Performing Magic on the Western Stage: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present by Francesco Coppa, Lawrence Hass, and James Peck

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2009)

Lawrence Haas will already be familiar to readers as the founder of the "Theory and Art in Magic" artist-in-residency series at Muhlenberg College (from which Professor Haas will soon be departing), and as the author of Transformations: Creating Magic Out of Tricks, which I reviewed in the November 2007 Genii. Professor Haas has also been hosting a conference at Muhlenberg entitled "Performing Magic: Theory and Practice," and this book includes a number of papers that have been presented at that multi-disciplinary gathering.

I have already had two opportunities to consider books conceived along at least partly related lines, and I will make a rare statement here and encourage interested readers to consult my reviews in this magazine of Modern Enchantments by Simon During (March 2003 Genii) and Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring by Michael Mangan (November 2007) in order to gain added perspective on my thinking about academic fields such as "cultural studies" and "performance studies," subjects which partly inhabit the pages of this new book.

Voltaire thought it advisable to define one's terms before engaging in conversation, but then again, they hadn't yet invented subjects with the word "studies" in them in Voltaire's time. These post-70s adventures in the humanities don't seem terribly enamored of Voltaire's preference; not only have several decades done little to clearly define these disciplines (and isn't discipline a desirable feature of a discipline?), but little progress has been made in the direction of developing any consistent set of methodologies, conclusions, or even subject matter.

Yet to make matters even more vague, now we are presented with a volume allegedly about "magic," a word which serves to contribute still further confusion to the mix. Thanks to the ungainliness of English, "magic" is a word with a vast realm of definitions and, if this book is any indicator, an ever broadening expanse of usage. Forget that magic might mean children's magic or grand illusion, mentalism or sleight of hand; would that it be that limiting! Rather, "magic" can mean the occult, in all its infinite colors, or it can mean conjuring, a useful Britishism that could certainly serve to contain some of the recurring problems of this book. But within its pages, even these distinctions are too narrow for its editors and contributors, who also choose to include "magical thinking," a well known phenomenon of psychology and cognition, as another element of its eclectic mission.

Yet the title of this book is Performing Magic on the Western Stage, which would seem to, by definition!—lead one to assume that it intends its subject to be, well, performance magic, on stage.

No chance. Because, I suppose, this collection is intended to be, to invoke a term used in its introduction, "non-reductive." And so, the first of the book's 10 essays is by Professor Haas, who offers a light introduction to the vast field into which we are about to venture. Within a page I am forced to ask, however: when Plato derides the risk of becoming a "victim of magic," what does he mean? And he wasn't writing in English, which would be confusing enough in its own right. Did he mean a victim of the supernatural? Did he mean a victim of conjuring tricks? And do we know? And do we care? And how can we really carry on a meaningful discussion about "Life, Magic, and Staged Magic" (the title of Professor Hass's essay) until we at least take up Voltaire's challenge and attempt to define such terms?

But there's not time to get bogged down in such "reductive" exercises, because Professor Haas, far from demonstrating any interest in narrowing the terms, intends to broaden them. "...I suggest that everyone, every day, is performing acts of magic. I mean this quite literally. We are all magicians ...."

I suppose I may as well mention it now: No, we're not. We are many things, we humans, and many things make us human. And we can use many metaphors to help gain greater understanding among ourselves, about ourselves. But even metaphors require precision, just as even magic—conjuring requires logic. When everything means everything, I've lost interest, because I've lost the thread, lost the meaning, and no two people in the same conversation are actually having the same conversation. When everything means everything, the world only makes sense to Joseph Campbell. And that's not a world that interests me.

And so, Professor Haas's "life magic" may be about ritual, it may be about magical thinking and sympathetic magic, it may even be about the movies, which he pronounces as his "final example." But how, for example, does what he has to say about the movies differentiate such magic from the "magic" of theater, or for that matter, the magic of painting, the magic of any imaginative art? One of the ways we find out what we really mean is by asking the question: "Compared to what?"

But how rituals of deep breathing and prayer may relieve stress relates to the "performance of magic on the western stage" is just ever so slightly beyond the ken of this reader, and his increasing impatience with the all but infinite expansion of imprecise language and thereby, imprecise meaning. Eventually, as it happens, the author offers that "Appreciating the multiple facets of staged magic requires that we eschew universal definition and instead plunge into the particulars." Indeed.

And while Professor Haas does then provide a few pages of material that is more focused on areas at least of interest to conjurors, the remaining nine essays range far and wide indeed. One of the best is Graham Jones's extended study of the cultural legacy of Robert-Houdin in contemporary France. Much of this piece explores the author's premise that ".. .while Robert-Houdin was certainly a groundbreaking performer ... he has continued to appeal to French magicians ... because of his success as a writer in articulating persistent anxieties about the cultural status of magic and social status of magicians."

"Magicians and the Magic of Hollywood Cinema during the 1920s" by Matthew Solomon revisits the connection between magic and the origins of cinema (the pioneering French film maker and inventor of the special effect, Georges Melies, was also a magician and the manager of the Robert-Houdin theater). Solomon then helps to more precisely define how film making began to depart from the practices of conjuring and how "the direct influence of magic on cinema waned as film making became a set of professions that were largely distinct from those of the theater."

The next entry, about magicians assistants, explores the premise that "The strengthening of magic's association with the figure of the Western capitalist happened simultaneously with the widespread addition of assistants to the magic act. After all, what's a capitalist without a labor force?" Well, there's no shortage of metaphor in this collection and that's one of 'em. There's a lot in this entry about the significance of the Sawing illusion, and I cannot help but muse that, were we to convene a panel of the authors represented in these pages and just let them talk about the Sawing, I wonder if any two of them would agree about what the illusion "means." I actually agree when Karen Dearborn, in her later essay about magic, disability, and gender, opines that the magician who invokes images of disability "assuages fears of disability and death," much as I would add that horror film and fiction helps us affirm the power of life. But one is not likely to find much agreement on the subject amid this crowd.

And there are plenty more metaphors to come. In "Conjuring Capital: Magic and Finance from Eighteenth-Century London to the New Las Vegas," we are treated to a discussion of the relationship between commerce and theater, as well as the "magic" of banking, credit, and other financial mechanisms of the 18th century. There is interesting discussion here of Isaac Fawkes and his success as a businessman, much of which is consistent with the earlier piece about Robert-Houdin. And there are claims about the success of T. Nelson Downs and the popularity of the Miser's Dream in terms of the "economic instability of [the audience's] macroeconomic lives into pleasurable, psychically manageable entertainment." Some of these notions are appealing, but one is often left to wonder if such musings also explain why Chris Capehart kills audiences of children with his version of the Miser's Dream today.

With entry number six, "The Sacred and the Sleight of Hand in American Indian Gaming" by Mary Lawlor, we take another swan dive into metaphor madness with a potentially interesting piece about the invocation of ritual and sacred tradition as reflected in Indian casinos. This in itself is not an uninteresting subject to someone, and perhaps even to me as well but again, I fail to grasp what the "tribal, corporate, and popular epistemes referenced in tribal casino design and decoration" have anything to do with "magic" in a sense that the word "magic" is of any interest to those of us interested in some common definition of "magic." Once more: it is not that these subjects are not of legitimate interest and pursuit; it is not that these metaphors are not poetically apt; but where is the rigor in their unity and presentation, beyond the use of a common word with no apparent limit to its actual meanings?

When this same author opines that "There is perhaps more than a little smoke and mirrors, more than a bit of sleight of hand, in ... representations of Indian identity in Native casinos themselves," I am compelled to disagree: No. No there isn't. There are no smoke and mirrors, there is no sleight of hand not as a conjuror means it, and not as found in a magic show, a show performed on a stage, western or otherwise. There is, of course, in the metaphorical sense; in a sense perfectly appropriate to poetry, while utterly uninformative in the name of a so-called academic discipline one lacking in discipline of words, language, or ideas.

In the penultimate essay about "Magic and Religion in Western Thought," Susan Schwartz offers that, "It would be inappropriate and misleading to assume that what is currently and commonly meant by use of the word 'magic' is consistent with what the word (in English or in any language) meant centuries of millennia ago." Would that the editors take note. Perhaps as a starting point toward clarity, the book could have been divided into segments magic as conjuring, magic as religion, magic as psychology. Perhaps.

The book closes with a brief but focused piece by the inimitable Robert Neale about the perpetual conflict in human experience between "illusionment and disillusionment." While I am not entirely certain that there is no ground worth seizing in that experience that lies more to one side of that territory than the other, his concept of magic as the play space between the two offers a thoughtful and insightful perspective; leave it to the magician on board to have a clue. But in response to this disarrayed catalog of metaphor, I would paraphrase the words of another master and often mistaken maker of metaphors: Sometimes, a wand is just a wand.

Performing Magic on the Western Stage: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present • Edited by Francesca Coppa, Lawrence Hass, and James Peck.