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Un prestidigitateur n’est point un jongleur; c’est un acteur jouant un rôle de magicien. — Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin

The great 19th century French conjuror Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) is widely credited for getting magic out of the streets and into the theatres of Europe and, ultimately, the rest of the world. Rather than manipulating objects to gather a crowd on the street—and then selling the crowd healing ointments or pomade or some such—Robert-Houdin donned the tailcoat of the noble and monied classes and filled the theatres with mystery and, of course, profit. (So great was Robert-Houdin’s reputation, that a young magician named Ehrich Weiss adopted the stage name Houdini both as a tribute and as a marketing ploy. In a sad twist of fame, Microsoft’s spell checker keeps trying to “correct” Houdin to Houdini.)


Now what about that quotation at the top of this post? “A (sleight of hand) magician is not a juggler; (s)he’s an actor playing the role of magician.” For magical insiders, this is probably the most often-quoted line in the magical literature, and we’re still fighting over what it means. As a practitioner of the art of deception, I find this state of affairs absolutely intoxicating. How could such a seemingly simple sentiment be so difficult to understand?
First, it’s rarely read in context. Robert-Houdin goes on to contrast the jongleur’s rapid hand movements—presumably a show of skill to impress the audience—with the prestidigitateur’s more subdued actions. The difference is clear: the former is making a display of skill to impress, while the latter is hiding his skill in order to deceive. The irony is that the word prestidigitation was introduced into French (and English and most European languages) from its Latin roots, meaning “fast finger movement”.
But there’ s more to the origin than just the banal observation that magicians are deceivers and not jugglers. It’s important to remember what differentiated acting from street performing in 19th century Europe. Actors were stars. Their names were known to all. They performed in the best theatres, they were well paid, and they were the company of nobility and the wealthy classes. Actors were not from these classes, to be sure; but acting offered the possibility of upward social mobility. Jongleurs, on the other hand, were common people, performing for common people and selling products to common people for modest compensation. Robert-Houdin saw a way upwards.
It is also important to remember that acting in the mid-19th century was nothing like it is today. If you could travel back in time to see drama before, say, the 1890s, you’d be shocked by what you saw. Method acting is a 20th century phenomenon. Today, actors become their roles. They try to create the illusion that you are watching the character, not the actor. Not so in the past. People went to see their favourite actors be themselves, not become characters. Actors did not change shape and history for their audiences; they declaimed lines loudly and deliberately. They were more like your favourite uncle telling a story over the dinner table than they were like the characters in the story.
Robert-Houdin saw the opportunity to be an actor in this sense. He could stand in front of a theatre audience and be the character Robert-Houdin. And this character was larger than life. He claimed to have power over man and beast, the civilized and the uncivilized. He could see without his eyes, he could master nature and make an orange tree grow and produce fruit on command, he could transform and handkerchief into butterflies. Robert-Houdin could stand centre stage and declaim his lines. And everyone knew exactly what to expect and how to enjoy it.


So what does all this have to do with The Power of Wonder? I’m getting there. But you’ll have to wait until my next post. Until then, here’s a teaser. By misunderstanding Robert-Houdin, the modern illusionist finds a powerful way to momentarily bend reality for the modern audience.

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