The earliest recorded example of magic as performance is thought to be a painted Egyptian papyrus dated c.1700 BC that pictures Dedi of Dedsnefu performing tricks for a pharoah; one of the illusions shown is the cup-and-balls trick (balls seem to jump invisibly from beneath upended cups), still a staple in contemporary magic. The performance of magic was mingled with religion in ancient Greek and Roman culture as priests performed a number of
miraculous effects through devices built into temples (e.g., spontaneously or thunderously opening doors) or implanted in statues of the gods (e.g., they appeared to speak or wine flowed from their mouths).
In Christian Europe from the Middle Ages through the 17th cent. magic tricks were a feature of fairs, circuses, and sometimes of theatrical performance. However, until the 17th cent. magic was also commonly associated with witchcraft or sorcery and, although magicians called themselves jugglers or tricksters, they sometimes performed at their peril. The first recorded debunking of the presumed occult association was in Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1554), which explained sleight of hand and asserted that the devil had no part in magic. Another early book on magic, The First Part of Clever and Pleasant Inventions, by the Frenchman Jean Prevost, was written the same year. Performers of magic also flourished in the East. The Muslim traveler Ibn Batuta, for example, reported the performance of the so-called Indian rope trick (1355) at China's royal court.
By the 18th cent. performance magicians were known by name, notably with the ascendance of conjurers such as Matthew Buchinger (1674–1739, the
Little Man of Nuremburg), an armless and legless prestidigitator; Isaac Fawkes (fl. 1710s–20s), who entertained crowds at English fairs; and
Jacob Philadelphia, an American, born Jacob Meyer, who entertained European audiences during the 1760s and performed for Catherine the Great and other notables. In the latter part of the century the Chevalier Joseph Pinetti (1750–1800, the
Professor of Natural Magic) became famous for his use of complicated apparatuses, his escapes, and his mentalist tricks, and is often credited with being the first modern magician.
The popularity of stage magic in the 19th cent. owes much to a clockmaker turned peerless conjurer and master of disappearances and transformations, J. E. Robert Houdin. Other important magicians of this period included the English prestidigitator Antonio Blitz (1810–77) and the Scottish magician John Henry Anderson who performed illusions from the 1840s–70s as the
Great Wizard of the North. Among the famous stage magicians of the later 19th cent. were the American Alexander Herrmann (1843–96,
Herrmann the Great), who did card tricks, produced items from thin air, and used cabinets from which assistants disappeared, and the German Johann N. Hofzinger, known for his manipulation of cards and of various magical apparatuses.
The late 1880s to the 1930s are widely considered the Golden Age of magic; the form was a favorite on the vaudeville circuit and in theaters specifically devoted to conjuring. The great Harry Kellar (1849–1922), an American conjurer and successor to Herrmann whose celebrity reached its height in the 1880s, included among his many illusions the well-known Levitation of Princess Karnak. Among the era's other magicians were London-based John Nevil Maskelyne (1839–1917), inventor of the magic play and the box escape, and his partner, David Devant (1868–1941), creator of the disappearing moth-woman; T. Nelson Downs (1867–1938), renowned for his coin tricks; Chung Ling Soo, pseud. of William Robinson (1854–1922), who waved shawls and produced goldfish-filled globes; Charles Morritt (1861–1936), master of the Disappearing Donkey, hypnotist, and mind reader; Howard Thurston (1869–1936), Kellar's celebrated American successor, noted for his dismemberment illusions and card tricks; Horace Goldin (1873–1939), practitioner of strings of rapid-fire effects; society entertainer Max Malini (1873–1942); P. T. Selbit (1881–1938), probably the first (1921) to
saw a woman in half; world-famous escape artist Harry Houdini; mentalist Joseph Dunninger (1896–1975); and master illusionist Harry Blackstone (1885–1965).
Magic blossomed again after World War II as professionals and amateurs proliferated. It flourished on stage and in nightclubs (e.g., the Las Vegas acts of Siegfried and Roy and Melinda Saxe), became a staple of television variety shows in the 1960s, and reached Broadway with Doug Henning's The Magic Show (1974). Other noted magicians of the late 20th cent. included Harry Blackstone, Jr., David Copperfield, James Griffin, James (
the Amazing) Randi, and Dorothy Dietrich. By the turn of the century magic continued to expand in concept, propelled by the spectacular illusions of Lance Burton, the extravagant stunts and levitations of David Blaine, the superb card handling and wry humor of Ricky Jay, the quirky trickery of Penn and Teller, and the work of many others.
See N. Maskelyne and D. Devant, Our Magic (2d ed. 1946, partially repr. as Maskelyne on the Performance of Magic, 1976); W. B. Gibson, The Master Magicians (1966, repr. 1984); M. and M. Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic (1973, repr. 1996); E. A. Dawes, The Great Illusionists (1979); R. Jay, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (1986, repr. 1998); T. A. Waters, The Encyclopedia of Magic and Magicians (1989); J. Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant (2003).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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