Rules of the Club

June 21, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Alex Stone was expelled from the Society of American Magicians.  In 2008, Stone wrote an article for Harper’s
The Magic Olympics:  With tricks explained!
Explaining tricks to the public is a no-no.  The first rule of magic is: you don’t talk about magic, at least not to laymen.* 
In this article, you blatantly exposed the secret, not only of your act but the acts of several other magicians as well.  By doing so, you have acted in opposition to the SAM’s Code of Ethics and Oath . . .We hereby ask for your resignation . . . .
But it’s not quite so simple.

Magicians make a strange deal with their audiences.  They do everything they can to convince the audience of something that is not true – that they have the power to makes things appear, disappear, levitate, or change form, that they have to power to predict the future and read minds.  Yet while they claim to have these powers, they must also convey the idea that they do not have these powers and that what they are doing is “just a trick.”

The key clause in the tacit contract between performer and audience is voluntary deception – “fooling.”  We in the audience know that we are being fooled.  We know that the coin did not really appear out of thin air, that the girl was not actually sawed in half and then restored.  The magician has fooled us into seeing it that way.**

Performers who claim actual supernatural powers, who refuse to acknowledge that they are fooling us, are no longer protected by the professional rule against exposing secrets.   Magicians like The Amazing Randi or Penn and Teller take great pleasure in exposing psychics and healers who are using standard magic-act techniques (often not very skillfully).

But what about this?

The video is from “America’s Got Talent,” but Kevin James performed it at the Magic Olympics that Stone wrote about for Harper’s.

A website devoted to optical illusions had this to say:
Kevin James . . . sawing a man in half has to be one of the best magic optical illusions I have seen in a long time. . . . At first I thought this could be done with animatronics. . . . The part that astonished me was once the patient was stapled back together he jumped up in the air and walked off stage; this is currently not possible by todays robotics. . . . . It is beyond me as of how this trick was pulled off.
Stone too was baffled when he saw this illusion at the Magic Olympics in Stockholm.  Things soon became clearer.
I board a small plane back to the States. Several of the artists and competitors are on the flight, all looking as haggard as I do, and feel. . .  . ln the first row sits the illusionist of last night's sawed-in-half routine, a meaty, florid man with triangular eyebrows and thin red lips. His trick has been gnawing at me since I saw it. No boxes. No mirrors. How? Now, suddenly, I understand. Sitting next to him, in the aisle seat, is a slender, dark-skinned man who looks normal in all respects save one: his body terminates just below the waist. No legs. No hips. Nothing.
The “America’s Got Talent” clip is edited.  The tables are wheeled offstage and back on in order to switch the half-man for a full one (the one who springs up from the table at the end).*** But the baffling stage of the routine (baffling if you hadn’t seen the guy on the airplane seat) is the sawed-in-half part. 

Maybe that is what allowed Stone to expose the secret of the trick.  The magician was not fooling us.  The man really was, in effect, sawed in half.  It isn’t magic (“Can I, too, buy a half-man at my local magic store?” Stone asks).  So exposing the secret is perhaps not such a clear violation of the norms. 

 (Stone’s new book Fooling Houdini is reviewed in the Times today, here.)

* This is the term magicians often use to refer to non-magicians.

** Stage actors and audiences make the same deal.  For example, the Times critic complained about Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman: “as a complete flesh-and-blood being, this Willy seems to emerge only fitfully.”  But suppose that Willy did emerge fully as “a complete flesh-and-blood being” and that we wept at his death.  After the final curtain, Hoffman would come out, we would applaud, and he would bow  – a ritual that says in effect that he was just fooling us.  He was not really a salesman, and he did not really die eight times a week.

***  (A video of the full 5-minute routine is here.)

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