Art & Artifice And Other Essays on Illusion by Jim Steinmeyer
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii April, 1999)
The title page of this elegantly designed and produced volume provides a further subtitle—"Concerning the Inventors, Traditions, Evolution & Rediscovery of Stage Magic"—setting the tone for this contemplative collection of essays by one of the most influential designers of large-scale stage illusions of our time. These five essays provide a thoughtful tour of both the history of such illusions, and of the mind of this unusual creator.
The book begins with the title essay, a musing on the little-known 19th-century theatrical producer, Steele MacKaye, the playlet illusions of Maskelyne and Devant, and how the contrast between these two differing approaches to the use of on-stage theatrical illusion illuminates issues of "theatrical wizardry, and the limits of theatrical reality." MacKaye was an eccentric theatrical dreamer who, after a reasonably successful career as a theatrical impresario, embarked on the building of a grand dream for the 1893 World's Fair, a spectacular theatrical space and experience he dubbed The Spectatorium.
This 12,000-seat monster, "with a proscenium fully 70 feet tall and 150 feet wide," would be the pinnacle of MacKaye's insistence upon, and previous success with, intensely realistic live theater effects to enhance his productions. As MacKaye made this grand leap into an uncertain and, ultimately, disastrous future, his "artifice was confused with reality. MacKaye would have no painted scenery, only sculptural buildings, islands and ships. His sun was envisioned as a huge gigantic electrical light, tracking overhead on the precise arc of the sun, then passing behind a veil of tinted glass to create the proper sunset hues. There would be no canvas waves, but real swells on a miniature ocean of real water. His clouds would be projected against a gigantic clear sky. His stars were accurately arranged to portray the skies over the equator." In short, MacKaye had plunged over the precipice of his own grand imaginings and, tragically, made the cardinal error of positioning the theatrical presentation as slave to the grandeur of his effects—instead of the other way 'round.
Maskelyne and Devant were conjurors who developed their style of magical sketch presentations at the famed Egyptian Hall in London, a successful formula which led to a successful three-decade run. While the mainstream theater of the era was obsessed with grand effects and spectacle, such additions were invariably inferior to the finely wrought illusions of the professional conjuror. Yet when Maskelyne attempted to compete with the West End theaters of London by mounting a full-scale play that utilized his illusionary design skills, the production failed. He had forgotten that there must be some presence, some context—most often but not always the magician him or herself—in order to transform illusion into magic; that "the play itself was an artifice" and "the theatrical elements and the illusion (were) very separate things."
This meditation on what makes an illusion into magic, magic into theater, and theater into illusion, serves as a gently paced opening to a book of ideas in which its points are not always obvious or readily apprehended. Mr. Steinmeyer knows that "magicians guard an empty safe....There are no real principles worthy of being cherished, only crude expediences." But at the same time he recounts his discovery that each time he has witnessed that rarest of illusion performances that "approach art," "each belied the cavalier notion that magic is only about the impression taken away by the audience, that method doesn't matter and that technique is a hindrance." These "cavalier notions" are constantly repeated as mantras of mediocrity by contemporary magicians of every specialty, and while there is much in the literature of close up magic to present compelling cases to the contrary, such insights in the literature of large-scale illusions are rare.
Later in this volume, as the author explores Devant's Mascot Moth, the Selbit and Goldin Sawings, and Charles Morrites Disappearing Donkey, a hazy outline begins to take shape and form and eventually crystallizes into focused clarity as we discover what he means when he suggests that successful magic is a mix of "art and technique." In the case of the Mascot Moth, a stunningly beautiful and memorable illusion I witnessed in Doug Henning's Merlin (a show generally acknowledged as containing a great deal of successful magic but otherwise amounting to an artistic failure), Mr. Steinmeyer's examination of the evolution of the challenging feat of bringing Devant's conception to life based on no more knowledge than the originator's 310-word account in Secrets of My Magic concludes with the provocative thought that "the secret was every bit as wonderful as the result on stage, and maybe even more wonderful. There is no shame or irony in that; there is art beyond an ability to make an audience applaud or gasp. It can lie in intangibles and secrets...profound understandings which can never be explained and which the initiates themselves seldom appreciate." (The emphasis is mine.)
Yet this is a book that initiates should feel compelled to read in an attempt to more closely approach those intangibles and secrets in their own conjuring work. Illusions seem trapped today in a dreary style of wheeling out a box to loud music, stuffing the assistant in a wedge base, twirling the box, executing the effect, and then wheeling the prop off to repeat the process ad infinitum. More and more, as with so much of apparatus magic in general, the performance consists of little more than posturing and posing and a wholly unjustified over-confidence in the mechanical secret, with little regard for the deeper thinking of conjuring—construction, routining, presentation, misdirection.
Few have achieved the impact that Richiardi could with a DeKolta chair and dramatic movement and music, and I long for the day when a true conjuror steps forth to "talk" an illusion as Dante or even Robert Harbin did. Illusionists would do well to master the art of conjuring and its many eclectic skills instead of merely purchasing a prop and stepping out on stage with the latest chrome monstrosity and ever larger shoulder pads. Mr. Steinmeyer's style is not so much to spit in the eye of these conventions but rather to calmly ignore them and state his sometimes contrary observations, offering for example that in magic "there is no willing suspension," and "no theatrical leap or fantasy, no suspension of disbelief," a powerful but unpopular idea (and a position shared with Teller, who has previously expressed it in the pages of this magazine).
Mr. Steinmeyer brings much fresh information and perspective to light in these pages: gathering a biography of the aforementioned Steele MacKaye; exploring the social and theatrical reasons for the popularity of the Sawing illusion; doing detective work on the mirror principles of Charles Morritt that not only seem to have solved the mystery of his method for the Disappearing Donkey, but also likely resolving the solution to Houdini's Vanishing Elephant along the way; and providing delicious tidbits of information, as in Morritt's observation that Bautier DeKolta was the first who "used the word 'illusionist' on a program." The book picks up pace and entertainment value as it recounts these various illusionary adventure stories—for that is truly what they are and how they read—but I, for one, enjoyed equally, if not more so, the gentle introduction to this material provided by the title piece. If magic be art as well as artifice, this book is an excellent companion guide to those exploring both the differences and connections between the two.