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In , French North Africa was as disturbed as it is today. However, the agitators were not Communists but marabouts—Mohammedan fanatics who worked the Arabian mobs into superstitious frenzy by pretending to possess magical powers. The French Government displayed imagination almost unique in official circles and sent a conjurer, Robert-Houdin, to discredit the marabouts by outdoing their magic.
The marabouts had a trick which apparently proved that no pistol aimed at them would fire. The French conjurer countered by letting a marabout shoot at him and catching the bullet in an apple stuck on the point of a knife. However, Robert-Houdin had announced publicly that his "magic" consisted entirely of tricks, and the shrewder marabouts guessed that his bullet-catching feat could be performed only with his own gun.
Some time later, while the Frenchman was stopping in a native village, a marabout drew two pistols from his burnoose and challenged Robert-Houdin to a duel in which the marabout claimed the right to the first shot!
The meeting took place in an open square surrounded by whitewashed buildings. The square was packed with Arabs who hoped to see the Frenchman killed. The marabout produced his pistols which he loaded with powder.
He offered Robert-Houdin a handful of bullets. The Frenchman chose two, dropped them into the weapons, covered them with paper wads, and thrust them into the barrels with a ramrod. The marabout had watched every step and felt sure that his adversary could not escape. He took careful aim and pulled the trigger. Robert-Houdin smiled—and displayed the bullet between his teeth. The marabout tried to seize the other pistol, but the French conjurer held him off, saying, "You could not injure me, but you shall see that my skill is more dangerous than yours.
Whitewash flew. Where the bullet had struck, a gout of blood appeared and dripped down the masonry. The art of illusion is at least 95 per cent applied psychology. In the duel with the marabout, psychology accounted for 98 per cent of the effect. The underlying trick was simple. If it had been used alone, it might have puzzled the Arabs, but the dramatic impact would have been lost.
In those days, duelling pistols were provided with bullet molds. Robert-Houdin cast two hollow balls of wax which he rubbed with graphite to make them look like lead.
One ball was left empty; the other was filled with blood drawn from his thumb. He switched these for the real bullets by sleight of hand. It was strong enough to hold together until it struck the wall and splashed it with blood.
Robert-Houdin was able to overcome the Arabs because he followed the formula adopted by the most successful wonder-workers down the ages. Witch doctors, pagan priests, spiritualist mediums, and confidence men have impressed their dupes by making the least possible use of trickery and applying all the psychology they could muster. Modern conjurers can profit from following the same rules. When they use more than one part of trickery to nine parts of psychology, they cannot hope to create the maximum impression.
A play does not take place on the stage but in the minds of the spectators. What really happens is that a troupe of actors repeats a carefully rehearsed routine before an obviously artificial setting.
The audience, however, misinterprets this as a series of exciting events in the lives of the characters. Forcing spectators to interpret what they see and hear in ways which they know are false comes as close to genuine magic as we are likely to get.
The everyday illusions of the legitimate stage put all but the best conjuring performances to shame. Even a second-rate play convinces spectators of "facts" which they know are not true. It can go further and use these imaginary "facts" to wring real tears from the eyes of the audience. Everyone is aware that a leading lady on Broadway receives a salary which puts her in the upper tax brackets. Nevertheless, this knowledge does not keep audiences from sobbing over her poverty when she impersonates a homeless waif.
The magic of drama is infinitely more powerful than the magic of trickery. It is as available to the conjurer as it is to the actor. The only difference is that actors take it for granted, whereas few conjurers are even aware that it exists.
You need not accept this on my testimony. Here is evidence from Harlan Tarbell, one of the greatest conjurers of the twentieth century: What magical showmanship can do was brought home to me forcibly when a party of twelve magicians, including myself, went to see the play The Charlatan in which Frederick Tilden was playing the leading role of Cagliostro, the magician. We sat delighted at the magic and illusions that he presented from time to time in the play.
When he produced a rosebush from a seed which he planted into a bit of sand in a clear glass flower-pot, we were completely mystified.
Here, truly, was a great magician whom we had hitherto missed. After the show, we went back stage, met Tilden and invited him out to dinner As is customary at dinners, some of the boys performed a few miracles. This was no exception. I do not do tricks. You have me all wrong. I am just an actor. He said that when he was chosen to play the part of a noted magician, Cagliostro, he determined to make himself feel like a great magician and act the part. He studied what he thought a man like Cagliostro would do and what he would say in the emergencies which the play brought forth He decided that things could be produced and vanished from places which an audience would least suspect.
In this instance, the man who appeared most innocent of helping him was the villain, a lawyer who tried to expose Cagliostro and prove him to be a faker. So Tilden thought his best helper would be this disturbing lawyer, a skeptic who sought every way possible to undo the magician. In the eyes of the audience, this lawyer and the magician were bitter enemies. In reality, it was the lawyer who helped create the illusions.
When the lawyer lifted up the paper cone from the flower-pot to see that there was no trickery, he put the flowers into the cone himself in readiness for the production a moment later. And Tilden, in his mastery of showmanship, put his effects over as though he were the greatest magician in the world. The bullet-catching routine provides another example. But from the standpoint of the audience, there was no comparison. The stage performers challenged their audiences to discover how the gun was faked so that no bullet came out of the muzzle.
Sometimes the device actually lay elsewhere. However, as that possibility did not occur to the spectators, it could not affect their reactions. From their viewpoint, he was staking his life in a duel for the control of North Africa—a duel in which only the power of his magic could protect him from certain death!
Actually, the stage versions are extremely dangerous. At least ten performers have been killed by them, and there have been twice as many nonfatal accidents. But most theatergoers do not know that and would not believe it if they were told.
Hence, the men who have presented the trick on stage were taking a tremendous risk without making a corresponding impression on their audiences. This illustrates a basic principle. What occurs on the stage is of no consequence except as it affects the thinking of the spectators. All that matters is what they think and see and hear.
Robert-Houdin, on the other hand, created an illusion. He persuaded his audience that no bullet could harm him. Unfortunately, conjurers have formed the habit of referring to any large trick as an "illusion. If the equipment is big enough, the trick is called an "illusion" even though a ten-year-old child can see through it. This careless use of language is likely to confuse our thinking.
We shall not follow the custom. Instead, we shall call anything a "trick" which challenges its audience to discover how it was worked. We shall reserve illusion for those feats which actually convince the audience. In most cases, the conviction will be neither deeper nor more lasting than the conviction of an audience at Hamlet that the prince has been killed in a duel. However, this is all the theater needs to create drama—and it is all a conjurer needs to fascinate his audience instead of being content to provide a little amusement.
There is a tremendous difference between even such short-lived illusions and none at all. If a play fails to create any illusion, it is worthless. On the other hand, if it succeeds in creating an illusion, the fact that the spell of the drama is broken with the fall of the curtain does not diminish its effect in the slightest. Fortunately for conjurers, a routine that fails to create an illusion is better than an unconvincing performance of a play.
It may still be highly entertaining as a trick. Nevertheless, as illusions have far more appeal to most audiences, there is no reason why we should not gratify them and ourselves by providing the additional interest. Illusions take many different forms. But, in the most typical examples, the performer claims some specific, supernormal power and makes this claim as impressively as possible.
He then indicates that the purpose of his performance is to demonstrate the power. He provides this demonstration, and it appears to prove his claim. The conjurer who presents a trick usually begins by admitting that it is a trick. On the rare occasions when he pretends to have some remarkable power, he does it half-heartedly as though to say, "We all know that this is pure hokum, and that I only talk about magic, telepathy, or what not because it is part of the act.
If one actor in a play treated his part in this fashion, the play would fail.
Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers