Not so Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer. Their focus is on what their subtitle describes as “the deceptive art,” in other words, conjuring, stage illusions, card tricks, mind-reading and all those seemingly impossible feats — from pulling a rabbit out of a hat to sawing a woman in half — that make us ask ourselves, “Now, how did they do that?” As the authors stress, at magic shows we never seriously believe that the performer is actually violating the laws of physics and nature. Rather our pleasure comes from knowing that we are about to be deceived and then, despite our close attention to what is going on, finding ourselves deceived anyway. A good stage magician leaves us astonished, not trembling that he or she possesses satanic powers.
If Penn and Teller are today’s most famous conjuring duo, the co-authors of this book are their scholarly equivalents. Peter Lamont is a historian and psychology professor at the University of Edinburgh, a former magician and the author of “The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick,” the engrossing and witty “biography” of this eerie legend. Jim Steinmeyer has not only designed illusions for Doug Henning and David Copperfield, but also written numerous books on his craft, most notably “Hiding the Elephant,” an account of how magicians learned to make people, animals and even the Statue of Liberty disappear. Of course, as the two authors coyly remind us here, “the impossible is never easy.”
In essence, “The Secret History of Magic” surveys what one might call show-business wizardry from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Throughout this period, magicians would rely on dexterity of hand and misdirection, but also on the latest science and technology. Perhaps the most extensive analysis in the book re-examines 19th-century magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin’s celebrated visit to Algeria at the behest of the French government. Lamont and Steinmeyer reveal how much this episode, and much else in the magician’s memoirs, has been distorted and romanticized. Still, there’s no denying the simplicity and effectiveness of the Frenchman’s first “proof” of his unearthly powers before an audience of Algerian chieftains.
Robert-Houdin boldly announced that he could render even the strongest warrior as weak as a little child. To prove this, he placed a small box on the stage and asked an Arab volunteer to pick it up, which the man did with ease. But then the magician made a mysterious gesture and challenged the man to lift up the box again. This time it proved impossible to budge, despite much huffing and puffing. You can probably guess the trick’s secret: The box contained a plate of steel and located just under the flooring was an exceptionally powerful electromagnet that could be secretly turned off or on. As all theatrical professionals know, presentation is everything.
The young magician Erich Weiss initially so revered Robert-Houdin that he paid homage to him through his own stage name: Houdini. However, the great escapist receives only a few pages here — there are many books about Houdini — and we learn instead more about other late Victorian and early modern masters such as Joseph Buatier de Kolta, Johann Hofzinser, Wiljalba Frikell, the Davenport brothers (whose act took inspiration from contemporary spiritualism and involved a “Spirit Cabinet”), John Nevil Maskelyne, who transformed London’s Egyptian Hall into the world’s most famous theater of magic and, not least, Maskelyne’s even more gifted partner David Devant. We also learn about the franchising of tricks and the publication of how-to books, including “The Expert at the Card Table,” by S.W. Erdnase, an author about whom nothing is known except that his name is E.S. Andrews spelled backward. It was this book that became the bible of the outstanding practitioner of modern close-up magic, Dai Vernon. Other chapters look at the influence of music hall, radio and movies.
In the course of their history, the co-authors share a number of memorably phrased observations about the ideals of stage magic. For example, Robert-Houdin neatly declared that “the conjurer is an actor playing the part of a magician.” Advising against obvious dexterity, Erdnase recommends that a card magician “conceal, as far as possible, the possession of digital ability.” The contemporary artist Banksy adds yet a third maxim: “Become good at cheating, and you never need to become good at anything else.”
As Steinmeyer and Lamont themselves reiterate: In magic “there is always more going on than we think.” Audiences naturally suspect the use of trapdoors, mirrors and wires, but this doesn’t matter so long as the spectators fail to grasp, as they are watching, what is actually happening. To show that there was nothing hidden up their sleeves, magicians would sometimes publicly pull them up — and use that very action as a way of secreting an object in those sleeves.
Though a bit repetitive and diffuse, this fine book is as much a philosophical apologia as it is a history. The magician stands before us and elicits “a particular kind of wonder.” For a few blissful moments, we can actually “experience the impossible without believing that it is real.”
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style.
THE SECRET HISTORY OF MAGIC
The True Story of the Deceptive Art
By Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer
Tarcher/Perigee. 357 pp. $28