Art and Artifice

by Jim Steinmeyer

Published by Hahne

Reviewed by Anthony Owen

Jim Steinmeyer's new 194 page hard backed book Art and Artifice and other Essays on Illusion contains five essays concerning - as the sub-title says - "the Inventors, Traditions, Evolution & Rediscovery of Stage Magic."

The title essay, Art and Artifice, opens with a view first expressed by the author in his 1997 book "Reminding and Deceiving" (published to accompany his lecture at FISM '97): "Magicians guard an empty safe. There are few secrets that they possess which are beyond a gradeschool science class, little technology more complicated than a rubber band, a square of black fabric or a length of thread. There are no real principles worthy of being cherished, only crude expediences... The art of the magician is not found in the simple deception, but in what surrounds it, the construction of a reality which supports the illusion... The proportion of reality to illusion has long been the purview of the theatre, and the dilemma faced by the wizards of the stage."

This leads into the piece which considers this dilemma through the interweaved stories of the lives and work of Maskelyne, Cooke, Devant and Steele McKaye, a 19th century theatrical producer who "proudly based his theatrical work in realism" with spectacular and, finally, disasterous effects.

Moth in the Spotlight tells the story of David Devant's classic Mascot Moth illusion (in which a lady visibly vanished as if, in Steinmeyer's evocative words, "swallowed into thin-air"), its comparisons with De Kolta's Vanishing Lady and the author's involvement in its recreation in Doug Henning's 1982 Broadway musical, Merlin.

It is the first hand experience of the author with this illusion, which makes this section one my favourites in the book as he wonderfully captures the sense of risk and excitement of translating the three hundred and ten words about the effect and method from Devant's Secrets of my Magic into its live, nightly performance in a Broadway show. He writes: "Magicians idealize the notion of an illusion without apparatus, but facing such a construction is unsettling and disorienting."

The section which describes the mechanical working and - more importantly - the exact in-depth interaction of the five people responsible for this illusion, is unlike any other I have read in a magic book and probably the first time the "real work" has been tipped on a performance piece of this kind. It perfectly illustrates, as Steinmeyer says in his concluding paragraph, "The secret was every bit as wonderful as the result on stage, and maybe even more wonderful."

Above and Beneath the Saw delightfully "dissects" P.T. Selbit, Horace Goldin and Sawing a Lady in Halves, questioning the reasons for the illusion's success in the the climate of the 1920's.

Mister Morritt's Donkey (In Theory) is the first part of a mystery story, setting the scene for its multi-layered resolution in the final essay Mister Morritt's Donkey (In Practice). Mister Morritt is Charles Morritt who, like Selbit, Devant and Maskelyne, was yet another performer at the London based Maskelyne's Mysteries. Morritt was also an ingenious creator of many mind-blowing illusion principles and effects, including the legendary Disappearing Donkey.

These final sections of the book have all the excitement of a detective novel, as the author tells of his search for the lost secret of the Donkey. Along the way he tells Morritt's fascinating lifestory (which in several respects "mirrors" that of one of Steinmeyer's previous biographical studies - Guy Jarrett) and relates his suspicion about Morritt's "fingerprints" appearing on other illusions (including another "lost secret" - Houdini's Vanishing Elephant). He also reveals the clues in Devant's written transcript of his performance on tour in 1914 and Jasper Maskelyne's White Magic and points out the importance of a suggestion from Alan Wakeling. And, like a true "who-dunnit," concludes with a description of Steinmeyer's successful performance of The Disappearing Donkey at the 1995 Los Angeles Conference on Magic History.

I loved this book; it is a highly readable, inspiring combination of magical, theatrical and social history, performance and illusion theory and know-how, ingenious methodology and affection from an author and creator who, in the last two decades, has continued the tradition of those he writes about in this book and taken them to even greater heights.

(Reprinted from The Magic Circular, the house magazine of The Magic Circle, with permission of Editor, Anthony Owen.)


Anthony Owen August 2000