as lying to us; we perceive them as creating what may be, specifically, a fiction, to express a human and universal truth. Heartbreak happens, and when it does it means something to us.

What’s the subtext of magic? All too often it is “I can do something you can’t — I know something you don’t…” — or, more succinctly, “I’m smart, you’re stupid. Here, I’ll do it again, see? I’m still smart, you’re still stupid.” Who WOULDN’T be hostile to a message like that?

Magicians tell me that they don’t intend to give this message, that all they intend to do is some nice magic with some amusing lines. Well — as the oft misquoted line goes — “…the streets of hell are paved with good intentions.” It doesn’t MATTER what’s intended: what happens is that the human mind tries to find meaning in events, and if magicians don’t provide meaning beyond “I’m smart, you’re stupid,” then that is the meaning that will be perceived by the spectators.

If you subtract meaning from magic, what you’re left with is a puzzle; nothing more.

Remember my question, a couple of paragraphs back, about STAR WARS? Here’s something I said in 1985, in the Introduction to FYNYS:

…In the past few years we have seen a number of multi-million dollar productions, packed from first frame to last with spectacular visual effects, go right into the dumper — to the very great puzzlement of the executives. How could it happen? Didn’t the STAR WARS films make big bucks because of their special effects?


“The STAR WARS trilogy was successful because it was, at base, a mythic fairy tale, a story that people have responded to for thousands of years. Now, the technical virtuosity of those film effects was critical to the success of the films in that they made the setting of the story believable; once the viewer had bought that premise, however, the effects faded into the background and the story took over.”

And to belabor the obvious: only a very few of us are likely to get involved in an intergalactic war, or save a princess — but we know what it’s like to leave home to seek out our destiny, and want to believe we will battle for what we believe in — and that’s what STAR WARS is really about. It isn’t about spaceships or laser swords or exploding planets; it’s about love and honor and friendship and duty — not, ideally, notions confined only to fantasy.

One more point about STAR WARS; in the mid- 1980’s a production of the trilogy was done on National Public Radio. It was hugely successful — and while it did have a built-in audience of people who were fans of the films, anyone could rent or buy the videos, so why would they want to just sit there and listen? Who knows? Maybe they liked the story.

“The magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.”

Really? Doesn’t seem like that to me, most of the time. It seems like some guy — or girl — onstage, telling hackneyed and unfunny jokes and doing hackneyed and unmystifying magic. They act as though the spectators should be impressed because they make the assistant vanish from the box — but most of the spectators have the sense that if they had the box they could make the assistant vanish too — and, often as not, they’re right.

What’s happened here? The would-be performer bought some props — maybe looked in some old Orben books for lines, maybe used the lines in the instructions, often used lines he’d heard other magicians using. He got up on stage and operated the prop and spouted the lines and thought that he was a performer, a magician…

…but, as David Berglas points out: “He hasn’t done ANYTHING. The person who created the trick — the one who wrote the instructions and patter — the one who built the prop — THEY did something. All this person has done is DEMONSTRATED it — which isn’t good enough.”

Mr. Berglas is right; it ISN’T good enough. Unfortunately, though, much of the time it’s as good as it gets. But you know what? When Robert-Houdin told us a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician — he was RIGHT. We’ve all seen film and stage actors portray magicians, and be more convincing in the role than “real” magicians who have been doing it for decades; might this not be because they actually ARE “actors playing the part of magicians” — rather than simply giving lip service to an old saying without even trying to understand it?

For an actor to play a part, however, there have to be at least two elements present:

First — the actor has to have the requisite skills, i.e., he or she has to be trained in the many aspects of acting technique.

Second — there has to be a specific part to play; it can’t just be ‘generic magician.’ This would be true if the character of the magician were just one of several in a production; if, as in a magic show, the magician is the CENTRAL character, it is crucial.

Imagine you’re the director — you approach our hypothetical actor and say, “All right, you’ll be playing the magician.”

“What sort of person is he?” inquires our actor. “What’s his story?”

“You know, just your standard magician.”

Let’s suppose the actor doesn’t walk at this point — but instead tries again: “Well — what happens to the magician? How does he change? How does he affect the other people on stage, or touch the audience?”

“He just does his magic, fools the people,” you respond. If the actor has half a brain, by this time he’s headed out the door. Like most actors, he may be desperate for any kind of a role — but you haven’t offered him one; you haven’t offered him anything. Let’s get down to cases: it is not necessary for magic — or what, for convenience’s sake, we’ll agree to call a part of magic — to have subtext. It is perfectly possible for a performer to go out and do Trick A, Trick B, Trick C…straight to L, and then off the stage — just like the juggler, or the dog act, or the tumblers. The magician is just one more novelty act, like the others simply performing to prove he can do it — and the audience can take it or leave it, like it as meaningless eye candy or hate it as lies told with lacquered boxes.

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of magic; I mean that sincerely. There are some great novelty acts with magic as their basis.

There’s also nothing wrong with using a computer as a paperweight — but in so doing, one may miss out on its other potentials. Let’s take a look at three people who have changed the face of magic — one in the not-all-that distant past, and two of the present. DOUG HENNING: While there were many magicians who “kept the torch aloft” for the three decades following WW2, magic was not generally viewed in a positive light in show-business circles. I think a strong argument can be made that the resurgence of magic as a viable part of theatrical entertainment dates pretty directly from the opening of THE MAGIC SHOW on Broadway. Why did Doug succeed, the first to do so since Dante in 1940? Was it because of the songs and dances? Most reviewers agreed they were pretty lame. Was it because of Doug’s wardrobe and long hair? I don’t THINK so; by the mid-70s the Flower Generation was in full wilt and, if anything, his peace-and-love hippie image should have worked against him. Was it the magic itself? A lot of it was new to the reviewers, but it was not so radically different as to account for the success of the show.

What are we left with? Why, it would seem that we’re left with Doug himself, and the way he presented the magic. Was the subtext “I’m smart, you’re stupid”…? No — not at all, nor was it “I’m terrific, I’m wonderful.”

It was “MAGIC is terrific, MAGIC is wonderful”– and it was a subtext that Doug was able to get across to his audiences because he believed it completely. They responded to this; they might think he dressed funny, sometimes acted a little goofy, maybe said “Woo!” a few times too many — but they loved Doug Henning, and they made him a star. DAVID COPPERFIELD: It is easy to pick on David — sometimes he makes it too easy — but if we take a look at someone who may well be the best known magician since Houdini’s time, certainly the most successful, having made millions way up in the double digits, not to mention Claudia — it’s just barely possible that this guy might have a little something on the ball.

The defining thing about David’s stardom now is that his audience does NOT consist of ‘magic fans’ — if that were the limit of his appeal, he’d be no more than a minor celebrity at best. The people who sit in the seats at his shows are David Copperfield fans; for most of them, he’s the only magician they have any interest in seeing.

David has said in many interviews that he was not inspired by other magicians, but by Broadway and film musicals and other theatrical experiences. A look at his touring show or any of his television specials will show that this is not just phrase-making; what we see is NOT someone performing an illusion with some nice rock music in the background and a bit of choreography — we see a production number with the elements of dance and music and lighting fully integrated to achieve the maximum possible effect from the illusion, and the strongest possible image for David.

It is fashionable in some circles to denigrate David as an “MTV magician” — or as “a rock star wannabee.” I got news for you: he not a wannabee — he a IS. His vehicle may be magic rather than music, but he’s more of a rock star than a lot of musicians.

What’s the subtext of a lot of David’s magic? I guess the simplest formulation would be “magic is sex.” Whatever you may think of that subtext, you have to admit it might have a broader general appeal than “I’m smart, you’re stupid.” RICKY JAY: When RICKY JAY AND HIS 52 ASSISTANTS opened in New York last year, it received perhaps the most uniformly sensational reviews of any magic show in history. There were a lot of us who’d always thought that Mr. Jay was pretty good — but still it was little short of astounding to see so many lay reviewers, some with a stated antipathy to magic, stumbling all over their typers in search of the laudatory adjectives they needed to describe his show.

What did he do to get this kind of reaction?

He did some highly skillful card magic and he talked a lot.

Hmm…maybe there was a little more to it than that; maybe it was a lifetime in magic and a knowledge of its history that allowed Ricky to stand and deliver a sense of the mystery and fascination of magic — to create with words a pageant so glittering and colorful that no one cared to look for secrets and methods. There were many subtexts in Ricky’s show, from that of the artist striving to perfect his art, to the respect and love one has for the teachers of the art. This was meaning to which any intelligent person could respond, and could inspire Time Magazine to call it “…the smartest show in town.”

Smart indeed; and never making the audience feel stupid. In talking about these three gentleman, as in the rest of the column, I have deliberately avoided two general areas — comedy, and “story magic.” Certainly there are or have been elements of both of these in the shows of all three; indeed, David has at times gone so far along this line that his story sequences should have been prefaced with warning labels for diabetics. Doug’s presentations and his manner were both so lighthearted that there always seemed to be a comic aspect present. Ricky’s storytelling ability was the central part of his show, but it was done in a very different context than what is usually thought of as “story” magic.

Comedy and story magic are subjects for an entire column, and this one is already running long; onward. The point (finally) is this: Doug Henning, David Copperfield and Ricky Jay are as disparate a trio of stage magicians as could be imagined, but they all have two things in common.

The first is that they offered their audiences an alternative subtext to “I’m smart, you’re stupid.”

The second is that they are, in their various ways, the three most successful magicians of modern times. Ah, well. Maybe it’s just one of those funny coincidences. T. A. WATERS

Copyright (c) 1995 by T. A. Waters. All rights reserved.