Editor’s note: come for the episode recap; stay for the wonderful insight into the world of magic (starting on page 2!)
Following the amazing performances of the previous two episodes, last night’s Penn & Teller: Fool Us was, strangely enough, a bit disappointing – but this was mainly because last night’s episode was only full of good, solid routines, with nobody quite reaching the heights of the sublime that we saw with Jon Armstrong or Shin Lim. So, without further ado, the performances:
Brian Brushwood: This was a fun, energetic act, and possibly the most lively routine of the night. Rather than just have an audience surrogate, Brushwood brought the entire audience into the trick as participants, which is really great. On a personal note, it was very satisfying to see psychic surgery, a scam that has fooled so many people into jeopardizing their health by seeking a miracle cure, presented in its rightful context as a magic trick. It didn’t fool Penn and Teller, but it was good, solid entertainment.
(Brian Brushwood once had a correspondence with Teller, which I think should be required reading for anybody getting into magic who is trying to figure out their identity as a magician.)
Simon Pierro: This was easily the stand-out performance of the night. It’s not often that you get to see what is essentially a new field of magic performed before your eyes, and when you do, it’s really special. I don’t know if the magic app salesman was the best way to present digital magic, but it was amazing and wonderful to see it. It didn’t fool Penn and Teller, but it did fool and amaze me.
(During his comments, Penn mentioned Jerry Andrus – Andrus, 1918-2007, was an American magician famous for inventive close-up magic.)
John “Handsome Jack” Lovick: This was a solid but low key performance of a classic trick. It’s also a good example of escalation and misdirection in presentation. Lovick looks like he’s finished the trick and is in the process of exposing it, and by the time you realize that it’s a fake-out, he’s set up the climax – which happens to be an impossible act that undermines the exposure and makes the trick more baffling. This technique worked – Lovick was the only performer of the night who fooled Penn and Teller.
Kyle Knight and Mistie: This had to have been the most charming act of the night. It’s a combination of an escape and a quick change effect that doesn’t present any thrill of danger to the audience – just a lovely sense of mystery. It didn’t fool Penn and Teller, but it’s a fun trick performed by people who clearly love what they’re doing, and that’s part of what makes magic worth it in the first place.
Penn & Teller: The double bullet catch, which they perform every night in their Vegas show, may be the most remarkable and exceptional trick in the whole of magic – not just because it is incredibly deceptive, but because it may be the first safe bullet catch in history. The bullet catch is the most dangerous illusion in the entirety of magic, claiming the lives of at least 15 performers. One of the few magicians before them to make it a regular part of his act, William Robinson (1861-1918) – better known by his stage name of Chung Ling Soo – died after being shot while doing the trick, and Robinson had been paranoid about safety. The bullet catch is dangerous for the magician, and potentially dangerous for the audience.
And this brings me to ethics.
Even though its methods rely on deception, magic is an ethical performance art. If anything, it clings to ethics for dear life, appearing to flirt with the unethical without actually crossing the line. Deception is the tool for creating the effect, but it is the effect that is the desired end result, not deceiving the audience. The problem facing magicians is often figuring out what those ethics are, or should be.
When the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society for American Magicians published a joint ethics statement, they included a number of points such as respect for magicians and their creations, respect for intellectual property rights, and respect for any livestock used. Although there is also a statement that magic should be presented to the audience in an ethical manner, this is not expanded into an explicit requirement of respect for the audience, but instead described in terms of magicians not spoiling the acts of other magicians. While most, if not all, books on performance theory condemn audience abuse, there are still a number of performers who use their audience as props in an insulting or abusive manner.
In his 1969 book Magic and Showmanship, Henning Nelms summarized general magical ethics as follows: “A conjurer is allowed to lie about his methods but not to leave his audience with the belief that he really possesses supernatural powers.” If there is one ethical rule modern magicians follow, it is this – however, it was not always this way.
Although magic has been around for millennia, its legitimacy as a performance art is far younger. In the ancient world, there was no shortage of priests who used the same principles and techniques as magicians to provide their deity’s miracles upon command, their actions given legitimacy by divine purpose – but they were not magicians. Instead, the “ancestor” of the modern magician was probably the busking conjurer in the village square, claiming all the supernatural ability of the priests with none of their legitimacy.
The earliest European depiction of a magician does not paint him in a positive light: he performs the cups and balls to amaze a small crowd, in the process providing the distraction for a cutpurse to do his work. The performance style of these conjurers was to claim true magical powers, dressing as wizards and invoking the diabolic and the demonic – the audience would be amazed, but the risk of being robbed during the performance was a real one indeed.
It was Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) who probably did the most to turn magic into a legitimate art form, discarding the wizard’s robes and pretense of supernatural powers for modern evening wear, a more accurate perception of sleight of hand, and bringing magic out of the fairground and into the drawing room and theatre. Once this step was taken, the general distaste for claims of true magical power was born as well. Perhaps this is not surprising – to make the transition to legitimate performance art, magic had to become ethical.
So what are these ethics? Even Nelm’s concise description has some variation – there is a divide in modern magic between those who see their role as performing tricks for an audience with no conceit towards powers, and those who present tricks while implying real magical powers, even though none are explicitly claimed. Indeed, one of the main theories on showmanship is that in any given trick, an audience needs to be led down a path where all logical explanations for the trick are disproved, leaving only “magic.”
At the heart of this, though, is still the refusal to make outright claims to magical or supernatural powers. Those who do, such as John Edward and Uri Gellar, risk the ire and wrath of magicians, who will often be the first to stand up and debunk them. During Phenomenon, a magic talent show that aired in 2007 on NBC, a spiritualist act by Jim Callahan prompted a challenge for proof from judge Criss Angel – a challenge that Angel issued to his fellow judge Uri Gellar as well.
How magicians should treat each other is also an ethical matter. Today, most magicians operate with a great deal of respect for their fellow performers – in principle, tricks should not be stolen, and magicians should not expose the methods of others. Even Penn and Teller only expose tricks that they have specifically designed to be exposed (or, sometimes on Fool Us, methods that have already been confirmed to be incorrect). In the past, however, this respect has been honoured more in the breach than the observance. A century ago, espionage between magicians was commonplace, to the point that by the time P.T. Selbit brought his sawing a woman in half illusion to America in the early 1920s, the American magician Horace Goldin had already copied it, performed it, and taken legal action to prevent it from being performed by anybody else. Between Selbit and his imitators, the illusion would spend years in legal dispute.
However, perhaps the worst offender was Erik Weisz, known by his stage name of Harry Houdini (1874-1926). Houdini was a mercurial man when it came to how he treated his fellow magicians, halfway between angel and demon with wild swings in both directions. He spearheaded a number of initiatives – such as the expansion of the Society for American Magicians into a national organization – to help bring professional and amateur magicians together and help their careers. When Houdini toured he spent his off-time organizing communities of magicians, causing magic clubs to appear in his wake. In fact, he may have done more to advance magic in America than any other single person in his lifetime. This charity, however, only extended so long as it was Houdini on top.
Houdini wanted recognition as a magician above all else, and saw any other performer within his level of success as competition to be crushed. Inside magic circles, Houdini was legendary for his vindictiveness, which included exposing the secrets of tricks he had finished with – along with those of others – to prevent them from being performed by his competition, filing legal actions against anybody trying to imitate his stage name, and undertaking a public relations campaign to slander and discredit Robert-Houdin, the very man who had inspired Houdini, after Robert-Houdin’s widow had refused to meet with him.
The question of how much danger a magician should face is also an ethical issue with some disagreement. Penn and Teller have stated on multiple occasions that it is unethical for an act to present any real danger of physical harm, which is a default that most magicians will follow. Even Harry Houdini, who was famous for escape acts that left the audience fearing for his life in every show, left nothing to chance – he did, however, know how to draw out every moment to make an audience sweat, often escaping as soon as the curtain was drawn and then reading a book while he waited for the right time to emerge.
While danger can usually be mitigated, it cannot always be avoided. One of the more famous props is the magic guillotine, which involves zero risk of decapitation, but a significant risk of cracked or broken ribs. The most dangerous trick, the bullet catch, was discussed earlier. Few magicians perform it due to its peril, and those who do take numerous safety precautions.
This risk aversion, however, is not universal. A number of escape artists do not share the carefulness of Houdini (who, contrary to popular belief, did not die on the stage, but in a hospital bed from appendicitis), and a number have died due to miscalculations in their escapes. Likewise, magicians like David Blaine have engaged in stunts with a high degree of risk – after a particular stunt where he was encased in a block of ice, Blaine required a full month of recovery before he could walk again.
In the end, there are many ethical principles in magic, but few are universal. One would be hard pressed to find a magician who would not declare it unethical to endanger an audience member, expose the secrets of other magicians, or claim to have supernatural powers. Everything else is up to the personal codes of the individual performers and the societies in which they claim membership.
Author’s Note: My latest story in The Eternity Quartet, The Conjurer’s Treason, is now available for download from Amazon.com.
Author’s Other Note: Since this is a feature about magic, we must ask for discretion when it comes to discussing methods in the forums. For the sake of preserving the mystery for those who do not want to know how the tricks are done, as well as to avoid accidentally exposing the hard work of some very talented magicians, please avoid revealing methods in the discussion threads; if you must talk about a method in a way that might expose it, please use spoiler tags.
Robert B. Marks is the author of the new and revived Garwulf’s Corner on The Escapist, as well as Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, the original Garwulf’s Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, his Patreon-based magazine experiment, Garwulf Speaks, can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.