In March 1880, the stage magician, Professor Haselmayer, performed at the Sydney School of Arts. The Professor is “light of tongue”, wrote one reviewer. “He is in continuous talk with his audience, dazzling their ears as well as their eyes” (Bulletin, 27.3.80).
To be dapper of tongue was an obvious boon for a Victorian stage magician. It came in handy as a form of misdirection (listen to what I say, pay less attention to my sleight-of-hand). But it also reflected a particular style of performance, which glorifiied the light touch in all things. It was a style which reached its apogee in twentieth-century American vaudeville, with its white cravats and its soft shoe shuffles – but which was associated with the upmarket magic-show well before the 1900s. Dinner suits. Plush seats. Orchestral music. Female assistants in anodyne flesh and filmy clothes.
With its aesthetic of sequinned frippery, the well-heeled magic act emphasised its distance from the circus or concert saloon. Performers didn’t holler themselves hoarse in a magic show. They didn’t stand ankle-deep in mud or sawdust, competing with a noisy crowd to be heard. Instead, they spoke with a silver patter, backed by electric light and violins.
According to cultural historian Simon During, late-19th C magic acts played an important part in the modernisation of Western reality. Magicians such as Prof. Haselmayer were committed to “the enlightened point of view which became official in modernity”, he says. They campaigned against superstition and spiritualist humbug, advocating a rigorously agnostic worldview. The airy aesthetic of the magic act was part of this message of modern enlightenment. Its whole point was to make light of the ‘dark arts’, giving them a newly-styled razzle dazzle in place of superstition and fear. Magicians such as J. N. Maskelyne and George Cooke, who performed in the turn-of-the-century period, glossed over mystery with slick talk and sophisticated mechanicals. When they whipped away the curtain from the spirit-cabinet, there was nothing inside but air.
If the magic show was notable for its light touch at the turn of the century, today it is much more likely to be memorialised in a deliberately noir way. Take The Prestige, for example. Set in Edwardian London, with sets modelled on Maskelyne and Cooke’s gilt-velvet Egytpian Hall, starring Scarlet Johannsen as the ultimate in sequinned glamour, the whole point of The Prestige is to put the dark back into the ritz and patter. The razzle dazzle of Edwardian magic was a ruse, the film insists. Magicians of that era were drawn by something much more fierce and black-hearted than a frivolous love of illusion. Who is to say that there wasn’t something mystical about their art of enchantment after all, in spite of their rational claims?
That’s also the message of the far darker Carnivale, the HBO TV series, although that, of course, is set rather later: in America’s dustbowl thirties. I saw two episodes for the first time last night, and was so unsettled by their mystic undertow I couldn’t sleep for a couple of hours afterwards. If to be modern was to celebrate solidity melting into air, then these latest offerings insist that we have moved beyond modernity, and that something weightier at work in the universe should be contemplated after all.