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Magic (sometimes referred to as stage magic to distinguish it from paranormal or ritual magic) is a performing art that entertains audiences by staging tricks or creating illusions of seemingly impossible or supernatural feats using natural means. These feats are called magic tricks, effects, or illusions.
A professional who performs such illusions is called a magician or an illusionist. Some performers may also be referred to by names reflecting the type of magical effects they present, such as prestidigitators, conjurors, hypnotists, mentalists, or escape artists.
The term "magic" is etymologically derived from the Greek word mageia (μαγεία). Greeks and Persians had been at war for centuries and the Persian priests, called magosh in Persian, came to be known as magoi in Greek; that which a Persian priest did come to be known as mageia and then magika, a term which eventually referred to any foreign, unorthodox or illegitimate ritual practice.
Performances which modern observers would recognize as conjuring have probably been practiced throughout history. For many recorded centuries, magicians were associated with the devil and the occult. During the 19th and 20th centuries, many stage magicians even capitalized on this notion in their advertisements. 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 money games. They were also used by the practitioners of various religions and cults from ancient times onwards to frighten uneducated people into obedience or turn them into adherents. However, the profession of the illusionist gained strength only in the 18th century, and has enjoyed several popular vogues since.
The first book of magic tricks appeared in 1584. Englishman Reginald Scot, published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which was devoted to debunking the claims of magicians and showing how their 'magic tricks' were in reality accomplished. Among the tricks discussed were 'sleight-of-hand' manipulations with rope, paper and coins. At the time, fear and belief in witchcraft was widespread and the book tried to demonstrate that these fears were misplaced. All obtainable copies were burned on the accession of James I in 1603 and those remaining are now rare. It began to reappear in print in 1651.
During the 17th century, many similar books were published that described in detail the methods of a number of magic tricks, including The Art of Conjuring (1614) and The Anatomy of Legedermain: The Art of Jugling (c.1675).
Until the 18th century magic shows were a common source of entertainment at fairs, where itinerant performers would entertain the public with magic tricks, as well as the more traditional spectacles of sword swallowing, juggling and fire breathing. In the early 18th century, as belief in witchcraft was waning, the art became increasingly respectable and shows would be put on for rich private patrons. A notable figure in this transition was the English showman, Isaac Fawkes, who began to promote his act in advertisements from the 1720s - he even claimed to have performed for King George II. One of Fawkes' advertisements described his routine in some detail:
He takes an empty bag, lays it on the Table and turns it several times inside out, then commands 100 Eggs out of it and several showers of real Gold and silver, then the Bag beginning to swell several sorts of wild fowl run out of it upon the Table. He throws up a Pack of Cards, and causes them to be living birds flying about the room. He causes living Beasts, Birds, and other Creatures to appear upon the Table. He blows the spots of the Cards off and on, and changes them to any pictures.
A founding figure of modern entertainment magic was Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, originally a clockmaker, who opened a magic theatre in Paris in 1845. He transformed his art from one performed at fairs to a performance that the public paid to see at the theatre. His speciality was the construction of mechanical automata which appeared to move and act as if they were alive. Many of Robert-Houdin's mechanisms for illusion were pirated by his assistant and ended up in the performances of his rivals, John Henry Anderson and Alexander Herrmann.
John Henry Anderson was pioneering the same transition in London. In 1840 he opened the New Strand Theatre, where he performed as 'The Great Wizard of the North'. His success came from advertising his shows and captivating his audience with expert showmanship. He became one of the earliest magicians to attain a high level of world renown. He opened a second theatre in Glasgow in 1845.
Towards the end of the century, large magic shows permanently staged at big theatre venues became the norm. The British performer J N Maskelyne and his partner Cooke established their own theatre, the Egyptian Hall, in London's Piccadilly, in 1873. The show incorporated stage illusions and reinvented traditional tricks with exotic (often Oriental) imagery. The potential of the stage was exploited for hidden mechanisms and assistants, and the control it offers over the audience's point of view. Maskelyne and Cooke invented many of the illusions still performed today - one of his best-known being levitation.
The model for the look of a 'typical' magician—a man with wavy hair, a top hat, a goatee, and a tailcoat—was Alexander Herrmann (February 10, 1844 – December 17, 1896), also known as Herrmann the Great. Herrmann was a French magician and was part of the Herrmann family name that is the "first-family of magic".
The escapologist and magician Harry Houdini took his stage name from Robert-Houdin and developed a range of stage magic tricks, many of them based on what became known after his death as escapology. Houdini was genuinely skilled in techniques such as lockpicking and escaping straitjackets, but also made full use of the range of conjuring techniques, including fake equipment and collusion with individuals in the audience. Houdini's show business savvy was great as well as his performance skill. There is a Houdini Museum dedicated to him in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
As a form of entertainment, magic easily moved from theatrical venues to television specials, which opened up new opportunities for deceptions, and brought stage magic to huge audiences. Famous magicians of the 20th century included Okito, David Devant, Harry Blackstone Sr., Harry Blackstone Jr., Howard Thurston, Theodore Annemann, Cardini, Joseph Dunninger, Dai Vernon, Fred Culpitt, Tommy Wonder, Siegfried & Roy, and Doug Henning. Popular 20th and 21st century magicians include David Copperfield, Lance Burton, James Randi, Penn and Teller, David Blaine, Criss Angel, Hans Klok, Derren Brown and Dynamo. Well known women would include Dell O'Dell and Dorothy Dietrich. Most TV magicians perform 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 principles of stage magic are old. There is an expression, "it's all done with smoke and mirrors", used to explain something baffling, but effects seldom use mirrors today, due to the amount of installation work and transport difficulties. 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, the Statue of Liberty, and a space shuttle, using other kinds of optical deceptions.
There is 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. Some magicians today, such as Guy Hollingworth and Tom Stone have begun to challenge the notion that all magic effects fit into a limited number of categories. Among magicians who believe in a limited number of categories (such as Dariel Fitzkee, Harlan Tarbell, S.H. Sharpe), there has been disagreement as to how many different types of effects there are. Some of these are listed below.
Many magical routines use combinations of effects. For example, in "cups and balls" a magician may use vanishes, productions, penetrations, teleportation and transformations as part of the one presentation.
The methodology behind magic is often referred to as a science (often a branch of physics) whilst the performance aspect is more of an art form.
Traditionally, magicians refuse to reveal the methods behind their tricks to the audience. Reasons for secrecy include the following:
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 may vary, but typically takes the following or similar form:
Once sworn to the Oath, one is considered a magician, and is expected to live up to this promise. Magicians who reveal secrets, either purposely or through insufficient practice, may find that other magicians are unwilling to teach them any more secrets. They will then no longer be eligible to join IBM (International Brotherhood of Magicians) and will be banned from magic society.
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, but 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 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 they are 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.
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!"
Dedication to magic can teach confidence and creativity, as well as the work ethic associated with regular practice and the responsibility that comes with devotion to an art. The teaching of performance magic was once a secretive practice. Professional magicians were unwilling to share knowledge with anyone outside the profession to prevent the laity from learning their secrets. This often made it difficult for an interested apprentice to learn anything but the basics of magic. 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, whereas today mass-market books offer a myriad titles. Videos and DVDs are a newer medium of tuition, but many of the methods found in this format are readily found in previously published books. However, they can serve as a visual demonstration.
Persons interested in learning to perform magic 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 audition. The purpose is to show to the membership 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 and president for several years. 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.
Magic performances tend to fall into a few specialties or genres.
Some modern illusionists believe that it is unethical to give a performance that claims to be anything other than a clever and skillful deception. Most of these performers therefore eschew the term "magician" (which they view as making a claim to supernatural power) in favor of "illusionist" and similar descriptions; for example, the performer Jamy Ian Swiss makes these points by billing himself as an "honest liar." On the other side of the coin, many performers say that magical acts, as a form of theater, need no more of a disclaimer than any play or film; this viewpoint is reflected in the words of magician and mentalist Joseph Dunninger, "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation will suffice."
These apparently irreconcilable differences of opinion have led to some conflicts among performers. For example, more than thirty years after the hugely successful illusionist Uri Geller made his first appearances on television in the 1970s to exhibit his self-proclaimed psychic ability to bend spoons, his actions still provoke controversy among some magical performers, because of his claim that he was not using conjuring techniques. On the other hand, because Geller bent—and continues to bend—spoons within a performance context, the Dunninger quote may be said to apply.
Less fraught with controversy, however, may be the use of deceptive practices by those who employ conjuring techniques for personal gain outside the venue of a magical performance.
Fraudulent mediums have long capitalized on the popular belief in paranormal phenomena to prey on the bereaved for financial gain. From the 1840s to the 1920s, during the greatest popularity of the Spiritualism religious movement as well as public interest in séances, a number of fraudulent mediums used conjuring methods to perform illusions such as table-knocking, slate-writing, and telekinetic effects, which they attributed to the actions of ghosts or other spirits. The great escapologist and illusionist Harry Houdini devoted much of his time to exposing such fraudulent operators. Magician James Randi, magic duo Penn & Teller, and the mentalist Derren Brown have also devoted much time to investigating paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims.
Con men and grifters too may use techniques of conjuring for fraudulent goals. Cheating at card games is an obvious example, and not a surprising one: one of the most respected textbooks of card techniques for magicians, The Expert at the Card Table by Erdnase, was primarily written as an instruction manual for card sharps. 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 a simple proposition: to identify, after a seemingly easy-to-track mixing sequence, which one of three face-down cards is the Queen. 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 still lose money on them; a shell-game ring was broken up in Los Angeles as recently as December 2009.
Because of the secretive nature of magic, research can sometimes be a challenge. Many magic resources are privately held and most libraries only have small populist collections of magicana. However, organizations exist to band together independent collectors, writers, and researchers of magic history, including the Magic Collectors' Association, which publishes a quarterly magazine and hosts an annual convention; and The Conjuring Arts Research Center, which publishes a monthly newsletter and biannual magazine, and offers its members use of a searchable database of rare books and periodicals.
Performance magic is particularly notable as a key area of popular culture from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Many performances and performers can be followed through newspapers of the time.
Many books have been written about magic tricks; so many are written every year that at least one magic author has suggested that more books are written about magic than any other performing art. Although the bulk of these books are not seen on the shelves of libraries or public bookstores, the serious student can find many titles through specialized stores catering to the needs of magical performers.
Several notable public research collections on magic are the WG Alma Conjuring Collection at the State Library of Victoria; the R. B. Robbins Collection of Stage Magic and Conjuring at the State Library of NSW; the H. Adrian Smith Collection of Conjuring and Magicana at Brown University; and the Carl W. Jones Magic Collection, 1870s–1948 at Princeton University.