Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring by Michael Mangan

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2007)

Michael Mangan holds HOLDS the Drama Chair at Exeter University and has written about theatre and gender, the cultural history of popular performance, and other subjects concerning society and theater, along with having had experience as a playwright, director, actor, and more. His book claims to be "a cultural history of conjuring" as examined through the lens of "performance studies," a contemporary field of analysis that, not unlike (and indeed, incorporating) cultural studies, embraces not only the performance arts themselves, but includes anthropology, philosophy, sociology, psychoanalysis, psychology and more in its approach.

In the March 2003 issue of Genii I reviewed a cultural studies look at magic entitled Modern Enchantments by the Australian English Professor, Simon During. Whatever reservations I may have had regarding Professor During and cultural studies, however, pale in comparison to Professor Mangan's loftily lame attempt to explain magic within the frame of performance studies. I am frankly amazed that academics think that by reading a few standard texts of magic history, a dozen books on Houdini, and a handful of early conjuring texts, they suddenly have gained any legitimate grasp of a subject they now propose to explain to the rest of the world. Michael Mangan, quite simply, hasn't got a blessed clue as to the nature of magic and magicians.

Early in Performing Dark Arts, in discussing conjuring of the Jacobean and Elizabethan eras and the ability of audiences of the time to distinguish between magic and "real magic," i.e., witchcraft, Professor Mangan quotes from Thomas Ady's wry observations in A Candle in the Dark (16551 [reviewed in April 1997 Genii] regarding "University Scholars" misinterpreting conjuring as sorcery. Professor Mangan then explains, "It is not only the poorest section of the crowd, nor those with the least formal education, who are prone to mistake sleight of hand for sorcery. The scholars' cleverness, their tendency to over-interpret [emphasis per original], renders them every bit as gullible as the ignorance of the 'vulgar people'. A timely warning to academics who write about magic!" The author would have been well served had he taken this bit of self-deprecating irony more seriously to heart.

Consider, for example, a sample of Professor Mangan's interpretation of Houdini. In the course of yet another standard rehash of magic history Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, con men and scam artists, Robert-Houdin, Houdini, Uri Geller, David Blaine a lengthy chapter on Houdini includes this "analysis":

At the age of nine he appeared before an audience as a trapeze artist and contortionist, 'Ehrich, Prince of the Air. The young boy finds his princely identity in the stage name and makes cross-linguistic puns on the sounds of his own: Ehrich/air. Within the family the pun was even more noticeable: Ehrich's pet name was 'Ehrie, which later became the 'Harry' of his public persona. When Ehrich Weiss grew up to become Harry Houdini, the contortionist became the escapologist, twisting his way out of his bonds and the Prince of the Air metamorphosed into the 'Handcuff King'... yet Houdini retained a fascination even an obsession with the air. Whether suspended high above the city streets, struggling to escape the strait-jacket; or learning to fly and setting himself the challenge of becoming the first man to fly an aero plane in Australia; or doing his own aerial stunts in his movies, the trace of Ehrich, Prince of the Air remains.

Let's save some time, shall we? This is drivel. "Obsession with the air?" Consider the fact that three of Houdini's most famous escapes were from a milk can filled with water; from the depths of rivers; and from his most famous stage escape, the water torture tank. Given these facts, is it not painfully obvious that Houdini was not obsessed with air, but rather ... with water? After all he drank water as well.

And before my claim is dismissed as mere reduction ad absurdum, consider the final sentence of the professor's excerpt cited above, and keep in mind that the reference he makes here concerns Houdini's early job in a tie-cut-ting workshop: "Houdini escaped not only from ties, but also from tie-cutting on the workbench." Thus the good professor gives us the full power of his analysis in the form of a homonym. A bad pun equals academic insight. Where have we been all these centuries without the aid of the academy to explain us to ourselves?

This is not to suggest that Professor Mangan is wrong about everything he is frequently correct, but rarely interesting. In a substantial segment addressing Robert-Houdin's oft-debated definition of the magician as actor, the author does manage to recognize that for Robert-Houdin, "dexterity is not an end in itself, but is a means to an end—and that end is to produce 'wonder-exciting performances'." This insight is far from ground-breaking, how-ever, since it is as much as summarized in the phrases surrounding the famous quote that are often left out, namely the statement that, "a conjuror is not a juggler; he is an actor playing the part of a magician; an artist whose fingers have more need to move with deftness than speed." Thus the author frequently displays a keen grasp of the obvious, and when couched in the turgid prose of academia, the result is a stultifying and often unreadable stew.

In his very introduction he goes on at length defining "the conjuror's act of demonstrating the impossible," and then suggests that his definitions (obvious though they may be) may somehow be "making too extravagant a claim for what is, after all, a fairly low-status performing art," yet moments later he adds that in "most cases" the spectator will "simply settle for the fact that some kind of sleight of hand going on," and "that while she can-not see how it has been done, (she recognizes that] the laws of physics have not been broken." Yet the professor is both right and wrong—a trick he repeats throughout his faulty textbook because he fails to grasp the subtle power of magic at its best, as when, to use Whit Haydn's marvelous definition (from Notes on Three-Card Monte), "The magician is hoisting the spectator on the horns of a dilemma: 'There is no such thing as magic/There is no other possible explanation." The professor's observation of magic is just that observation at a distance, lacking insight from within. Professor Mangan lists some 300 titles in his bibliography, about 20 percent of which are books from the literature of conjuring, but not one of which amount to theoretical books about the art, or even a significant artistic or instructional text. The result is a work that pinball’s between an inventory of the obvious and the foolishness of the just plain wrong.

In a lengthy chapter about spirit mediums (of course!), some of the author's distorted agenda is revealed, as he goes so far as to claim that Arthur Conan Doyle and his credulous ilk were not on the outskirts of scientific thought but rather in the mainstream, his proof being the mere naming of a minor handful of prominent scientists who were swept up in the spiritualism mania of the time. This is a distortion of the record, however, and a thorough study of the scientific community's interaction with spiritualism will clearly demonstrate that while some scientists were certainly and quite properly interested in investigating spiritualism, few indeed were the number who were effectively duped, and of those who were, either their reputations were seriously damaged by their blind belief (as in the case of William Crookes), or they were often working outside of their field—invariably a hallmark of so-called "pathological science" (as in, for example, the 1989 case of Fleischmann and Pons, two chemists who claimed to have revolutionized physics with their discovery of "cold fusion"). But as for "thorough study," this author is not much of a fan of primary sources; as a source for material about the Fox Sisters his bibliography cites Jim Steinmeyer's Hiding the Elephant (an unarguably marvelous work, but one that provides an overview of the Fox Sisters in all of about three pages), along with a book by P.T. Barnum. Wasn't it Barnum who said that there's a sucker born every minute, and his specialty is performance studies?

The author concludes his discussion of spiritualism by observing that these few deluded scientists somehow contributed to the future via their use of electricity, and electricity leads to radio, and that Doyle's séances were an attempt to "investigate a huge and powerful radio amplifier which he believed might prove useful in communicating with the spirit world," and so, in the tradition of Joseph Campbell, everything means everything. Which on my scorecard, means nothing.

In his closing chapter about postmodernism a term the author is unable to define, but after an extended failure to do so chooses to barrel forth invoking it nonetheless Professor Mangan steps firmly into the just plain wrong by characterizing Uri Geller as merely a magician with "implicit" claims about magic based in reality, and compares this to people confusing soap opera stars with real characters. While the comparison is interesting the case is far from identical; a reading, for example, of Magic in Theory [reviewed in January 2000 Genii? by Lamont and Wiseman might help the poor confused professor understand that there is a fundamental difference between the social con-tracts of the magician and of the psychic, and that Geller's claims to genuine supernatural power are anything but "implicit." The author, meanwhile, is so far removed from any insight that he proclaims Geller to be the "first truly postmodern magician," instead of recognizing that he is merely another in a very long line of psychic frauds.

In considering the persistence of irrationality in a scientific and technological age, we are told that the longstanding fringe journal Fortean Times is "thriving." A moment's research on the internet suggests that the Fortean Times monthly circulation is approximately 27,000, while for sake of comparison, another British stalwart, The Guardian, has a daily circulation of 365,000 and a claimed readership of 1.2 million. Is Fortean Times indeed "thriving" by this or any other measure? But I suppose one needs it to be thriving if one is to use it to prove a point in this lunatic fashion a page later "...does the current cultural fascination with boy wizards and teenage witches, with astrology and grimoires, have any-thing to do with conjuring and stage magic? ... Certainly there are areas of overlap. For example, Fortean Times concentrates mainly on the uncanny, but it also has a healthy interest in the doings of conjurors, prestidigitators and stage illusionists: thus the July 2004 issue contains an interview-based article on Derren Brown... The same issue also has two articles on magicians, conjurors, and illusionists at war ..." So if I understand this correctly, this means that if the editors of Fortean Times, with its "thriving" readership of 27,000, demonstrate by way of their content choices that certain "cultural fascinations" have something to with, well, other cultural fascinations, then that's plenty good enough for the cultural studies crowd even if it ain't good enough for me.

Do we saw women in half because of cultural misogyny with "the sub-text of a general bourgeois backlash against the achievements of the female suffragists" as the author posits or because women fit better in the boxes? Or is it both? Or neither? While the author does at least acknowledge in a footnote that a woman's size might have something to do with the perennial choice, I would also ask: Is the Sawing in Half really about destruction, or is it actually about restoration? Don't you have to destroy something before you can restore it? Aren't horror films and fiction more about feeling alive than about embracing death?

These are undoubtedly interesting questions, and magicians have been asking them of ourselves for a long time. But if the academy deigns to consider our humble art, it would be well advised to avoid the funhouse mirror view offered by cultural and performance studies types, and will doubtless do better by seeking primary sources. Watch and study magic as performed by magicians read about magic as written by magicians read and listen to magicians who have considered this art for centuries, and may have learned a thing or two and then perhaps report your findings to the academy, and to us, so that something new might actually be learned.

Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring • Michael Mangan • 6." x 9" paperback • 252 pages • not illustrated • 2007 • Intellect Ltd