The Many Histories of Magic

MAR 18, 2021

by Robert Duffley

Bosch, The Conjuror
Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus was a man. In the seventeenth century, Englishman William Vincent swallowed daggers, pulled ribbons from his mouth, and made objects disappear while chanting incantations. Vincent’s act became a favorite entertainment of James I, earning the conjuror a royal license to perform under his stage name as “the King’s most excellent Hocus Pocus.” The first magician to pull a rabbit from a hat was John Henry Anderson, “The Great Wizard of the North,” who was born to a tenant farmer in Scotland and went on to entertain European royalty in the 1840s.

The history of magic is full of revelations, reversals, and enduring mysteries. The Conjurors’ Club, running virtually at the A.R.T. in March and April 2021, celebrates and expands this legacy. To make the show possible during the pandemic, creators Vinny DePonto and Geoff Kanick have employed some contemporary wizardry: audiences convene for a digital experience tailor-made for our own moment in time. Anchored by Ran’D Shine and Jeanette Andrews, each performance also features several other members of a rotating ensemble.

The resulting experience is framed by the premise that a secret society of magicians has opened its doors to new members for the first time in a century. “The Conjurors’ Club is the most welcoming society you’ll ever come across,” Kanick jokes. Membership in the club includes an invitation to learn more about magic—both its practice and its practitioners. A “secret package” mailed to ticket holders before the show includes some materials for this initiation. The Conjurors’ Club aims to disrupt the stereotype of magicians as white men in top hats and capes. “There are many histories of magic, not just the ones that we’re most familiar with,” said DePonto.

Henry Box Brown
Adelaide Herrmann

Beyond figures like Houdini, the broader history of magic includes some unforgettable characters. There was Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped enslavement in Virginia by shipping himself in a crate to Philadelphia, and who would go on to perform magic shows with abolitionist themes. As Victorian culture idolized women’s domesticity, “The Mysterious Lady” toured Europe, captivating audiences with her “second sight” and the enduring riddle of her real identity. Born and trained in Beijing, Ching Ling Foo dazzled audiences in Europe and the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. (Famous in his own right, Ching Ling Foo is also remembered for outliving white American magician William Robinson. Robinson performed a plagiarized yellowface version of Ching’s act until a bullet-catching effect went disastrously wrong during a performance, resulting in his death.)

Magic historians Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer trace these extraordinary narratives and more in The Secret History of Magic (2018). For these authors, it is important to separate magic as entertainment (“conjuring”) from magic with religious or spiritual dimensions. Conjuring, they note, is a performance tradition dating at least as far back as (and likely further than) drama. Lamont and Steinmeyer find records of magic tricks in the works of ancient scholars including Plato and Ibn Battuta, and they trace the evolution of the practice through the centuries’ shifting relationships to knowledge and mystery.

The authors emphasize that even in eras notoriously paranoid about witchcraft or zealous about science, conjuring’s appeal has remained constant. Magic has attracted crowds around the world, from street shows to royal command performances. (Historical records indicate that powerful figures including Han Dynasty Emperor Liu Che, Mughal Emperor Jahangir, Benjamin Franklin, and Britain’s Queen Victoria, among many others, were all enthusiastic spectators.) For Lamont and Steinmeyer, magic’s enduring attraction rests in audiences’ hunger for awe and intrigue. “The point of magic,” they write, “is not that it is real; the point is that it creates an effect. And the effect of magic is this: something happens that cannot happen. This is a paradox and a source of wonder. This is the purpose of magic: to astonish us.”

Ching Ling Foo

Astonishment and wonder, especially in the current moment, are central to The Conjurors’ Club. “There’s a lot of bad suspense in the world, and we want to hold space for good mystery,” said DePonto at a celebration of the show’s opening on March 14. Working against the isolation of the pandemic, the show strives to spark genuine, friendly connections in real time—a rarity in an era of quarantine. “There’s a special balance in the relationship between audience and performer,” says Kanick. “Without the audience, magic cannot happen. It would just be a person alone in a room doing choreography.”

This element of interactivity aligns with the A.R.T.’s vision of the audience as an essential partner in the theater’s work. Longtime A.R.T. audiences might also recall a thread of magic running through the theater’s productions, including 2014’s The Tempest, which featured effects by Teller of Penn & Teller; 2013’s The Glass Menagerie, directed by John Tiffany; and 2012’s Pippin, with acrobatics and sleight-of-hand performed by circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main (not to mention the show’s opening number “Magic to Do”).

As they thought about how to bring magic to life digitally, Kanick and DePonto sensed an opportunity for a guiding principle of hospitality. While the magicians host and perform the show, they are also—thanks to technology—guests in the homes of their audiences. “We wanted to make audiences feel like they’re a part of the show, in a way that you don’t get in a traditional fourth-wall, proscenium performance,” said DePonto. “We asked ourselves how we can make the most analog digital show possible,” says Kanick. “We put forward the goal of making magic happen in the homes of people watching, and not necessarily just on their screens.” This domestic element recalls some of the magicians’ roots—multiple ensemble members note that they honed their craft performing for friends and family.

Without revealing too much, this social aspect of the show is one of its greatest feats: summoning an evening of company to bridge the divides of what has felt like an eternity of social distance.

Nate Dendy (Ariel), Tom Nelis (Prospero), Charlotte Graham (Miranda).

Robert Duffley is Editor & Assistant Dramaturg at the American Repertory Theater.


Image Credits
Hieronymus Bosch painted The Conjurer, depicting a street magician, between 1502 and 1520: Wikimedia Commons.
William Vincent, who performed under the stage name “Hocus Pocus,” published a guide to his effects in 1634: Early English Books Online.
An illustration depicting the magician Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped enslavement by shipping himself to Philadelphia in a wooden box: Wikimedia Commons
Adelaide Herrmann, who performed as “The Queen of Magic,” was a superstar in the early twentieth century: Harvard Theatre Collection
Born and trained in Beijing, Ching Ling Foo dazzled audiences around the world: Wikimedia Commons
Nate Dendy, Tom Nelis, Charlotte Graham in A.R.T.’s 2014 production of The Tempest, which featured magic by Penn & Teller: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey.

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