The surprising history of magic
With the rich history of theatre and performance in London – and in the West End in particular – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the magic show has flourished here. The transition from debunking witchcraft to becoming a beloved form of entertainment is an interesting one. Who better to explain a little more about the city’s magic history than our new Insider, magician James Pritchard.
What’s the enduring appeal of magic?
I think mostly it’s the fact that people love being surprised. The thing with magic is that it invites you to suspend disbelief and witness something you can’t quite explain. It’s a bit like being a kid again – there’s a real sense of wonder and excitement in not knowing what’s going to happen or not understanding something you’ve seen.
It works the other way too – as a magician, there’s an endless fascination with creating an illusion that’s compelling enough so people don’t see through it.
It sounds like from the magician’s point of view there’s a great deal of intellectual curiosity that’s required…
I think there’s a lot of that, and I also think this very much explains its roots in the modern era. It’s interesting that when magic really started to have more of a universal appeal in the 19th century, a lot of those magicians were also scientists and engineers. There’s a very methodical process you have to go through when you’re developing a new trick – you’re looking for a solution to a problem. What people see as this impossible-looking thing has to be reverse engineered. You need a real problem-solving mind to achieve those kinds of things.
Some magicians came to magic as a means to debunk pseudo-psychics and self-proclaimed Spiritualists in the Victorian period. This approach – as a debunker rather than an entertainer – went back even further than that. The first real book on Magic was written by a chap called Reginald Scot and was called The Discoverie of Witchcraft, in 1584. It was actually written to expose the tricks that witch hunters used to entrap women thought to be witches.
How did they do that?
Mainly by explaining the techniques that these charlatans used to ‘discover’ witches. One thing these witch-hunters did, for example, was using a kind of spike with a handle and saying that if they stabbed a woman suspected of witchcraft with this weapon and she remained unharmed, she must have been a witch. Of course they were using a version of those knives with retractable blades that you often find in kids’ magic shops, but until this was exposed and explained, that kind of spectacle must have seemed quite compelling.
So magicians weren’t so much entertainers as much as literal life-savers?
How about the increased popularity in the Victorian era? That was when magic-as-entertainment really took off, wasn’t it?
Yes. Magic has this ability to adapt to other trends – there was definitely a fascination with using magic as a way of debunking the Spiritualists, who used a wide range of psychological tricks to convince the audience they had a supernatural gift. It’s actually a really interesting process to look at – and magic in the mind-reading context is one of the forms which is still very popular today. Derren Brown, for example, is particularly well-known for this. Speaking from personal experience, whilst people enjoy magic tricks when I do magic performances, it’s when I get into mind reading magic that people are really intrigued. I think very few people would believe that I have the power to make matter dematerialise and appear somewhere else, but with matters of the mind, audiences are still completely beguiled by it.
Would you say that magic really captures the imagination when it pushes the limits of what’s on the cusp of being unknowable?
To a certain extent, yes. Houdini was an interesting example, actually. He’s so well-known now, but by all accounts he was initially a fairly average magician until he developed his escapology routines. That’s really when his fame went stratospheric and he became a real superstar. I think in that case, what he was doing was also a kind of escapism for a lot of people. Life was particularly hard then, and this man escaping anything and everything was liberating. The idea that he wasn’t bound by the hardship of normal life and could escape, was exactly the kind of entertainment that people flocked to see.
Magic’s all about trying to achieve the impossible and you may not get there, but you push the boundaries in the process and I think that’s what people love about it.
That period must have seemed extraordinary – the first movies were around that time also, weren’t they? They must have seemed unworldly…
Exactly, and one of those early filmmakers – Georges Méliès – who created that iconic sequence of a spaceship crashing into the moon’s face was also a magician. He was an early pioneer of film special effects and had that kind of enquiring mind that made those seemingly impossible feats a reality. It’s all about pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and I find it fascinating to see those boundaries being pushed. The results are often amazing like in the case of the moving pictures industry – look what that’s become.
So is Magic something that’s in vogue at the moment?
People have been saying for years that because we’re in this age of science and reason, magic’s days are numbered. It’s certainly had its ups and downs – magic shows of the 1980s with people like Paul Daniels became deeply unfashionable – but all it takes is someone to come along and do something completely different and then its star rises again.
Right now magic’s pretty hot – along with Derren Brown, people like Dynamo and David Blaine have helped peak people’s interest, and of course a magician has just won Britain’s Got Talent! The difference now is that it’s developed into something that’s visual, fast, snappy and suits the current environment and technology.