WHAT WE HIDE: WHAT THE CYCLOPS MISSES, LOST MORRITT

“Andre Malraux said, ‘You are not what you show; you are what you hide.’ This is a blog for magicians who regard the art of magic, and how its history is still an important element of that art.” —Jim

MARCH 2022

At the start of my career, during those grand old days of television magic, they weren’t really the grand old days. To be honest with you, a lot of us were scratching our heads about how magic should be captured on video. There was a good deal of debate about how to keep magic believable on television (defined in various, clever, self-serving ways). In those days, magicians became highly animated at the notion of faking a television trick.

(The photo, of Ricky Jay, toys, and his jeweled scabbard, is from Doug Henning’s first network show; I met Ricky, then joined Henning’s team, several years later.)

My own reasoning, back then, was that magic on television was always a poor substitute. Nothing like seeing magic live, in terms of sheer impact, so magic on television was a necessary evil. Everyone bowed to the one-eyed monster. No performance art could survive if it couldn’t be maneuvered in front of the monster. So ballet, opera, and plate spinning had all marched before the image orthicon tube, with various and sundry results. Magic, too. There were ground rules (one long shot without cutting away, a live studio audience, a pledge of honesty) that were supposed to make it all okay. Did they? Who knows? But ultimately, magic on television was designed to inspire audiences to see it live.

Now I’m afraid that it’s even more necessary, and even more evil. In recent years, I’ve been astonished at how much magic there is, and simultaneously, how much magic there isn’t. Lots of magicians on television, yes, but almost none of them, really, are magicians. They present practical jokes, they get graded by judges, they get childish pats on the head because, after all, they didn’t fool people.

The Cyclops never sees the whole thing. The Cyclops focuses on particular things, and sees nothing else, until it finally becomes bored, growls, and looks away.

I watched exactly one America’s Got Talent, in one of the first seasons, when a buffoon named Piers Morgan buzzed a juggler just after he started. “You dropped something,” Morgan scolded. “You can’t be a juggler if you drop things.” That was news to me, and presumably news to many jugglers around the world, who had sometimes even dropped things deliberately: cheap but well-established showmanship. But the Cyclops had already decided to fix its eye, flutter its eyelashes, at Piers Morgan.

The necessary television magic that is needed today, to encourage the most popular forms of the art, close-up or stand-up magic (rather than a big touring show), is very different. But to be honest, magicians today aren’t trying to be artists. They’re trying to be relevant. A few moments with the orthicon tube (okay, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, Instagram) is a goal in itself.

So, what happened? Well, more on that…. Magic’s just trying to keep up.

 

At the last Genii Convention, I was asked to lecture on Charles Morritt and the mysterious illusions that formed the basis of his career. His story is an inspiring one; perhaps even a chilling one. I wrote about it in Hiding the Elephant. Morritt was one of those late-Victorian marvels who combined the reckless tendencies of a seat-of-his-pants entrepreneur, with the fine understanding of a real artist of secrets. In this way he’s one of the great characters. He’s much more interesting than the performers who, by dint of pure talent or finances, had a much easier time. Morritt’s incredible principles, ignored by the magic world for many years, saved him. 

Lost Morritt was the pretty monograph that forms the lecture notes. It gave me a chance to correct the record and comment on some of Morritt’s lost achievements. I even demonstrated the Disappearing Donkey, using a one-quarter scale model and a video performance. 

Over the course of years, I’ve been fortunate to put together a collection of Morritt materials, and I’m aspiring to produce a full book on this mysterious wizard.

I was glad to see the reception that Lost Morritt received at the Genii Convention, because those conventions are seldom the place for historical discussions. A friend of mine said, after the lecture, “It’s a story about real secrets, and a person who kept real secrets. We don’t actually get many of those stories in magic.”

Yes, that’s the way to explain it. It’s the adventure of someone who actually kept secrets. 

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