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News Reviews from 2013

Magic is drawing big audiences again

Magic: making a comeback?

by Georgina Kirk

 

Why is magic as popular entertainment resurgent? In the past six weeks or so, I’ve seen four magic shows (Morgan & West at The Lowry, The Illusionists at The Apollo, Ali Cook at The Met in Bury and High Jinx at The Horseshoe in Blackpool); a play about Houdini, in which magic obviously featured, and a stage adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita at The Unity Theatre in Liverpool, in which a pleasing amount of magic was performed.

 

This level of magical activity in the North West of England is matched and exceeded in many other parts of the country, as magic shows and festivals, along with magicians’ conventions, are proliferating and thriving in a way not seen in Britain since the early 20th century.

 

On television, magic’s ratings have been steadily climbing since Derren Brown captured the public’s imagination. Although his shows are all about mentalism (mind magic), huge swathes of the population tune in to watch Dynamo on a regular basis and Penn & Teller’s Fool Us programme was a widely viewed and discussed (if somewhat uneven) showcase for talented British magicians.

 

As well as in the public realms of theatre and television, demand for magical entertainment is increasing in the private sphere, as magic becomes the entertainment of choice at corporate events, parties and weddings up and down the country.

 

On the surface, in an age of scepticism and CCTV, where transparency is prized and whistleblowers feted, a desire to experience magic appears counter-cultural. So let us look below the surface and see if we can identify the social trends that, 108 years after the establishment of The Magic Circle, are leading the nation once again to embrace magic as popular entertainment.

Need for escapism

Magic no longer sucksIt’s a basic human need to lose ourselves from time to time either watching or participating in some sort of activity that allows us, as Billy Joel puts it, to “forget about life for a while”. The type of entertainment people seek out for recreation reflects the country’s current circumstances and recent history and, after years of austerity, it may be that magic provides an uplifting foil to grey drudgery.

 

People approach magic with differing attitudes and derive different sorts of pleasure from it. Solving puzzles and mysteries and getting to the bottom of what’s going on is a popular pursuit, recreational or otherwise, and for those who enjoy trying to work out how things are done, conjuring can provide endless challenge and fun.

 

Those who can’t handle not knowing the answers are able these days to find out a lot of the secrets that had been kept by magicians for centuries, mainly by looking them up on YouTube. And yet magic is growing in popularity, perhaps partly because learning the mechanical secret is a million miles from being able to carry out the effect oneself and, even knowing how it’s done, we can admire the skill of the magician doing it. Despite many secrets being freely available on the internet and despite what they may say, when it comes right down to it most people would prefer not to peek behind the curtain.  Just as prematurely finding out whodunit can spoil the book, film or play, finding out how it works can spoil the enjoyment of magic. This is why secrets are kept and why the majority of the population chooses not to prise them open.

 

As well as austerity, I wonder whether embracing magic may also have something to do with the general loss of trust that is a feature of 21st-century Britain. Paradoxically, the prevailing mood of insecurity and suspicion may be encouraging us to feel we can enjoy being entertained by magicians, who are honest in their dishonesty, making no bones about the fact their job is to deceive us. Perhaps a sense of disillusionment is behind our growing love of illusion.

Technological advance

The late 19th and early 20th century, the so-called golden age of magic, was a period of huge scientific and technological advance. The resurgence of interest in magic now, during a similar spurt of progress, suggests there may be some connection between discovery/invention and magic.  As more and more becomes possible in the fields of science and technology, while seeming impossible to those of us who have no idea how it works, perhaps we become more open to witnessing the apparently impossible carried out.

Male domination

Magic Circle offers exclusivityMagic is still heavily dominated by men and its structures perpetuate this. One of the major institutions to join is the International Brotherhood of Magicians; books and DVDs that teach magic are practically always produced by men for men (which is clear from the language used and assumptions made).

 

As men’s domination is being eroded in so many other spheres, I wonder whether some men (and some women, for that matter) enjoy watching a male magician in a position of power, particularly in relation to a glamorous female assistant. This is a traditionally sexist situation: the man calls the shots and gets all the credit, while the woman’s job is to be attractive and alluring, submitting to the magician’s will with a happy smile and a flash of legs. While being cut in half, squashed into a box, penetrated by sticks or blades, or while simply distracting the audience so the magician can make some crucial move, the assistant is doing a great deal of the work, taking enormous responsibility for the success of the illusion, and yet we usually never even get to know her name.

 
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