Imagine a magician. What comes to mind? Perhaps an image of a formally-dressed man extracting a rabbit from a hat, or guessing which card occupies the thoughts of an earnest volunteer? It’s the stuff of birthday parties, cruise ship entertainment and relatives who knew a few sleights of hand. But for many contemporary magicians, their field encompasses much more than timeworn tricks.

“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,” writes The Magic Play’s magic designer and magician Jim Steinmeyer in his book Art & Artifice, and Other Essays on Illusion. Indeed, because magicians do not actually perform magic, but rather create the impression that they are defying the laws of physics or veering into the supernatural realm, they must be consummate performers and storytellers. And while some magicians only perform tricks they learned from books, videos, friends or workshops, others innovate, pushing the envelope of the art form.

In his new work The Magic Play, playwright Andrew Hinderaker presents a young protagonist who has trained thoroughly in the discipline of magic and is now finding success as a high-profile, boundary-pushing performer. Despite his dexterity and prowess in magic, he fumbles in the equally tricky and arguably more mysterious realm of personal and romantic relationships. The young magician’s father is also a magician, but unlike his son, he performs at a tawdry casino, where he barely earns a living by performing the same act day after day. The Magic Play contrasts these two performers, offering rare insight into an often insular world. (Magicians like it that way: they have secrets to keep.)

Watching magic was no longer an encounter with the occult on a dirty street as it had been during the previous century; magic was now high class entertainment.

Magic as performance predates historical records, emerging from religious rituals in most of the world’s civilizations. Its development in the West was tied closely with the occult and with a belief in witchcraft; in much of Europe, “respectable” Christian citizens eschewed magic performances until the 18th and 19th centuries, when perception favorably shifted. It was during this period that magic moved from streets and fairs to theaters, where audiences paid to see a formal performance. A major pacesetter in this shift was Frenchman Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. As a young man, Robert-Houdin took up magic after purchasing a set of books on clock-making but finding that the shopkeeper had given him books on magic instead. Teaching himself tricks, he attained gigs at private parties among the wealthy, dressing in formal wear to fit in with his audiences. When he opened his own theater in 1845, he insisted its interior be as grand as the houses where he previously performed: he had it painted Continued on page 41 with gold trim, chandeliers hung and the stage decorated with showy furniture in the style of Louis XV, who had reigned a century earlier. For the viewer, watching magic was no longer an encounter with the occult on a dirty street as it had been during the previous century; magic was now high class entertainment. Decades after Robert-Houdin’s death, a young Hungarian-born magician named Erik Wiesz expressed his respect for Robert-Houdin by creating a stage name for himself: Harry Houdini.

Houdini’s enduring popularity reflects not only his considerable talents, but also the early 20th century public’s appetite for sensationalist entertainment. Houdini’s career—he is best remembered as an escape artist—revealed the variety of forms that a “magic show” could take. One category is restoration, in which a magician destroys an object (such as a rope) and then returns it to its intact state. Another is transportation, which involves a magician moving an object from one place to another. A third is levitation, in which the magician defies gravity, either with his own body, an object or another person’s body. Many tricks use a combination of effects; the possibilities for new tricks are limited only by the magician’s skill and imagination.

Top: Harry Houdini; Bottom: David Blaine engulfed by the electrical discharge produced by seven Tesla coils on Pier 54. Photo by Bryan Derballa.
Top: Houdini preparing to perform one of his great  escapes in 1912. Bottom: David Blaine engulfed by electrical discharge during a performance on Pier 54. Photo by Bryan Derballa.

Today, magic shows take many forms: David Blaine is known both as a magician and an endurance artist capable of seemingly superhuman feats; Penn & Teller use their live shows as platforms to emphasize how some magicians, seers and fortune tellers bilk desperate, grieving people out of money; David Copperfield combines storytelling with illusions to create a complete theatrical experience for his audience. In recent years, this blurring of lines between theater and magic show has become increasingly prevalent; Chicago audiences might have seen Aaron Posner’s production of The Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare Theater last November, which featured magic design by Teller and a seamless integration of magic into Shakespeare’s lively story. The House Theatre of Chicago has also found success in recent years with several return engagements of its show Death & Harry Houdini. Written and directed by Nathan Allen with magic design by Dennis Watkins, the play follows Houdini’s desire to escape not only from a water tank or a pair of handcuffs, but from death itself. These great works of Chicago theater will now be joined by Hinderaker’s The Magic Play, in which the classic showmanship of magic is brought into a modern setting where storytelling and magic become inextricable.