“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



The previous blog, part 2, shows a video presentation of Will, the Witch and the Watchman.

Will, the Witch and the Watchman is fully 150 years old this year. (The script was in transition for years, but the final version seemed to take shape in 1873.) After lots of debate about the value of classical stage magic, for me, it’s been redemptive putting this video in front of magicians, and hearing the responses. In 1997 were only trying to present a historical performance for a rarefied audience of collectors and historians. (We only performed it three times.) Yes, it’s old-fashioned and creaky in spots. It is framed with stereotypes and theatrical traditions which are now out of style. But in posting Maskelyne’s famous play, I can recognize the resilience of his ideas. People watching today have basically responded to me with three comments. 1) I never dreamt that I’d be able to actually watch this! 2) I never dreamt that it was actually funny! 3) I never dreamt that I’d actually be fooled!

I think that the old man, “The Governor,” John Nevil Maskelyne, would have been very happy to see his characters in front of new audiences.

THE INVENTION: It’s all about the cabinet. The play was created to make the most of the cabinet. The Maskelyne play was modified over the years, and we have only tentative accounts of the first versions because they were being presented by Maskelyne and Cooke in Cheltenham, at the start of their careers. Maskelyne was clearly evolving a “spirit cabinet” (like the Davenport Brothers, a basically unprepared box) into a magic cabinet (along the lines of the ingenious mirror cabinet, Proteus, which had been patented by Thomas Tobin in 1865). Maskelyne attached a high value to magical originality. His first cabinet used an original application of Tobin’s patent, and by some accounts, the illusion was not completely successful. When they brought their show to Egyptian Hall in London, they quickly rebuilt and improved the cabinet, hewing closer to Tobin’s careful angles and principles.

It’s also worth pointing out just how craven and sphinx-like the great John Nevil Maskelyne, “The Governor,” can sometimes appear. He interpolated an astonishing entry into the Encyclopedia Britannica, early in his career, which slyly suggested that he had probably invented the mirror principle before Tobin. The boast was so ridiculous, based on the idea that he was carrying out unrecorded experiments as a young man in Cheltenham, that Maskelyne himself basically gave up the argument within a few years. He had been clearly influenced by Tobin’s patent, searching for something different and then finally settling on a slight variation on Tobin’s original cabinet.

The later Maskelyne cabinet, the famous “lock-up” used in WWW (the portable jail) shows a particular boldness. It’s a magic cabinet that has been built behind set of bars! In other words, the spectators are naturally discouraged from examining the cabinet, in the middle of the routine, because it has been logically locked shut. Once he had decided on the “lock-up,” the plot fell into place neatly.

THE PLOT: Reading the Maskelyne script today, it’s easy to feel drowned in the Victorian jokes, songs, and puns. But those were all fashions of the day. If they’re weeded out of the script, something we did in 1997, the plot is inspiringly brisk and magical. In fact, you can imagine the Maskelynes (first, J.N., and later his son Nevil, who wrote the later draft of the script) with their hands on the levers, quickly setting up the action with a no-nonsense dispatch, and then accelerating the plot with each burst of magic.

After the initial examination of the lock-up (in Maskelyne’s day, the escape box was similarly examined at the top of the show), the first thing that happens is that a prisoner is immediately brought in and jailed. The magic prop is integral to the action, and the entire plot progresses from this arrest. You’ll notice that the action never strays far from the lock-up, and there’s always an imminent threat of what lies behind the doors.

As for the magic, has there ever been a simpler motivation? There’s a witch who is summoned to the scene, and she is asked to cast a spell. Period. True to form, Maskelyne has included an element of charlatanism—the kind of bold magical fraud that he criticized in Spiritualists. The Witch does it all for money. She just wants gold, and when she gets it, she’s happy to cast a spell. The spell makes crazy things happen, and crazy characters appear unexpectedly. At the end, the spell is removed.

THE CHARACTERS: Sphinx-like J.N. Maskelyne could have offered lots of ingenious insight into his work, but unfortunately, we never had the benefit of his explanations or motivations. Still, we had evidence of the clever planning behind WWW when Will Stone wrote about Kellar’s production of the play in his touring show. Paul Valadon and Ernie Wighton, who had worked on Maskelyne productions and were then working with Kellar, explained how WWW needed to be staged. The show was designed to work with a cast of magicians. Only one good comic actor, in the role of Miles, was necessary to carry the show. The other characters, commanding, blustering, or mysterious, could portrayed by magicians or magic assistants. They marched through the plot, appearing at various times to makes Miles’ life miserable. 

MILES: This was the role that required a real actor in the play, the center of the story. He is supremely stupid. As our protagonist, we can only feel sorry for him as he attempts to serve Daddy Growl, woo Dolly, or keep up with Joe’s plot. Very soon, the comedy of the show is Miles’ hopeless attempts to deal with all of the problems that were brought on by the spell. In the original, Miles plays a stereotypical “Irishman.” John Carney plays him as typically confused and eager to please. You’ll notice that he never leaves the stage. He’s the character that serves as the engine for the entire plot, the centerpiece of the farce.

THE WITCH: Ingeniously, the magician takes the role of the Witch, who speaks in formal rhymes and appears  only several times to enchant the action. Why rhymes? Take a look at Shakespeare. The rhyming lines formalize the speech and elevates the character. It requires far less interaction with other actors, far less acting, and always keeps this character “special” and authoritative.

JOE, THE BUTCHER: I love the way that Joe appears late in the show, the only one who shows up in answer to Miles’ cries for help. By that time, we may well be wondering who would be foolish enough to be a friend of Miles. And then he appears. Joe is almost as stupid as Miles, but so hopelessly arrogant and scheming that he’s managed to push Miles around, like all the other characters. You’ll notice how Jim Piper’s energy pushes Miles to make his very worst decisions.

WILL, THE SAILOR: This was the role taken by George A. Cooke, Maskelyne’s business partner. It’s a small role, a simple role, but an important role. Why is he a sailor? Another ingenious decision. He’s wearing bell bottom pants, and that’s part of the secret.

THE MONKEY: Is there any reason why there’s a monkey in this show? A gorilla with a tail? The Victorians had something of an obsession with actors in monkey costumes, creating havoc onstage or even carousing in the audience. There were famous monkey impersonators in the 1840s, so Maskelyne and Cooke were playing to popular fashions. This gorilla had a tail, which gets cut off by Joe the Butcher. You can see that there’s one great, groan-inducing joke which formed a prominent part of the script… the lines about selling the monkey “wholesale” to the zoo. The Maskelyne script notes how the actors pause the action here to perform their “takes” to the audience. You’ll see John Carney and Jim Piper do the same thing. Pause here for the loud groans.

THE TRUNK TRICK: For decades, magicians have read through he Maskelyne script (it’s been republished several times) and found the action confusing or unclear. It’s true that entrances and exits aren’t always spelled out, but when we reconstructed the play, it was very clear what had to be happening, how  the magic had to be incorporated, and how each character was integrated. (I have to thank my friend, John A. McKinven for this lesson. When I sent him my first drafts of the script, he explained to me that he had been “acting it out” on a chessboard with chess pieces, examining the action for the very best effects. I learned to adopt his technique.) For example, when the monkey is locked in the trunk, and then, seconds later, he’s missing from the trunk, we can see very clearly what must be happening. He’s not in the cabinet. The cabinet is empty when Miles and Joe remove the trunk. A prominent joke, in the script, has the two characters puzzling over why the trunk is now so light. “Maybe  he swallowed  a cork!” Miles suggests. The monkey is clearly missing, and we don’t have any idea where he could have gone. Maskelyne often covered the trunk with a canvas cover, tied shut with a rope, but we can see that the presentation could be expedited by leaving this off.

THE TRANSPOSITION OF JOE: I believe that WWW was the first version of the transposition trick that illusionists of the 1980s later branded (with the ridiculous title) “The “Run Around,” meaning that someone vanishes onstage and then appears in the audience seconds later. It’s perfectly framed in this play, and provides a great surprise, especially when Joe confusingly tries to explain what’s just happened. 

SMALLER MAGIC: In the original version, the cut-off tail came to life, dancing around the stage like a Dancing Handkerchief. And late in the show, when the Witch reappears, she enchanted a snuff box, causing it to burst into flame as it was opened. This exploding snuff box  is actually pictured in the Kellar poster for the illusion. We omitted these smaller effects, making a deliberate decision to keep the show moving quickly and playing it just inches away from the audience to keep the energy high.

THE TEMPLATE: WWW served as an efficient template for a number of Maskelyne plays, gentle farces which incorporated charlatan wonder-workers or unexplained magical spells. But for ingenuity, WWW was the grandfather of them all, and it wasn’t until David Devant’s own plays that a newer, modern style of comedy and magic took the stage with magic plays at St. George’s Hall. 


There they are. The namesakes. Will, the Witch, and the Watchman.

Too often we are impatient to imagine the great magic of the past, the Victorian marvels of the late 1800s, as “mysterioso,” imbued with the powerful, sober showmanship of a master magician. And too often, we’re wrong. Will, the Witch and the Watch, Maskelyne’s model magic play, was crazy and unexpected, and wonderfully funny. It charmed audiences by making them laugh. Yes, the magic cabinet was a marvel and the box trick was a deep mystery. When WWW ceased being funny, when the jokes felt old and the pace felt labored, the whole thing fell apart. It was magic, but it was only as good as its unexpected giggles; it was only as surprising as its maddening, desperate characters—who seemed to struggle mightily, comically, while helplessly trapped under Maskelyne’s spell.

You might also enjoy

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top