Earlier, I wrote briefly about Robert-Houdin, who elevated the performance of magic from a crowd-gathering spectacle for the purpose of sales to a fine entertainment for the wealthy. In what has probably become the most frequently repeated magical quotation of all time, Robert-Houdin wrote that the sleight of hand artist is not juggler; rather, he is an actor playing the role of magician. I tried to put the line in the context of Robert-Houdin’s culture and times.
As with any great line, this one has taken on a life of its own, and 20th and 21st century entertainers have struggled to make sense of it in our times. So let’s put aside whatever we think Robert-Houdin intended or however we think his 19th century audience interpreted his words. Let’s look at it using our modern notions of magician and actor to see where it takes us.
Modern actors are steeped in the tradition of “method acting”. Method actors attempt to “become” their portrayed character by training themselves to think like the character, to understand the character’s life before the story even began, to move, to act, to desire to aspire just as that character would. The method actor becomes as close to really being that character as possible. From the audience’s point of view, we stop watching the actor and begin seeing the character.
Watch some older movies and you can begin to see the contrast between pre-method-acting and method-acting. I love the jarring effect of The Maltese Falcon, where Humphrey Bogart looks and acts like we expect a modern character actor to look and act. Most of the rest of the cast, however, are “old school” and are declaiming their lines in an awkward and hammy fit of over-acting (to our eyes and ears, at least).
Built into modern stage and cinema is the modern audience. When we watch a play or a movie, we have come to expect that characters emerge in a certain way. A Victorian actor, no matter how magnificent, would be jarring, awkward and unbelievable to the modern audience. We do have a few “character actors” who play pretty much the same character in every role, and that’s simply a special case today. Successful theatre and film today rely on the coordination of acting (and directing) styles with audience expectations and understanding.
Now think of the modern magician. I don’t mean your friend who just learned a few tricks (and she might be great, BTW). I mean somebody in the big leagues. David Copperfield. Derren Brown. Criss Angel. Each of these magicians has a well-defined character. When they perform, we know the kind of person they are, the sorts of things they say, the kinds of powers they exhibit. Deep down, everybody knows that they really don’t have extra-human powers. But when you watch them, you let go for a moment. You see the Magician do the impossible. And you believe. At least for a moment. And this is what Robert-Houdin means to me in the 21st century.
None of these famous magicians are jugglers or finger-flickers. They are all capable; don’t kid yourself. But what makes them magical is that they are actors, they have created a sort of “magical reality” in which we watch their characters do things that only the magical can achieve. If we’re stubborn, the magic recedes and we’re left with puzzles. Good puzzles, but not psychologically satisfying ones. When we let go, when we believe in the character on stage, we experience the thrill of living in a world of real magic, where a real magician showed us powers beyond mere mortals.
Nineteenth century audiences watched 19th century acting and they experienced a kind of magic that is no longer available to us. We need to believe that the magical character has the power to bring us 21st century magic.
I’ll close with a clip from one of my favourite magical method actors—the inimitable Pop Haydn. Pop’s skills are undeniable. But it’s his acting the part of a magician (with all sorts of human character flaws) that really makes the act memorable.