“How did they do that?” It’s a question posed by many people as they leave a magic show, and while sometimes it’s purely rhetorical – more an expression of wonder than anything else – for a significant number of people, this wish to know the inner workings of a trick is a strong one: they want to discover all the secrets which go into making these little miracles happen on stage.
The trouble is that most people, when it comes down to it, don’t actually want to find out how a trick is done, not really, as more often than not the method is incredibly simple, disappointingly so. (At some point we told you something untrue which you thought to be true.) Most people understand this on some level and yet remain fascinated with the method and mechanics of a trick: can magicians ever get away from this, with the need to know ‘how it’s done’?
Magic is doing something seemingly impossible. Well, more accurately, it’s doing something entirely possible, but making it look impossible. Audiences clearly know that there is a trick to it – no one (that we have ever come across) can bend metal with the power of their mind, make an object vanish into thin air, or even correctly deduce a person’s occupation based on a few Holmesian observations.
When you go to see a piece of theatre you suspend your disbelief. This is a given. You wouldn’t rush on stage to prevent the poison being consumed in the final scene of Hamlet. This does not mean you don’t care about the characters, just that there is an understood line between what’s real and what’s not. In a magic show, this line is less clear. The magicians are clearly ‘real’ people, the props with which tricks are done must be real and the audience volunteers must also be real; if the audience questioned the reality of any of these elements, then it would be difficult to find any of the tricks impressive or in any way magical, they would be little more than special effects.
When a magic trick is presented to an audience it therefore creates a conflict: on the one hand they must accept what they see on stage as real, on the other they have just witnessed something that is clearly a kind of deception. One of the elements that the audience has taken to be true was in fact a lie, which inevitably leaves the audience wondering which it might have been.
Magic requires deception and deception breeds curiosity: magic as an art form will never escape the “How do you do that?” response. However, there are ways of moving beyond it. One way of addressing the audience’s curiosity is to satisfy it and tell them how it’s done. Penn and Teller made their name by revealing tricks, and Barry and Stuart have an entire show where they show how every trick is done at the end. Does this lessen the impact of their abilities? No, because both double acts have been careful to only expose methods that are in some way impressive: displays of great physical or manual dexterity, or the application of clever psychological principles. As Penn and Teller have put it, “Magicians hide methods because they are ugly. We reveal the methods that are beautiful.”
Other magicians, most notably Derren Brown, have taken this revealing of methods one step further: seemingly giving his audiences an insight into what appear to be quite incredible feats of perceptiveness and mental agility, to the point that they forget to question the explanation itself, to wonder how much of what he told them was ‘real’ or just another layer of deception.
The other approach is to leave the audience to wonder. To have enough faith in the work to focus on something else, be it humour, or drama, or any other aspect of performance. For over a hundred years the most successful magicians have been the ones who set out to create a great show rather than a series of great tricks, and this still holds true. Whilst we can never get away from “how did they do that?” we can hope that our audience’s first response is one of amazement, or laughter, or fear, or whatever other emotion we strive to create; for it’s that reaction that really matters to a magician.