Fans Magic’s Three Acts, Penn & Teller’s Three Tricks
Magic deserves to be regarded as a high art, right alongside poetry, right alongside theatre.
1. Casey at the Bat
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day: The score stood four to two, but with one inning more to play, And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same, A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game . . .
Casey at the Bat has had three lives. It’s first, as a poem, a tragicomedy about a baseball game and starplayer Casey’s failed attempt to turn the tide in his favor, written by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. It was largely unknown at this point, but it caught the attention of actor and performer DeWolf Hopper, who made it a staple of his vaudeville routine, and ended up performing it over ten thousand times.
Vaudeville gets talked about in lofty, nostalgic terms, despite its relatively short period of success, roughly from around 1890 to 1929. Magic historian and magician Levent Cimkentli cites the stock market crash as putting the final nail in vaudeville’s coffin. Indeed, vaudeville was really the catalyst for the golden age of magic which saw performers like Harry Houdini and Horace Goldin come to America. Magic has never really been regarded as a high art like theatre or poetry or music, but its huge success in this era certainly helped legitimize it to that end. However, it was short-lived, and according to magician and magic historian Dean Carnegie, another artform takes its share of the blame. “Movies take over vaudeville and live theatres are converted over to movie houses. Magicians are put out of work. Some move to nightclubs, but over time even they fade. Magicians move to schools and to any kind of work they can find, most of which is family or kid-oriented. It’s around this time that magic loses its credibility and becomes something for children.”
Essentially, magic falls victim to industrialization. The new, exciting technology of cinema sweeps the world, and all of a sudden, escaping from a straitjacket doesn’t seem that impressive. Cinema is scale—big sets, big screens, expansive vistas, rousing soundtracks. It is the true American artform. When magic does return to public consciousness, it does so with this notion in mind. The resurgence in popularity comes in the 1970s, the decade that saw Doug Henning’s World of Magic TV special, watched by one out of every two households in the US when it was broadcast on Boxing Day in 1976, and when David Copperfield began his TV career, as magic became a regular fixture in Las Vegas, the epitome of American excess.
It’s here that Casey at the Bat gets its third life, and given its history with vaudeville, it’s fitting that magic is what exhumes it. A duo named Penn & Teller performed a trick on PBS set to the poem, in a show that would help launch their career nationwide. However, Penn & Teller’s brand of magic isn’t quite in keeping with the glittery, Gob Bluth-style illusions of their contemporaries. They’re doing something a little more classic.
The trick here isn’t the reading of the poem itself of course, but rather a feat of escapology, with Penn Jillette’s narration of the poem used as a kind of countdown. Watching it now, it’s actually remarkable how subservient the text of the poem actually is to the trick itself. As soon as Penn starts reading, his partner Teller, winched up at the other end of the stage in a straitjacket, begins his escape, writhing and contorting and totally commanding the attention of the audience. As he gets closer, Penn accelerates, garbling the last few stanzas like a southern auctioneer, timing the close of the poem—Casey’s bathetic strikeout—with Teller zip-wiring down to stage for a final bow.
It’s tempting to say that the trick could work with any backdrop, but of course that wouldn’t be the case. By using Casey at the Bat , Penn & Teller are opening up a conversation with that poem’s history: first, as words on a page, and then as a staple of American music hall and vaudeville. At a time when magic’s popularity is ascending, maybe for the first time in the twentieth century, they are showing why it should never have gone away. They are taking a seat at the table and asking everyone to pick a card, insisting with great flourish and panache that magic deserves to be there—right alongside poetry, right alongside theatre.
2. The Seven Principles of Magic
Penn & Teller are icons of magic, and have been in the game for going on four decades. Their trajectory from small-time to Vegas—the two of them own their own theatre and perform to twelve hundred fans a show, five nights a week, as well as embark on regular tours—actually mirrors the trajectory that many magicians took in the 1800s, when magic was going through its first bout of credibility. People like Ludwig Döbler, Johann Hofzinser, and Robert-Houdin were able to parlay their successes as street performers and carnival magicians into more theatrical settings, leading to a golden age of magic coinciding with the popularity of vaudeville by the turn of the twentieth century, when people like Harry Houdini and Horace Goldin became big stars.
Penn & Teller too began on the street, in Philadelphia. In fact, Teller claims that the best thing Penn’s ever done in his career is his twelve-minute street juggling act, which is by any estimation a phenomenal negging. Penn was so successful a street performer that when he went to try and file taxes with his busking money, an accountant told him he’d likely be arrested on suspicion of being a drug dealer, before adding “by the way, I think you’re a drug dealer.” The two of them were then offered a performance space by a fringe theatre troupe, which they promptly sold out, ousting the theatre troupe in the process.
Even now, a world away from that small setting, there is an intimacy to their performance that does feel like it belongs on a shady street corner, like something out of a Edward G. Robinson movie. There’s no greater example than this trick, The Seven Principles of Magic . It isn’t so much a trick as a dance, really. Penn, indulging his other great passion, that of jazz double bass, lays down a groove while Teller lights, smokes, stubs out, and then re-lights a cigarette. On first watch, it’s hard to exactly know what the “trick” is, but then we are invited to watch it with Teller standing on the other side, allowing the audience to witness the deft sleight-of-hand movements that make it so clever. By the time the routine is replayed at full speed, Penn gives you the play-by-play of every move Teller is making, so you can see just how technical and precise the routine is.
What’s also interesting about this trick is that Penn & Teller break what people think is one of the cardinal rules of magic. Namely, they show you how it’s done. Jordan Waller, amateur magician and deputy editor of Shortlist Magazine in the UK, explained that this code of honor “came up at a time where magicians were actively spying on each other, stealing tricks and sometimes entire acts,” but it strikes me that there’s a preciousness to this attitude that maybe adds to the preconception that magic is a bit nerdy or uncool, that being enthusiastic about it isn’t something you should really use as the first line of your Tinder bio.
The other argument would be that finding out how a trick is done spoils it somehow, but to me, that relies on the idea that the enjoyment of a trick only comes from the not-knowing, the mystery. It also plays into a kind of smugness that some magicians elicit, a relationship between audience and performer that is unequal. This too is divisive, and for some, inaccessible. I don’t care how great a technician you are, if you can’t articulate that to an audience, if you can’t build that relationship, then the act won’t work. With some magic tricks, okay, it probably pays not to know, because the answer will probably be ridiculous. How was Dynamo able to walk on water? How did David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear? These tricks are so spectacular that reducing them to their minutiae kind of misses the point. For the smaller, more tactile tricks, being a bit less cloak-and-dagger helps build that relationship between audience and performer, as if you were on a street corner getting hustled in a game of three-card monte.
3. Nail Gun
In an interview with Alec Baldwin, Penn Jillette talks about his different approach to magic, different from another famous magician, David Blaine. To paraphrase, Penn says David Blaine believes that a magician’s job is to distort reality, to leave an audience feeling bewildered and confused as to the wondrous and dazzling things they’ve just seen. For Penn, the opposite is true. He talks about the need for emotional honesty in his performance—how when you see a woman sawed in half, you know you’re not witnessing a murder, and so it follows that everything else you see in that show will be, to an extent, a lie.
If magic’s first golden age came with vaudeville, its second with the glitz and glamour of the ’80s, then surely, a third act is forthcoming. If that is the case, then it’s this ethos that will carry it forward. If the modern age is characterized by anything, it’s information. You can’t keep the dam from bursting when the water keeps on rising; eventually you’re just going to have to let it break and deal with the consequences.
This is what Penn & Teller do in this memorization trick , essentially something that was done in vaudeville over a century ago, except Penn & Teller’s twist is to do it by shooting a nail gun, injecting a bit of jeopardy into proceedings. It’s not only a nice link back to the tradition of the artform, it’s also a perfect excuse to talk about this emotional honesty that is so essential to their act. “Teller and I believe it’s morally wrong to do things on stage that are really dangerous. It makes the audience complicit in unnecessary risk.”
So if magic does away with that fourth wall altogether, what are we left with? For magician and writer Adam Woollard, “Seeing a great trick makes you want to reverse-engineer it and figure out how that person thought of it and, as a magician, you always hope, most of all, that the method is as beautiful as the trick itself.” For Jordan Waller , “Magic is a skill, but in its essence, that’s all it is. It needs other stuff. Invisible, nameless things that you can’t put your finger on but when they all come together it’s like alchemy.” For me, it’s like listening to a great melody, or watching a great movie—something that you know has been done before, but you never get tired of watching. You can tell me what card I’m holding a hundred times, I’ll never be any less amazed.