Magic is a performing art that entertains an audience by creating illusions of seemingly impossible or supernatural feats, using purely natural means. These feats are called magic tricks, effects or illusions.
An artist who performs illusions is called a magician. Some performers may also be referred to by names reflecting the type of magical effects they present, such as prestidigitators, conjurors, illusionists, mentalists, escape artists, and ventriloquists.
A group of magicians is referred to as a misdirection of magicians. This is according to Charles Harrington Elster's book There's a Word for it, published by Scribner.
The term "Magic" is etymologically derived from the Old Persian word Magi
. Performances we would now recognize as conjuring have probably been practiced throughout history
. The same level of ingenuity that was used to produce famous ancient deceptions such as the Trojan Horse
would also have been used for entertainment
, or at least for cheating in gambling
time immemorial. However, the profession of the illusionist gained strength only in eighteenth century
, and has enjoyed several popular vogues.
From 1756 to 1781, Jacob Philadelphia performed feats of magic, sometimes under the guise of scientific exhibitions, throughout Europe and in Russia. Modern entertainment magic owes much of its origins to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), originally a clockmaker, who opened a magic theatre in Paris in the 1840s. His speciality was the construction of mechanical automata which appeared to move and act as if they were alive. The British performer J N Maskelyne and his partner Cooke established their own theatre, the Egyptian Hall in London's Piccadilly, in 1873. They presented stage magic, exploiting the potential of the stage for hidden mechanisms and assistants, and the control it offers over the audience's point of view. The escapologist and magician Harry Houdini (real name Ehrich Weiss, 1874 - 1926), took his stage name from Robert-Houdin and developed a range of stage magic tricks, many of them based on escapology (though that word was not used until after Houdini's death). The son of a Hungarian rabbi, Houdini was genuinely highly skilled in techniques such as lockpicking and escaping straitjackets, but also made full use of the whole range of conjuring techniques, including fake equipment and collusion with individuals in the audience. Houdini's showbusiness savvy was as great as his performing skill. There is a Houdini Museum dedicated to him in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In addition to expanding the range of magic hardware, showmanship and deceptive technique, these performers established the modern relationship between the performer and the audience.
In this relationship, there is an unspoken agreement between the performer and the audience about what is going on. Unlike in the past, almost no performers today actually claim to possess supernatural powers. There is a debate amongst people who perform mentalism as to whether or not to perform their style of magic as if they have real power or if they can simulate this power.
It is generally understood by most people that the effects in the performance are accomplished through sleight of hand (also called prestidigitation or léger de main), misdirection, deception, collusion with a member of the audience, apparatus with secret mechanisms, mirrors, and other trickery (hence the illusions are commonly referred to as "tricks"). The performer seeks to present an effect so clever and skillful that the audience cannot believe their eyes, and cannot think of the explanation. The sense of bafflement is part of the entertainment. In turn, the audience play a role in which they agree to be entertained by something they know to be a deception. Houdini also gained the trust of his audiences by using his knowledge of illusions to debunk charlatans, a tradition continued by magicians such as James Randi, Arthur Ellison, P. C. Sorcar, and Penn and Teller.
Magic has come and gone in fashion. For instance, the magic show for much of the 20th century was marginalized in North America as largely children's entertainment. A revival started with Doug Henning, who reestablished the magic show as a form of mass entertainment with his distinctive look that rejected the old stereotypes and his exuberant sense of showmanship that became popular on both stage and numerous television specials.
Today, the art is enjoying a vogue, driven by a number of highly successful performers such as David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, Barry and Stuart, Criss Angel, Dorothy Dietrich, Greg Frewin and many other stage and TV performers. David Blaine is sometimes included in this category, though his major performances have been more a combination of Houdini-style escape tricks and physical endurance displays than the illusion magic performed by others. The mid-twentieth century saw magic transform in many different aspects. Some performers preferred to renovate the craft on stage (such as The Mentalizer Show in Times Square which mixed themes of spirituality and kabbalah with the art of magic). Others successfully made the transition to TV, which opens up new opportunities for deceptions, and brings the performer to huge audiences. Most TV magicians are shown performing before a live audience, who provide the remote viewer with a reassurance that the illusions are not obtained with post production visual effects.
Many of the basic principles of magic are comparatively old. There is an expression, "it's all done with smoke and mirrors", used to explain something baffling, but contrary to popular belief, effects are seldom achieved using mirrors today, due to the amount of work needed to install it and difficulties in transport. For example, the famous Pepper's Ghost, a stage illusion first used in 19th century London, required a specially built theatre. Modern performers have vanished objects as large as the Taj Mahal, Statue of Liberty, and the Space Shuttle, using other kinds of optical deceptions.
Categories of effects
There is much discussion among magicians as to how a given effect is to be categorized, and disagreement as to what categories actually exist -- for instance, some magicians consider "penetrations" to be a separate category, while others consider penetrations a form of restoration or teleportation. It is generally agreed that there are very few different types of effect. There has been disagreement between some magicians (such as Dariel Fitzkee, Harlan Tarbell, S.H. Sharpe) as to how many different types of illusion there are. Some of these are listed below.
- Production The magician produces something from nothing—a rabbit from an empty hat, a fan of cards from thin air, a shower of coins from an empty bucket, or the magician themselves, appearing in a puff of smoke on an empty stage -- all of these effects are productions.
- Vanishing The magician makes something disappear—a coin, a cage of doves, milk from a newspaper, an assistant from a cabinet, or even the Statue of Liberty. A vanish, being the reverse of a production, may use a similar technique, in reverse.
- Transformation The magician transforms something from one state into another—a silk handkerchief changes colour, a lady turns into a tiger, an indifferent card changes to the spectator's chosen card. A transformation can be seen as a combination of a vanish and a production.
- Restoration The magician destroys an object, then restores it back to its original state—a rope is cut, a newspaper is torn, a woman is sawn in half, a borrowed watch is smashed to pieces—then they are all restored to their original state.
- Teleportation The magician causes something to move from one place to another—a borrowed ring is found inside a ball of wool, a canary inside a light bulb, an assistant from a cabinet to the back of the theatre. When two objects exchange places, it is called a transposition: a simultaneous, double teleportation.
- Escapology: The magician (an assistant may participate, but the magician himself is by far the most common) is placed in a restraining device (i.e. handcuffs or a straitjacket) and/or a death trap, and escapes to safety. Famous examples include being put in a straitjacket and into an overflowing tank of water, and being tied up and placed in a car being sent through a car crusher.
- Levitation The magician defies gravity, either by making something float in the air, or with the aid of another object (suspension)—a silver ball floats around a cloth, an assistant floats in mid-air, another is suspended from a broom, a scarf dances in a sealed bottle, the magician hovers a few inches off the floor. There are many popular ways to create this illusion of the magician himself being levitated, such as the Balducci levitation, the King Rising, and the Andruzzi levitations.
- Penetration The magician makes a solid object pass through another—a set of steel rings link and unlink, a candle penetrates an arm, swords pass through an assistant in a basket, a saltshaker penetrates the table-top, a man walks through a mirror. Sometimes referred to as 'solid-through-solid'.
- Prediction The magician predicts the choice of a spectator, or the outcome of an event under seemingly impossible circumstances—a newspaper headline is predicted, the total amount of loose change in the spectator's pocket, a picture drawn on a slate. Prediction forms the basis for most 'pick-a-card' tricks, where a random card is chosen, then revealed to be known by the performer.
Many magical routines use combinations of effects. For example, in the famous 'cups and balls' a magician may use vanishes, productions, penetrations, teleportations and transformations all as part of the one presentation.
The purpose of a magic trick is to amuse and create a feeling of wonder; the audience is generally aware that the magic is performed using trickery, and derives enjoyment from the magician's skill and cunning. Traditionally, magicians refuse to reveal the secrets to the audience. The reasons include:
- Exposure is claimed to "kill" magic as an artform and transforms it into mere intellectual puzzles and riddles. It is argued that once the secret of a trick is revealed to a person, that one can no longer fully enjoy subsequent performances of that magic, as the amazement is missing. Sometimes the secret is so simple that the audience feels let down, and feels disappointed it was taken in so easily.
- Keeping the secrets preserves the professional mystery of magicians who perform for money.
Membership in professional magicians' organizations often requires a solemn commitment to the "Magician's Oath" never to reveal the secrets of magic to non-magicians.
- The Magician's Oath (though it may vary, 'The Oath' takes the following, or similar form):
- "As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless that one swears to uphold the Magician's Oath in turn. I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magic."
Once sworn to The Oath, one is considered a magician, and is expected to live up to this promise. A magician who reveals a secret, either purposely or through insufficient practice, may typically find oneself without any magicians willing to teach one any more secrets.
However, it is considered permissible to reveal secrets to individuals who are determined to learn magic and become magicians. It is typically a sequential process of increasingly valuable and lesser known secrets. The secrets of almost all magical effects are available to the public through numerous books and magazines devoted to magic, available from the specialized magic trade. There are also web sites which offer videos, DVDs and instructional materials. In this sense, there are very few classical illusions left unrevealed, however this does not appear to have diminished the appeal of performances. In addition, magic is a living art, and new illusions are devised with surprising regularity. Sometimes a 'new' illusion will be built on an illusion that is old enough to have become unfamiliar.
Some magicians have taken the controversial position that revealing the methods used in certain works of magic can enhance the appreciation of the audience for cleverness of magic. Penn and Teller frequently perform tricks using transparent props to reveal how it is done, for example, although they almost always include additional unexplained effects at the end that are made even more astonishing by the revealing props being used. Val Valentino, as "The Masked Magician," revealed a number of secrets in a series of four Fox Network TV specials.
Often what seems to be a revelation of a magical secret is merely another form of misdirection. For instance, a magician may explain to an audience member that the linking rings "have a hole in them" and hand the volunteer two unlinked rings, which the volunteer finds to have become linked as soon as he handles them. At this point the magician may shove his arm through the ring ('the hole in the ring'), proclaiming: "See? Once you know that every ring has a hole, it's easy!"
The teaching of performance magic was once a secretive art. Professional magicians were unwilling to share knowledge with anyone outside the profession to prevent the laity from learning their secrets. This made it difficult for an interested apprentice to learn magic beyond the basics. Some had strict rules against members discussing magic secrets with anyone but established magicians.
From the 1584 publication of Reginald Scot
's Discoverie of Witchcraft
until the end of the 19th century, only a few books were available for magicians to learn the craft. Books remain extremely useful today, and are still considered the best way for a student to learn magic. Videos and DVDs are a newer medium of tuition, which many inexperienced magicians rely on as a primary source of information; in reality, many of the methods found in this format are readily found in previously published books. However, they can serve useful as a visual demonstration.
Nowadays, magicians can join magic clubs. Here magicians, both seasoned and novitiate, can work together and help one another for mutual improvement, to learn new techniques, to discuss all aspects of magic, to perform for each other — sharing advice, encouragement and criticism. Before a magician can join one of these clubs, they usually have to perform an audition. The purpose is to show to the membership that they are a magician and not just someone off the street wanting to discover magical secrets.
The world's largest magic organization is the International Brotherhood of Magicians; it publishes a monthly journal, The Linking Ring. The oldest organization is the Society of American Magicians, of which Houdini was a member. In London, England, there is The Magic Circle which houses the largest magic library in Europe. Also PSYCRETS - The British Society of Mystery Entertainers, which caters specifically to mentalists, bizarrists, storytellers, readers, spiritualist performers, and other mystery entertainers. The Magic Castle in Hollywood is home to the Academy of Magical Arts.
Types of magic performance
Magic performances tend to fall into a few specialities or genres.
- Stage illusions are performed for large audiences, typically within an auditorium. This type of magic is distinguished by large-scale props, the use of assistants and often, exotic animals such as elephants and tigers. Some famous stage illusionists, past and present, include Harry Blackstone, Sr., Howard Thurston, Chung Ling Soo, David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy, and Harry Blackstone, Jr..
- Platform magic (also known as Cabaret magic or Stand-up magic) are terms used to describe magic performed for a medium to large audience. Night club magic and comedy club magic are also examples of this form. The use of illusionettes (small table top illusions) is common. The term Parlor magic is sometimes used but is considered pejorative. This genre includes the skilled manipulation of props such as billiard balls, card fans, doves, rabbits, silks, and rope. Examples of such magicians include Jeff McBride, Penn & Teller, David Abbott, Channing Pollock, Black Herman, and Fred Kaps.
- Micromagic (also known as Close-up magic or Table Magic) is performed with the audience close to the magician, sometimes even one-on-one. It usually makes use of everyday items as props, such as cards and coins (see Coin magic) and seemingly 'impromptu' effects. This is also called "table magic" particularly when performed as dinner entertainment. Ricky Jay and Lee Asher, following in the traditions of Dai Vernon, Slydini, and Max Malini, are considered among the foremost practitioners of close-up magic.
- Escapology is the branch of magic that deals with escapes from confinment or restraints. Harry Houdini is a well-known example of an escape artist or escapologist.
- Mentalism creates the impression in the minds of the audience that the performer possesses special powers to read thoughts, predict events, control other minds, and similar feats. It can be presented on a stage, in a cabaret setting, before small close-up groups, or even for one spectator. Magicians in this field include Alexander, Theodore Annemann, Banachek, David Berglas, Derren Brown, Kuda Bux, Bob Cassidy, Chan Canasta, Corinda, Joseph Dunninger, Uri Geller, Luke Jermay, Kreskin, Al Koran, Max Maven, Richard Osterlind, The Piddingtons, Ehud Segev, and The Zancigs.
- Theatrical Séances is that aspect of magic that simulates spiritualistic or mediumistic effects. This is meant purely as theatre and not meant to "conjure up spirits." This is an aspect of stage magic that is often misused by charlatans who pretend to actually be in contact with spirits.
- Children's magic is performed for an audience primarily composed of children. It is typically performed at birthday parties, preschools, elementary schools, Sunday Schools or libraries. This type of magic is usually comedic in nature and involves audience interaction as well as volunteer assistants.
- Online magic tricks were designed to function on a computer screen. The computer essentially replaces the magician. Some online magic tricks recreate traditional card tricks and require user participation, while others, like Plato's Cursed Triangle are based on mathematical, geometrical and/or optical illusions. One such online magic trick, called Esmeralda's Crystal Ball, became a viral phenomenon that fooled so many computer users into believing that their computer had supernatural powers, that Snopes dedicated a page to debunking the trick.
- Mathemagic is an aspect of stage magic that combines magic and mathematics. It is commonly used by children's magicians and mentalists.
- Corporate Magic or Trade Show Magic uses magic as a communication and sales tool, as opposed to just straightforward entertainment. Corporate magicians may come from a business background and typically present at meetings, conferences and product launches. They run workshops and can sometimes be found at trade shows, where their patter and illusions enhance an entertaining presentation of the products offered by their corporate sponsors. The pioneer performer in this arena is Eddie Tullock.
- Gospel Magic uses magic to catechize and evangelize. Gospel Magic was first used by St. Don Bosco to interest children in 19th century Turino, Italy to come back to school, accept assistance and to attend church.
- Street magic is a form of street performing or busking that employs a hybrid of stage magic, platform and close-up magic, usually performed 'in the round' or surrounded. Notable modern street magic performers include Jeff Sheridan and Gazzo. The term "street magic" has recently (since the first David Blaine TV special "Street Magic" aired in 1997) come to be used to describe a style of "guerilla" performance where magicians approach and perform for unsuspecting members of the public on the street. Unlike traditional street magic, this style is almost purely designed for TV and gains its impact from the wild reactions of the public. Magicians of this type include David Blaine, Criss Angel and Cyril Takayama.
- Bizarre magic uses mystical, horror, fantasy and other similar themes in performance. Bizarre magic is typically performed in a close-up venue, although some performers have effectively presented it in a stage setting. Charles Cameron has generally been credited as the "godfather of bizarre magic." Others, such as Tony Andruzzi, contributed significantly to its development.
- Shock magic is a genre of magic that shocks the audience, hence the name. Sometimes referred to as "geek magic," it takes its roots from circus sideshows, in which "freakish" performances were shown to audiences. Common shock magic or geek magic effects include eating razor blades, needle-through-arm, string through neck and pen-through-tongue. Magicians known for performing shock magic include Criss Angel, Andrew Mayne, Sean Fields, and Brian Brushwood.
Misuse of magic
In modern conjuring, it is not considered ethical to give a performance which claims to be anything other than a clever and skillful deception.
Fraudulent psychics or mediums have long capitalised on the popular belief in ESP and other paranormal phenomena for financial gain. Controversy still surrounds the hugely successful 1970s illusionist Uri Geller and his ability to bend spoons, for instance. During the height of the vogue for Spiritualism and the wave of popularity for séances from the 1840s to the 1920s, many fraudulent mediums used conjuring methods to perform illusions such as table-knocking, slate-writing, and telekinetic effects. The great escapologist and illusionist Harry Houdini devoted much of his time to exposing such fraudulent operators. Magicians James Randi, Penn & Teller, and Criss Angel are involved in similar debunking today. Randi has, for example, shown how people have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous faith healers who, using simple sleight-of-hand, remove chicken-giblet "tumors" from the patient's abdomen. More recently, British magicians Barry and Stuart used some of the Biblical accounts of miracles as inspiration for the tricks they presented in two TV specials.
Con men and grifters often use techniques of conjuring for fraudulent goals. Cheating at card games is an obvious example. Other scams continue to defraud the innocent, despite having been exposed and debunked. The card trick known as "Find the Lady" or "Three-card Monte" is an old favourite of street hustlers, who lure the victim into betting on what seems like an easy and obvious win. Another example is the shell game, in which a pea is hidden under one of three walnut shells, then shuffled around the table (or sidewalk) so slowly as to make the pea's position seemingly obvious. Although these are well-known as frauds, people are still fooled enough to lose money on them.