WHAT WE HIDE: PROBLEMS IN ALGERIA, PART ONE

“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

MAY 2022

PROBLEMS IN ALGERIA, Part One

The great French magician, Robert-Houdin, left generations of magicians with their inspirations, but within his spectacular and groundbreaking Memoirs, he also presented particular mysteries about his personal story. This article was originally published, in a slightly expanded form, in the Summer 2018 issue of Gibecière, a journal of the Conjuring Arts Research Center. That essay was titled “Ten Problems in Algeria.”

In The Secret History of Magic (published by Tarcher Perigee in the spring of 2018), written with Dr. Peter Lamont, we had an opportunity to examine the great creation myth of Victorian magic, the career, the reforms and the famous Algerian adventure of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.

The performances in Algiers are not just the climax to the Robert-Houdin story. They provided a newsworthy occurrence that gave an important gravitational pull to his Memoirs (in the original French title, Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur). It was these events that earned Robert-Houdin the claim of being an “ambassador,” which appeared on the title pages of subsequent editions.

The author of the Memoirs was guilty of a number of exaggerations. It’s been recognized that he told his story with picaresque, fictional, enhancements. But it’s important to recognize that there was little need to construct the tale of Robert-Houdin’s education in magic (the famous Torrini myth) or his reforms for the art of magic (filled with overstatements about his own innovations), unless these myths could be arranged to compliment his last chapters, and provide meaning for his final achievements. So, the Memoirs were written and published in 1858 because Robert-Houdin’s work was significant to 1858: his remarkable duel between the old, superstitious magic of the Algerian marabouts and the modern, scientific marvels of a sophisticated Paris conjurer.

Algeria provided not just the climax to his story, but the meaning that justified his previous accomplishments.

Anyone in magic who has had a serious interest in its history has felt the problem with this tale. It has been a long, nagging suspicion. We can see bits of evidence that it actually happened, but after more than a century and a half, the claims about the importance of this performance have not been confirmed by contemporary accounts, or by independent research. Our histories of this incident are all taken from Robert-Houdin’s Memoirs.

When we read Robert-Houdin’s account, it comes across as glossy, naïve and idealized. It suffers from an unfortunate colonial prejudice—not at all flattering, by modern standards—which affected the author’s perspective about everything, from the food he was served and the local customs, to the purpose of his performance for the government. Even if his story were basically true, it was told in an irresponsible manner, and it is now virtually impossible to find the kernel of truth that has generated an obscuring myth.

Robert-Houdin was not a reliable witness. In his introduction, he admitted that his Memoirs were constructed as a magic show:

I see my audience again, and under the charm of this sweet illusion, I delight in telling them the most interesting episodes of my professional life. […] Could I not continue my performances under another form? My public shall be the reader, and my stage the book.

Since the publication of his Memoirs in 1858, it’s become renowned as one of magic’s most important—certainly, one of the most inspiring—books. Robert-Houdin’s recollections are disarmingly self-effacing. His anecdotes show real insight and understanding. But the Memoirs have not held up to to careful or consistent analysis. The author clearly overstated his own stylistic choices as “reforms,” exaggerated his own skills and minimized the diligent efforts and the workaday concerns of a real performer. In making his own story unique and colorful (which was, understandably, his right as a memoirist), he constructed fictions. That’s where the Torrini story came from. Rather than detail twenty years of education and gradual successes in magic—the frustrating and often demeaning process of gaining a reputation in show business—he told another story. For various reasons best known to himself, he chose to construct his own creation myth, which allowed him to minimize the training of a professional, and quickly dismiss the work of his contemporaries.

Houdini was the most famous victim of Robert-Houdin’s fictions. As a thirteen-year-old boy, Erich Weiss, he had been inspired to take Robert-Houdin as a model, and his artistic career as a goal. (The name, Houdini, was more than likely intended as a combination of Houdin and Torrini.) When he returned to the book to analyze it again, still in his twenties, he was disappointed at what he found.

Houdini got it right, and then he got it wrong. In The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, the book he wrote excoriating his one-time inspiration, Houdini complained about Robert-Houdin’s persistent overstatements and his careless disregard for other magicians. By that time, Houdini’s own success must have demonstrated that the glittering, royalty-centered fantasies described by Robert-Houdin were nothing like the lifestyle of a variety entertainer. Houdini must have felt betrayed.

Ironically, Houdini’s research never reached a point where he was able to criticize Robert-Houdin for the Torrini myth (the most obvious imposition in the book), or to comment critically on the Algerian adventure. The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin never questioned the beginning or ending of Robert-Houdin’s career—and here, Houdini would have found not just gossip, but real controversies. This represented a missed opportunity, for Houdini could have found eye-witnesses and documentation just some thirty years after the Algerian adventure.Where Houdini lacked diligence, he bolstered his arguments with vitriol. His book was famously combative and overstated, to the extent that the blunt-force attack of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin has had precisely the opposite effect, with a number of magic authors and historians running to Robert-Houdin’s defense. More than anything else, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin seems to have inoculated Robert-Houdin from serious criticism (indeed, from serious research) over the last century.

The Algerian adventure presents a number of problems, and oddly enough, almost all of these discrepancies are apparent in Robert-Houdin’s own writing. In other words, a careful read of his own account demonstrates where the story begins to fray and unwind. For this discussion, I’ve used two primary sources: a French interview with the magician, a newspaper article published in Le Moniteur Universel, and then in translations (published roughly one year after the incident), and the magician’s own written account in his Memoirs (published roughly two years after the incident in Algeria). 

1) What was his mission? Was it a performance or diplomacy?

We all know the story; even more important, we’ve all become inured to how the story has been told. Sometime in 1856, when he was in retirement, Robert-Houdin was summoned to Algeria “at the special request of the French Government”(according to R. Shelton Mackenzie in his 1859 preface to the Memoirs). It was suggested that a performance in colonial Algeria might cleverly “counteract the influence of the marabout miracle-mongers over the ignorant Arabs. It seems that the marabout priests were continually fanning the flames of discontent and rebellion against French domination” (wrote Henry Ridgely Evans), and it was feared that “their magic coupled with continuous fighting would shortly drive the French from the country” (from John Mulholland). “The French government, therefore, requested [Robert-]Houdin to visit Algeria and perform before the natives in order to show them that a French wizard, using only sleight-of-hand and the resources of science, was greater than the greatest of marabouts who pretended to occult powers” (Evans again). His show could prove that “the French had not only more powerful armies, but magicians who were infinitely better than native ones” (from Mulholland). In this way, the diplomatic mission would be “a great service for the homeland” (according to Milbourne Christopher).

The popular construction is that Robert-Houdin pacified the natives, or prevented a revolt, or quelled a native uprising, or actually—taking it one step further still —stopped a war. These exaggerations invariably fall into the logical trap of trying prove a negative: using evidence of absence.

According to the Memoirs, Robert-Houdin received a letter sometime in 1854 from Colonel de Neveu, the head of the political office in French colonial Algiers: “The distinguished functionary begged me to proceed to our colony, and give my performances before the principal chieftains of the Arab tribes.” The magician was then enjoying his retirement near Blois, so he explained he was unable to accept the invitation. A year later, in 1855, Colonel de Neveu wrote again. Again, Robert-Houdin was unable to accept the invitation; he had submitted his electric clock designs to the Universal Exhibition and was awaiting the decision on medal winners. In June 1856, de Neveu wrote a third time, reminding him of the invitation and stating that the mission was of a “quasi-political” nature. From the Memoirs:

It is known that a majority of revolts which have to be suppressed in Algeria are excited by intriguers, who say they are inspired by the Prophet, and are regarded by the Arabs as envoys of God on earth to deliver them from the oppression of the Roumi (Christians). These false prophets and holy marabouts, who are no more sorcerers than I am, and indeed even less so, still contrive to influence the fanaticism of their co-religionists by tricks as primitive as are the spectators before whom they are performed. The government was, therefore, anxious to destroy their pernicious influence, and reckoned on me to do so. They hoped, with reason, by the aid of my experiments, to prove to the Arabs that the tricks of their marabouts were mere child’s play and owing to their simplicity could not be done by an envoy from heaven, which led us very naturally to show them that we are their superiors in everything, and, as for sorcerers, there are none like the French.

Robert-Houdin clearly wrote that the invitation was being received in one-year increments, and he casually dismissed it for two years. When he finally accepted, he was brought at a specific time, “[traveling on] the Mediterranean in the worst month of the year,” so that he arrived to entertain at the annual fete, or autumn festival, in the city of Algiers. In other words, he was being brought as an entertainer for a specific annual celebration. De Neveu had calculated that it would be useful for the Algerian chieftains to see an actual French magician—but as we’ll see, the specific purpose of the show became a source of confusion.

The only uprising that was mentioned in the Memoirs was a skirmish that drew the French troops inland, to the Kabylie, just when Robert-Houdin arrived. This forced a delay in the magician’s performances; there were continual disagreements generated by the French occupation, these were the “revolts which have to be suppressed.” There was no discussion of an uprising that would need to be put down by magic. There was no suggestion of imminent war that required special attention.

 It’s interesting to note that de Neveu was born in Savigny-sur-Braye, France, in 1809. Robert-Houdin was born in the nearby town of Blois in the same year. Not only were they the same age, but they coincidentally died in the same year, 1871. It’s possible that the men were longtime acquaintances, which may explain de Neveu’s persistent invitations. If he had felt a timely need to employ a French magician for the Algerian performance, other popular entertainers like Hamilton or Robin would have been available to him.

Robert-Houdin related an exchange in which he told de Neveu, “in a jocular tone,” that “I consider myself in military employ. As I depend upon the governor, I will be faithful to my post, whatever happens.” De Neveu replied, “with a laugh,” that the magician behaved “like a true French soldier.” Nonetheless, de Neveu’s point was to offer the magician and his wife extensive use of the hotel and local theater, and “to make your service in Algeria as light as possible.” The military references were clearly humorous, and it’s doubtful the magician actually saw himself as a representative of the army.

2. Where Did the Show Take Place?

As the tale has been re-told, and sometimes illustrated, in popular books, Robert-Houdin presented his marvels in a primitive open-air theater or a compound of native tents. But these accounts are mistaken.

 It’s clear that if we now had an opportunity to sit in the appointed theater, awaiting Robert-Houdin’s history-making performance, we would have found the setting to be indistinguishable from a lavish Paris theater. Robert-Houdin’s shows were performed at the Bab-Azoun Theatre, which had recently been built and was described by the magician as “a very neat house, in the style of the Variétés at Paris, and decorated with considerable taste.”

Robert-Houdin traveled to Algeria with his wife. He almost certainly also traveled with an assistant, who would have been employed to help with the crates of apparatus, work with the magician in setting the props on the stage, and then operate the effects during the performance. We popularly imagine the magician wiring the stage floor with an electro-magnet for his tour de force, the Light and Heavy Chest. But he almost certainly also presented his famous automata in the Algerian show, which meant that his center table was connected to traps in the stage floor, so that his assistant in the wings could pull the proper cords and operate the magician’s famous mechanical figures, such as The Orange Tree, The Genie of the Roses, and Auriol and Debureau. The magician naturally told his tale by emphasizing the novelties, or differences, for his Algerian show, so he neglected to mention that the actual performance depended on his Paris specialties.

Finally, modern readers should note that we do have an opportunity to sit in that theater. It still exists in Algiers, and is today the Théâtre National Algérien Mahieddine Bachtarzi. It would be a good destination for a magic convention.

 3) Who was in the audience?

The Memoirs make it clear that the delay in performances meant that Robert-Houdin could use the Bab-Azoun Theatre for three nights a week (sharing it with the local opera company), which allowed him to “pocket a very welcome sum of money.” De Neveu told him that these shows would conveniently “employ[…] the minds of the Algerines” and “prevent them speculating on the eventualities of the campaign.”

De Neveu and Robert-Houdin anticipated that a number of Arabs would be curious about French magic during this month of performances. But here the Memoirs records only disappointment, that “the Arabs who came were very few; for these men, with their indolent and sensual temper, consider the happiness of laying on a mat and smoking far above a spectacle.”

When the official shows were finally announced at the end of the month, de Nevue “never invited” the local chieftains to the fete. Instead “he sent them a military summons,” ordering them to attend. The account records that “some sixty Arab chiefs,” dressed in their finery and surrounded by interpreters and privileged officers, occupied the main part of the orchestra stalls. “Our comfortable seats,” Robert-Houdin noticed, “bothered them strangely. I saw them fidgeting about for some time, and trying to tuck their legs under them, after the fashion of European tailors.”

Although there was no description of marabouts being invited, the magician must have sensed the best way to tell his story, and wrote the marabout holy men into his adventure.

There were two separate performances, on October 28 and 29, 1856. Robert-Houdin gave an account of the first show, and recorded that the second performance “produced nearly the same effect as the previous one.”

The first account of the show appeared in 1857, when Robert-Houdin was interviewed for a description of the Algerian adventure. He described the show distinctly.

He had been shown a simple gun trick performed by the marabouts, so he offered to perform his own gun trick in the theater, by challenging a marabout in his audience. The marabout was only too happy to cooperate, explaining, “You are my enemy. I will kill you!” The marabout was told to mark a bullet and load it into a pistol, then fire it at the magician. “I will kill you,” the man repeated. The magician held an apple, impaled on a knife, before his chest. The holy man fired the pistol toward the magician’s heart. The signed bullet was found in the apple, astonishing the spectators. “Allah is great. I am vanquished,” the befuddled marabout exclaimed to the crowd.

Robert-Houdin then (according to the 1857 newspaper account) performed a trick with a small wooden chest, challenging an Arab to lift it off the stage floor. The man first lifted the chest effortlessly, but then found that he was unable to budge it from the floor. This was, of course, the famous Light and Heavy Chest.

Finally, another “fanatical marabout […] agreed to give himself to the sorcerer.” The man was made to stand on a table, and then covered with a large gauze-covered cone. The table was lifted and tipped. The cone tumbled to the stage and the marabout “disappeared in a cloud of smoke.” The crowd was naturally terrified by the spectacle and ran from the theater, where they discovered the missing holy man, standing outside. “But he could tell them nothing, and was like a drunken man, ignorant of what had happened to him.”

This description is curiously different, and significantly similar, to the show described in Robert-Houdin’s Memoirs, published one year later. It’s the differences that inform us of the magician’s intentions.

In the Memoirs, our prominent account of the incident, the magician began his impressive sequence, the finale to the show, with the Light and Heavy Chest. Because this is an important trick, which invites some important speculation, it deserves a separate discussion in this essay.

So let’s put that trick aside and concentrate on the second special trick described in the Memoirs, the gun trick. Robert-Houdin wrote that a marabout clambered forward from the crowd, pushing his way to the stage to challenge the magician in his gun trick, snarling, “I will kill you.” The bullet was caught in the apple, and the man, stunned by the result, impulsively grabbed the apple, prizing it as a sort of magic talisman.

Finally, as the third trick of the series, the magician closed the show with the disappearance of the man beneath the cone. In the Memoirs, there was no claim that the man was a marabout, but was now “a young Moor, about twenty years of age, tall, well built, and richly dressed.” He disappeared and the audience, fleeing in terror, discovered the young man standing in front of the theater. The audience “cross-questioned him, but, annoyed by these repeated questions, he had no better response than to escape at full speed.”

Today it’s difficult to evaluate Robert-Houdin’s skills as a magician. Reviews suggest that he was a talented, charismatic performer. It’s similarly problematic to rate his claims of originality. He was certainly inventive and diligent, although many of his claimed reforms were, modern research has shown, based on earlier effects. But we can easily evaluate his skills as an author, and they were extraordinary. I would suggest that Robert-Houdin not only constructed effective stories, but he told stories with remarkably good taste, careful to stress the believable and disguise the suspiciously extraordinary.

That process of finding and refining his story is what we see in the 1857 and 1858 accounts of the Algerian show. We notice the magician subtly dialing up, and dialing down, his story to make it more dramatic and more believable. Instead of the marabout screaming in wild, religious defeat, “I am vanquished,” by the time he wrote the story for his Memoirs, Robert-Houdin portrayed the man as a victim of foolish superstition. He wrote only that the man “seized the apple […] and could not be induced to return it, persuaded as he was that he possessed in it an incomparable talisman.”

Similarly, Robert-Houdin must have realized the error in claiming that another marabout disappeared under the cone, for this assistant was clearly a confederate, carefully rehearsed so that he knew how to disappear from the tabletop, and then reappear in front of the theater. So, the magician corrected his account, describing the disappearing assistant as “well built and richly dressed.” He is no longer reduced to a foolish, “drunken” man, but when questioned by the audience, simply chooses to “escape at full speed.” Knowing fans of the magician would have been comforted to read these details, and feel a sophisticated sense of understanding about the magician’s secrets.

4) What did he perform?

Again, Robert-Houdin told his story masterfully, emphasizing the novelties for his Algerian audience and omitting the elements that would have sounded familiar to his readers. The Inexhaustible Bottle was omitted from the show, he explained, because Arabs did not drink alcohol. Instead, he used an empty punch bowl, which magically produced coffee, a drink highly prized by the Algerians.

But Robert-Houdin must have retained his favorite effects from his Paris theater. We know this because, when he returned from Algeria, he stopped in Marseilles and performed a public show with the apparatus he had been carrying, and that show apparently contained his traditional effects, like the Orange Tree.

At the Bab-Azoun Theatre, Robert-Houdin performed a full show for a European colonial audience, over the course of a month. He must have used a great deal of his repertoire. In his book, The Secrets of Conjuring and Magic, he emphatically repeated Comte’s advice, “two hours being the precise duration” of the ideal magic performance. The tricks that he described in the Memoirs as part of the Algerian show would have occupied only some fifteen or twenty minutes on stage.

This simplification of the show—de-emphasizing his old effects and extolling the new mysteries for the sake of the chieftains—is simply good storytelling. But it has also, inadvertently, altered the way we’ve viewed one of the most important elements of that show, Robert-Houdin’s famous Light and Heavy Chest. As we’ll see, there may have been other original effects, created for Algeria, which were not mentioned by the magician.

(To be continued.)

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