The Magic Of Illusion

2021 marks the 100th anniversary of many important events. Among others, we will be celebrating the 100th birthday of Coco Chanel’s No. 5 perfume, the term ‘robot’ has also been used for the first time 100 years ago. La Vache Qui Rit cheese (the Laughing Cow) is 100 years old too. However, there is one anniversary that stands out the most.  

On January 15, 2021, Reuters News Agency reported that exactly 100 years ago, illusionist P.T. Selbit put a woman in a box on stage of London’s Finsbury Park Empire and sawed right through the wood – thus creating one of the greatest magical evergreens. Did I say magical evergreens? I rather should be writing about one of the greatest illusions. There is obviously a wide gap between both terms. If you want magic, you better get into Harry Potter. What people mistakenly call magic to describe acts performed by very skillful artists to the greatest bewilderment of the public, is nothing other than optical illusions. They often take advantage of our minds, which have certain weaknesses and can be fooled by what we call illusions. Actually, when you search for a synonym of the word “illusion,” the first result you get is “confusion”. Be it as it may, such illusions are very entertaining and have been admired for a very long time. Let me take you on a brief journey through the most famous and infamous tricks of the past 150 years. Therefore, Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s get acquainted with two of the most prominent illusionists of their times; Harry Houdini and David Copperfield. 

Let’s start with what is being sometimes called “street magic”- a very common trick that many of us must have seen several times. A man, usually dressed in a very peculiar manner, is floating in the middle of the street. Obviously, he is neither a magician nor a yogi. He is just a street actor, sitting on a steel structure hidden under the performer’s baggy clothes. No secret powers used here, maybe apart from attracting coins and banknotes into a tin usually placed in front of the “magician”. Entertaining, you may say? Certainly, it is. With a bit of preparation and the right equipment, it can be performed by almost anyone, anywhere. 

However, there are these true “magicians” who create illusions and are admired all around the world. It started with Harry Houdini, who became the first truly international illusionist in the second half of the 19th and early 20th century. His real name was Erik Weisz. He was the son of a rabbi, who immigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1878. Houdini started his “magical” career at the age of 17 and became known around the world at the turn of centuries. He was particularly well known for his escape tricks – Milk Can Escape, the Daily Mirror Challenge, Chinese Water Torture Cell or Suspended Straitjacket Escape. Houdini always managed to escape from the most improbable settings (handcuffed, locked in a milk can or in a small cell entirely filled with water). Until today, variations of his tricks are being performed around the world. However, very few are fully elucidated to the general public. Houdini may have lived an international and glamourous life, but his death wasn’t magical at all. He died at the age of 52. While preparing his performance in Montreal, he asked a member of the public to punch him in the stomach to prove it cannot hurt him. He was punched so hard, that eventually he was found to have acute appendicitis, which led to his death. He remains remembered as one of the greatest illusionists of all time. 

Many others followed Houdini’s footsteps. One of the most well-known illusionists of our time is David Copperfield. Born in Metuchen, NJ in 1956, David Seth Kotkin (which is his real name) demonstrated his passion for illusion and “magic tricks” from a very early age. He started performing at the age of 10, and already at the age of 12, Copperfield was the youngest person admitted to the Society of American Magicians. Copperfield’s portfolio included several well-known tricks (escapist illusions or sawing people in half). However, he will mostly be remembered by his humongous scale gigs like making the Statue of Liberty disappear, walking through the Great Wall of China, escaping from Alcatraz Prison or finally, levitating over the Grand Canyon. Each of these illusions were carefully prepared, staged and turned into a fabulous performance using the best of modern technology. Television allowed Copperfield to become a truly global celebrity. Contrarily to Houdini, he managed to turn his “magic shows” into a well-oiled money machine, earning himself tens of millions of dollars. Copperfield’s “magic” is certainly impressive, but is lightyears away from Harry Houdini’s old-school and nostalgic performances. 

What about the famous trick that prompted me to write this article? Sawing a person in half has become a ‘classic’ in the world of illusions. There are two ways to do this trick. In the first variant, a person lays down in a box which is adjacent to another box of the same size. She bends her legs in a way as to position her body in the first box. Her head is visible at the edge of the first box. At the end of the second box, a pair of artificial feet is placed, so to make the public believe the girl is stretched throughout both boxes. The illusionist moves the saw, pretending that he is cutting the box with the girl inside. Then, he moves both parts apart and then joins them together again, and the girl comes out of it, without even a single bruise. An alternative variation of the same trick involves two people hidden in the two boxes – but you get the gist of it… 

Ladies and Gentlemen – our ‘magical’ journey comes to an end. I hope you enjoyed reading it, as much as I enjoy watching illusion tricks being performed. Are we being lied to? No, not necessarily. As long as we know that these are gigs to entertain us, let’s sit back and enjoy our minds being perplexed to the simple form of “magic”- performed by talented artists, some risking lives for the art of pure enjoyment.  

Julia Dec (MAM S1enc)