Owen Clark: A Genius Forgotten by Christopher Brinson
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2011)
Despite the fact that Owen Clark was an inventive creator of magic still in use today, as well as having been a longtime regular on the stage at Maskelyne & Devant so much so that he led a tour of Australia representing the brand his name has not long or loudly reverberated in the halls of magic history. Yet author Christopher Brinson, in this extremely limited publication (sadly, only 50 copies have been produced) presents his case that Mr. Clark deserves lasting recognition for his creative contributions and professional achievements.
In the third (of 11) chapters, Mr. Brinson offers that "The best way to appreciate the magical artistry of Owen Clark is to go and see him in action," whereupon we are treated to a detailed account of a performance, circa November 1910, at London's St. George's Hall. In a few evocative pages, the reader is taken back to that important magical place and time, and treated to amusements and amazements that set Owen Clark apart from his contemporaries. Stylish, handsome, well dressed, confidant—and above all, endlessly inventive Clark's show was full of surprises, including new takes on popular tricks, along with never-before-seen mysteries. In the former case, Clark's version of the Miser's Dream featured a bare-handed coin production that fooled the best of his contemporaries; his featured originations included "The Traveling Flames," a sympathetic extinguishing and lighting of candles set in a pair of matching candelabras: as a spectator chose the order of the candles, each one was magically extinguished with a glance from Clark, whereupon its mate in the other candelabra mysteriously ignited. And in the "Mysterious Broken Plate," a china plate, smashed with a hammer, was visibly and gradually restored, as each piece was tossed toward the mounted plate, vanishing from the magician's hand (each vanishing in a different manner) and magically appearing restored, until the final piece was visibly added with the plate in Clark's own hands, whereupon the plate was given to a spectator as a memento. Remarkable!
No wonder Clark would provide more than 2,500 performances under the Maskelyne brand in his time a significant testament to his standing and abilities as a performer. During Clark's American tour of 1913, Dr. A.M. Wilson, writing in The Sphinx, declared that "The one who fails to see Owen Clark fails to see the most original magic act that ever came to this country from abroad and the only magician who performs only tricks of his own invention and manufacture."
Unfortunately, the tour was unsuccessful for reasons other than his material, reasons that bear speculation without providing certainty. Mr. Brinson theorizes that perhaps Clark had years before offended Houdini when, in Clark's youth, he had imitated some of the escape artist's material had Houdini held a grudge and set Martin Beck, the vaudeville impresario, against Clark? Or was it an arrogant and imperious nature that caused Clark to insult unruly audiences ("One fool at a time, please" was one of his heckler stoppers and not such a bad line at that), or throw a fit when he wasn't given good position in the running order of the shows apparently as ordered by Beck himself? This and many other mysteries are addressed if not entirely resolved in Mr. Brinson's enthusiastic historical accounting of Clark's brief life.
Owen Clark would die in 1929 at the age of 53, leaving precious few records behind him; while he did publish a few items and even commercially produced a couple as well, by and large he was opposed to recording his material or sharing his inventions with others. This is perhaps why many of his inventions survive today, but without his name being commonly attached to them. According to Mr. Brinson's accounting, Owen Clark was the probable inventor of such items as the "Break-Away Fan," the Coin Stand (used to individually vanish of a series of coins), the "Confetti Cup" (the cup of coffee which transforms to confetti when tossed toward the audience), and even the Watch Winder which he created not as a gag, but rather to secretly simulate the sound of handcuff ratchets being latched closed, in the case of fake cuffs that would otherwise fail to produce the convincing sound. All these items can be found in contemporary magic catalogs.
What's more, while there are some hundred tricks the author mentions as part of Clark's body of work, at least a third of them remain mired in mystery many with only a mere title remaining, or perhaps a single image or slender journalistic description. (Sadly, none of Clark's posters have survived.) One intriguing example among the many is "The Lady Nicotine," in which a stage-sized case, modeled after the kind that are made to fit a meerschaum smoking pipe, is shown to be empty and then closed. When the case is opened, just such a giant pipe has appeared along which now reclines a live woman! What's more, smoke emanates from the pipe's tobacco end, with the image of a mysterious devil of sorts appearing amidst the plumes. An artist's rendition of the piece remains from the period, drawn from an advertising piece. One's imagination puzzles over what the illusion might have looked like, along with how it might have worked.
Clark's name does appear in the magic press of the time, not only in various journals, but in a number of the notoriously unreliable Will Goldston books. Clark's material was apparently frequently stolen by other performers (which, as the author points out, has helped to provide some of the minimal record we have of Clark's creations), and Goldston was also quick to publish descriptions of effects and methods, much as Ellis Stanyon did regardless of whether he possessed accurate knowledge of the methodology, much less permission to explain it. It's remarkable to read how often Stanley Collins would serve, under numerous aliases, as the source of these write-ups and frequent mistaken technical descriptions. Goldston obviously thought well of much of Clark's magic, but at the same time he was quick to dismiss some tricks that seemed to have at least been well received by audiences and press, so at times it's difficult to parse which is the more accurate take. (Mr. Brinson tends to assume that Clark's mysteries were invariably marvelous, albeit that some of those conclusions are supported by press accounts.) Goldston would eventually write an obituary for Clark, in which his measured praise was couched in a petulant and withering account of the man and his career.
Clark was a man committed to artistic ideals; in a handful of published commentaries, he stressed the importance of originality, and consistently cautioned performers against inadvertently reminding their audience to think about methods by offering remarks along the lines of "There are no trap doors" or "I have here an ordinary newspaper" and "Please watch me that I palm nothing." These habits were likely commonplace at the time and his advice is as valid today as it was then. He had a deep understanding of conjuring principles, including sleight of hand, mechanics, performance, and psychology; his use of misdirection can be seen in a clever switch of a borrowed watch for the "Nest of Boxes," in which a brief apparent accident, promptly forgotten by the audience, serves as perfect cover a ruse often put to effective use on the stage by Penn & Teller.
This is the kind of charmingly revelatory book for which we can only be grateful, and whatever its limitations (it could have used the help of an expert editor and proofreader), they are perhaps rendered immaterial in the face of the inordinate value to be found in rescuing such figures from obscurity, and restoring their place setting at the banquet table of conjunng's rich history. We can only celebrate and cherish such works, and if there is room for more to be discovered about Owen Clark, I am nevertheless delighted to know so much more today than I did yesterday, thanks to the generous and passionate work of Christopher Brinson.