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A Candid View Of The Maskelynes, 1916 by Davenport & John Salisse

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii August, 2005)


More grist for history buffs will be found in this surprising and unusual work, consisting of firsthand, previously unpublished reports of performances at Maskelyne's St. George Hall during World War One. Magicians will of course be familiar with the British conjuring dynasty of the Maskelynes, and most should be familiar with Maskelyne and Cooke's famed Egyptian Hall theater, which opened in London in 1873. Concurrent with the death of George Cooke in 1905, Maskelyne relocated his theater to St. George's Hall, which later became known as Maskelyne and Devant's. John Nevil Maskelyne eventually retired from the stage in 1911, leaving the management of the theater to his two sons, Nevil and Archie Maskelyne. The partnership between the Maskelynes and David Devant ended in 1915, a year after the start of WWI, and in 1916, J.N. Maskelyne, then 76 years of age, returned from retirement to the stage at St. George's, along with other magic acts being added to the bill. Devant continued to tour elsewhere, as he had even during the years of the Maskelyne and Devant association. J.N. Maskelyne died in 1917, and while Nevil and Archie Maskelyne appeared on stage for a time thereafter, the Maskelyne name was no longer enough to fill the theater, and the brothers began to present an even greater assortment of outside magic and variety acts. Following the early deaths of both Archie and Nevil, Nevil's children took over the business, and continued their run at St. George's until 1933, followed by two several short seasons at the Little Theatre in 1933 and 1934. In 1935, Maskelynes Ltd. folded entirely as a firm, although Nevil's youngest son, Jasper, went on to become a top performer, well into the 1950s.

With that summary background in mind, this book consists of a series of private reports that R W Pitman, a magician and close friend and associate of David Devant's, written for Devant following the latter's departure from the Maskelynes and St. George's Hall. As a touring professional, Devant had plenty of reason to be interested in the goings on at St. George's, and his friend, Pitman, was happy to serve as reporter or, perhaps put less delicately, informant. Pitman had an experienced conjuror's eye, and since these reports were not for publication, he was not constrained by political considerations or, for that matter, politeness. Thus his correspondence with Devant is both revealing and refreshing. He reports on six shows in 1916 and 1917, including J.N. Maskelyne's return- from-retirement appearances late in his life, along with other performers who appeared on the programs, including Lewis Davenport. Also included are reports of shows outside of St. George's, including performances by Carl Hertz and Charles Morritt. One must take into consideration not only Pitman's personal tastes and prejudices, of course, but as well, the fact that the senior Maskelyne was performing at the twilight of his career, well into his 70s and having previously retired from the stage. One only longs for the chance to read accounts of Maskelyne and Devant during the height of their respective and joint powers.

There is much more to this volume, however, and the authors are to be commended for assembling a very smart little compendium. Amply illustrated with rare photographs, detailed architectural drawings and photos of St. George's, accompanying playbills for every show Maskelyne show Pitman reports on, and other related ephemera, the reader is well equipped and a thorough picture of the subject matter gradually develops. Much background research by the authors provides additional context as well. And while the authors point out in their introduction that "...we should remember that [Pitman] was not an unbiased observer," so as to better judge Mr. Pitman's inclinations and tastes we are provided with a fine exercise in Chapter Two, wherein Pitman' report of the 1916 edition of an annual Magic Circle show is compared, line by line, with a report published in the British conjuring journal, Magic Wand. Readers will quickly recognize the kind of fraternal politeness and political correctness that renders Mr. Pitman's report a bit more telling than the published account.

Also included in appendices are scripts for two Maskelyne illusions, "The Four Elements of Alchemy" and "The Spirits are Here!", and illustrations and brief correspondence from Pitman to Devant concerning three illusions that never reached final production. There is an index and extensive footnoting of sources, and the result is a historian's treasure at a bargain price.

8-1/4" x 11-1/4" Perfect Bound; 72 pages; extensively illustrated; 1995; Published by John Davenport