St. George's Hall: Behind the Scenes at England's Home of Mystery by Anne Davenport & John Salisse
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2002)
The Maskelyne magic dynasty: three generations of a family whose name became synonymous with British magic. There's something stunning about that fact; whenever I read about the Maskelynes, it is this sense of multi-generational epic, coupled with the legend of the Maskelyne theaters—"England's Home of Mystery"—that always imbues the Maskelyne story with shades of mystery and wonder.
Yetm despite the wealth of common knowledge about the Maskelynes, which needn't be recited here, there is much derail to the story that has yet to be uncovered. We knew that some of it was hiding in the basement and storage holdings of the Davenport family, and we've received growing hints of more in store, courtesy of the authors of this book, who wrote A Candid View of the Maskelynes (reviewed August 1995), which served well to presage this substantial and definitive volume about the years of the Maskelyne operation at St. George's Hall, 1905 through 1933.
The authors are highly qualified and well suited to the task at hand. John Salisse has served in multiple posts for the Magic Circle, is the recipient of a special Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts, and in his lifelong pursuits as a magic historian has specialized in, among other subjects, collecting anything and everything connected to the Maskelynes and their theaters. This particular portion of his collection is referred to in palpably hushed tones by publisher Mike Caveney, in his Publisher's Note, as simply: the room.
Mr. Salisse's collaborator is Ann Davenport, who married John Davenport in 1977, thereby establishing a family connection to the story of the Maskelynes. (Lewis Davenport, John's grandfather, per-formed regularly at St. George's Hall, and when the Maskelyne's business came to an end, the Davenports magic business bought out Maskelyne's assets.) She also brings a strong academic background (including a Ph.D. in physics) to her collaboration with Mr. Salisse.
And clearly a marvelous collaboration it has been, if we are to judge by the results. This is a massive, large-format book of almost 500 pages that is brimming with information, chock full of back-ground and context, rich with detail, and crammed with a wealth of supporting materials including photographs, playbills, clippings, drawings, scripts, and posters. (The now de rigueur, color plate section is superb and could serve as a model for this type of segment, including many full-page poster reproductions with derailed captions accompanying every plate; the textured endpapers provide a seating plan of the theater in a charming added touch.) There seems to be a revelation waiting to be discovered with every turn of a page, and yet it is all written in a smooth, understated voice that reads like a good novel, is never dull, yet also never over-reaches to try to spice the story artificially or in soap-operatic terms.
The author's subtly help the reader keep up with the intricacies of the tale, gently prodding us now and again with a connection or prior reference that might otherwise have been overlooked. It must have required considerable determination to render the contents with such a consistent editorial sensibility, and I am extremely impressed that despite the enormous wealth of material, the book retains the tone of a human story throughout and is often a compelling page-turner.
After a brief and very helpful section identifying "the cast" of characters we are to be reading about—and even here, the rare historical photographs begin to bring the story and the individuals within it to life—we are introduced in chapter one to J.N. Maskelyne, the founder of the "magical institution" that was the theater at the Egyptian Hall. The Egyptian Hall story has previously been explored in the 1967 book, Maskelyne & Cooke: Egyptian Hall, London, 1873-1904 by George Jenness; the current volume begins in 1905 when J.N. Maskelyne relocated the business to St. George's Hall. Maskelyne was a creator and a builder, a passionate debunker of spiritualism, and above all, a magician to the core. As this book makes clear, he was far and away not only the greatest of the Maskelyne magicians, but also the passionate artist who held magic dearest to his heart throughout his life. He also believed in using magic as a form of theatrical expression, through magical playlets that sometimes addressed timely subjects (such as spiritual-ism), and also took satirical turns—a far cry from the inoffensive and idea-less tone that has overrun so much of magic today. Although eventually J.N.'s resistance to revising his tastes would contribute to the problems of his theater business, nevertheless it gives one pause to consider his advice to young magicians at a Magic Circle dinner in 1912, at which "he urged his hearers to be original and to talk well during their entertainments; he did not like the 'silent show' of the American 'quick lunch' style of conjuring."
The relocation to St. George's Hall became a necessity when it was determined that Egyptian Hall was to be demolished. Maskelyne had made a great deal of money in his 30-plus years at Egyptian Hall, and at age 65 could have easily retired. But Egyptian Hall was an institution, and Maskelyne was not about to abandon the stature it had achieved. What's more, he was also determined to present full plays at the new theater, in which magical effects would be in deep service to the theatrical primacy of plot. He poured his resources into one such play entitled "The Coming Race," intended for debut at the opening of St. George's Hall. After frustrating delays the play opened at last, whereupon it closed in a mere eight weeks, accompanied by debilitating losses. As Jim Steinmeyer writes in the title essay to his book. Art & Artifice, "Maskelyne had been mistaken in competing with the West End theaters. His product had always been different ..." I.N. never lost his taste for plays and magical playlets, but he would never again mount a production like "The Coming Race" at his own expense. While Maskelyne predicted that "magical entertainments alone (would not) be sufficient to keep the St George's Hall running two shows a day ... ," nevertheless, as Salisse and Davenport retort, "J.N was proved wrong and St. George's Hall stayed in business, running magic shows only for 28 years."
This book is really the story of those 28 years, and its twists and turns are far too numerous to recount here, and far too great a story to ruin by blunt summary. David Devant came to St. George's, which now became "Maskelyne & Devant" in the tradition cleaved earlier by "Maskelyne & Cooke." Devant was a creative dynamo and remains for some the greatest British conjuror of all time, and for a decade St. George's benefited immeasurably from his involvement as a partner. The creative out-put in this period was prodigious and the business did well. At its peak the theater employed a resident staff of 70, which is all the more remarkable given that the theater sat all of perhaps 550 (albeit that more tasks were then manually performed than would be the case today).
Devant did not restrict his performances to St. George's Hall, and as his decade of service to the Maskelynes came to a close, he had become extremely successful in his own right, touring as a name attraction at major music halls. From 1911 to 1915 he did not even appear on the stage at St. George's, but he was still very much an artistic presence. Not long after the start of World War I, strains in the partners' relationships—including disputes over the issue of presenting magical playlets—reached irreconcilable proportions, and Devant would eventually leave the partnership entirely, whereupon J.N., ostensibly retired in 1911, returned to take charge.
Although it overstates the case with the advantage of hindsight, the Maskelyne's would never again do as well. This was by no means due simply to the dissolution of the partnership with Devant, but rather to the course of events of history and economics, grand forces over which the Maskelynes had no control. World War I was the first blow to London theaters and global economies. The lingering Depression of the 20s and 30s would help see to it that St. George's and the Maskelynes would never recover to their prior greatness. In 1917 Oswald Williams came on as a new theatrical and producing force at Maskelynes, and his powerful sway would become controversial and, it most be said, will doubtless remain so to readers of this work, as for all he brought to the business creatively, he seems to have sown many a seed of personal and political division in the ranks. The story manages to reconstruct much of the complex relationships and inter-relationships over the course of many years of operation of what was, it must be remembered, a family business; the book bears the sub-title "Behind the Scenes at England's Home of Mystery," and it truly does recreate a believable behind-the-scenes vantage.
It is tempting to recount more here—of births and deaths, marriages and partnerships, jealousies and politics, brothers and battles. The tale is not a simple one; it is, instead, a chronicle of real life, with all its attendant struggles and unseemly messiness, and as in so many human narratives, triumphs fade, lives end, stories become tainted with loss. Indeed, this is what I commend the authors for as their best achievement—bringing the story and its many personalities to life—but of course, this is not just a story of people, it is a story of magic, too. Magic might even have altered the story of St. George's; there were compelling offers from Charles Carter, Selbit, and Devant, any of which might have transformed the business but were nevertheless declined by the family. But the book is replete with sumptuous images of magic, with thorough descriptions of illusions both major and minor, along with entire scripts, accounts from magic magazines and reports from newspapers, accompanied by programs and playbills, advertisements and photographs, financial records and minutes of meetings.
A rich portrait is created of the magic of the eras spanned, and there is much succulent food for thought if you have the appetite for it. With an added dash of your own imagination you can recreate these performances of Devant and DeBiere and Selbit and Germain, along with the rest who appeared on the St. George's stage, a breathtaking list that includes Lewis Davenport. Charles Moffitt, Nikola, Edward Victor, Stanley Collins, Louis Nikola, Okito, Horace Goldin, Allan Shaw, Ten-/chi, Robert Harbin, and many more. There is all manner of insight concerning magic large and small, from detailed information (in an appendix) about Walter Jeans Mirror Tunnel (a highlight of the last L.A. Conference on Magic History), to the announcement of a 1918 magic contest held at St. George's, for amateurs with professional aspirations, which noted that "the fears known as the Chinese Rings, the Four Aces, the Dyeing Handkerchiefs, and the Aerial Treasury are all barred."
The truth behind the Maskelyne magic dynasty and its theaters is far from straightforward and at times troubling. Internal battles between family members and interconnected factions seem to have raged throughout, with siblings alternately working together, locked in conflict, or even written completely out of the family story. One way or another the generations managed to keep the Maskelyne tradition alive for 18 struggling years after the death of the grand patriarch, J.N. Maskelyne. Egyptian Hall had opened in 1873, St. George's eventually closed in 1933, followed by two more gasping years at the Little Theater, and even though J.N. Maskelyne's youngest grandson, Jasper, was eventually turned out by his brothers at St. George's, he continued to perform magic professionally until 1950, when he retired to Africa. That's quite a run by any measure, and any showman, old or young, might be inclined to bow his head for a moment out of respect for these achievements.