Doing it French Style

By Dominic Twose - Saturday, April 3, 2021


This month I’m giving away a present that isn’t mine to give and sharing a Funny Thing.

The present belongs to Sean McWeeney, a QC working out of the Bahamas.

Sean is also a magician. And like many close-up magicians, very interested in the Cups and Balls trick. Now the historians here today (pay attention at the back!) know that the Cups and Balls can be traced at least as far as the Romans.

There is a wonderful description from the Second century AD from Alciphron from Athens in his (probably fictional) Letters of Farmers. Letter 17. Napaeus to Creniades.

A fellow took me and carried me off to the theatre, where he gave me a good seat and entertained me by various shows. Most of the shows I don’t recall, for I’m a poor hand at remembering and telling such things; but I can tell you that one thing I saw made me almost speechless with astonishment. A man came forward, and, setting down a three-legged table, placed three little cups on it. Then under these cups he hid some little round pebbles such as we find on the banks of rapid streams. At one moment he would hide them one under each cup; an at another moment (I don’t know how) he would show them all under a single cup; and then again he would make them entirely disappear from under the cups and exhibit them between his lips. Then he would swallow them, and, drawing forward the spectators who stood near him, he would take one pebble from a man’s nose, another from a man’s ear, and the third from a man’s head, and after picking them up he would make them disappear again. A very light-fingered gentleman! Eurybates the Oechalian, of whom we hear tell, wasn’t in his class. I hope no creature like him ever gets onto my farm. No one would ever catch him; and he would steal everything in the house and make off with all the goods on the place.’

The best earliest description of the methods can be found in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). And the best earliest detailed handling in Hocus Pocus Junior (1634).

The trick reached a peak in France, in the 17th and 18th centuries with the detailed handlings given by Ozanam in his Récréations Mathématiques et Physiques (1694) and Gilles-Edme Guyot’s Nouvelles Récréations Mathématiques et Physiques (1769).

It was later covered by Jean-Nicolas Ponsin’s Nouvelle Magie Blanche Dévoilée, Physique Occulte, et Cours Complet de Prestigitation (1853 & 1854), and Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin’s Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie (1868).

There were some wonderful European performers, notably Giovanni Bartolomeo Bosco (1793-1863) and the shadowy but influential Conus Senior in the late Eighteenth Century.

In those times, a magician typically worked with a gibeciere, a bag hung from the waist which contained everything the magician needed for his act. And so things stood for many years (although Conus dispensed with the traditional gibeciere, instead using a table with a secret pocket at the back).

But in the early Twentieth Century, coinciding with a decline in vaudeville, and the growth of the cinema, there was a growth in close-up magic in clubs. The gibeciere was out of place in such surroundings, and magicians tended to work from their pockets. Vernon’s Cups and Balls routine in the Dai Vernon Book of Magic become the best known of these. But still, street workers and others make use of the gibeciere.

So, what is the present I promised before I started on that yawningly dull history? Until now, apparently there has been no English translation available of the chapters in the books by the French writers Ozanam and Guyot dealing with the cups and balls.

Does this matter? I’d argue for a very strong YES. If you want to copy Vernon’s routine, or one of the many currently available, fine. But if you want to develop your own routine, it is worth looking at what worked in the past. The moves in these chapters are practical, the effects strong, and some have been overlooked in modern routines. Besides, I personally enjoy taking a handling that was used hundreds of years ago and using it now to fool a modern-day audience. It brings history to life.

So – here is the present that isn’t mine to give. In 2007 Sean McWeeney, the previously mentioned hot-shot lawyer from the Bahamas, together with Jane Poveromo, produced a translation of the Ozanam and Guyot chapters. Their manuscript is currently available free of charge, on Bill Palmer’s excellent website, http://www.hocuspocusjr.com/hocvspocvsjr.htm

It is a fantastic resource.

I also promised a funny thing. The funny thing is this: Guyot’s book was actually translated into English by William Hooper in 1774, but without credit to Guyot. And, as McWeeney points out, Cremer’s The Secret Out (1871) also contains an uncredited translation. So that one has been hidden in plain sight for centuries.

Sean has also written a wonderful manuscript on Chink-a-Chink, available on Lybrary.com. That one isn’t free. But it is also great.


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